Welfare will continue to be a big issue in the pig industry and genetic selection for improved efficiency and ethics are not necessarily antagonistic to ethical production. Genetic selection can improve welfare and increase production ethically, Ed Sutcliffe told a Yorkshire conference organised by international pig-breeding company ACMC.
For instance, the halothane gene can increase carcase lean meat percentage but pigs carrying this gene are five times more likely to die in transit. By selecting synergistically for meat quality and removing the halothane gene, both ethical and quality issues are addressed.
Mr Sutcliffe, ACMC's technical director, said that sometimes genetic selection had led to ethical issues. Some breeds of dog, for example, were prone to hip problems, leg deformities and breathing difficulties. In the dairy industry the quest for milk yield had led to a marked reduction in fertility combined with longevity problems in cows.
The Danish industry was currently being subjected to public debate on piglet mortality following stories in the popular press which had highlighted the fact that about 25 per cent of piglets die before weaning.
High mortality could be a consequence of inappropriate selection for large litters if selection was made on a single trait - such as total born - without emphasis on 'liveability'. Some breeds, such as the Meishan, had larger litters but significantly lower pre-weaning mortality, so larger litters by themselves were not necessarily the cause of higher pig mortality.
UK herds with above-average levels of productivity - 14 piglets born - had mortality about 8 per cent lower than the headline Danish figures, equivalent to 1.2 piglets.
Piglet survivability could be improved by artificial means, such as the use of 'rescue decks' and while this was an obvious welfare benefit for individual pigs was it the way forward?
"Public perception is very important it we want them to support the British pig industry," pointed out Mr Sutcliffe.
Better prices coming
"The global challenge facing us all is how to feed a growing population. The only solution is to produce more from fewer resources. Good quality genetics and constant innovation in breeding is vital if we are to achieve this," said Mick Sloyan, chief executive of BPEX.
He suggested that there were grounds for "cautious optimism" on pig prices with further improvement in the DAPP in coming months. "This is needed to cover high feed costs and maintain confidence in the industry. The whole supply chain has a responsibility to take a strategic approach to this challenge. If not, then consumers will suffer eventually as a resulting collapse in production causes even higher prices in the future.
Manage risk as feed price volatility continues pig producers advised
Pig producers can expect high volatility in feed prices to continue. Outside influences, such as funds and money flow, through speculators, have a huge influence on the cost of diet ingredients, such as wheat, maize and soya, so farmers should use risk management techniques to manage this volatility, advised Hugh Burton, Raw Material Buyer for ABN.
He said that it was impossible to predict the exact implications of future weather patterns and world events, both of which can have a big effect on raw material prices. With a global economy, acts of nature, such as the Russian drought and Australian floods in July and December respectively, the Japanese tsunami and earthquake, all had an impact on what UK pig producers had to pay for their feed.
In addition, the effect of political decisions by world figures such as Barack Obama, Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mobarak could not be underestimated. Nearer to home lack of rainfall in both Britain and Europe could have a significant effect on crop yields.
For the 'Bears' the good news could come from Russia re-entering the export market, recovery of the struggling US winter wheat crop, improvements in the EU weather for fund liquidation.
For the 'Bulls' the potential bad news could come from the United States' winter wheat crop turning out worse than feared and acres planted could have been overstated by the USDA. Also the drought in China could be serious with delays in soyabean plantings while in Russia there might be low spring plantings and dry weather could persist in Western Australia. 'Funds' could continue to extend their long position.
Mr Burton pointed out that there were a number of practical risk management and tools which farmers could use when buying forward in conjunction with their feed supplier. In general, it was wise to buy in when the market dipped and "not to put all your eggs in one basket".
Make a feed budget
Feed is the biggest cost in a pig business. Due to the increase in its price, on some farms feed can now account for over 65 per cent of the cost of production. Finishing pigs of 30-115 kg liveweight account for about 70 per cent of this feed cost so improving feed efficiency in the finishing section will have a big effect on production costs, said John Barber, of Yorkshire-based John Barber Nutrition.
However, feed conversion is significantly affected by feed wastage. "When we refer to and measure feed intake we are really measuring feed intake plus wastage," he declared. He pointed out that a staggering 5-20 per cent of feed is wasted world-wide. "Feed wastage occurs from the point the feed enters the farm until the faeces leave the pig!"
Probably the biggest saving in feed will be achieved by minimising wastage, but anything that makes feed conversion worse is a form of wastage. This included incorrectly balanced feeds, the production of fat instead of lean meat and buildings that are too cold.
"Finisher feed accounts for more than 40 per cent of the cost of production so any improvement in finisher feed conversion rate (FCR) will make the biggest saving in feed costs,"
But Dr Barber warned producers to be aware that while additives that improve FCR have a much greater payback when feed prices are high using more than one in a diet will not necessarily have an additive effect. In his view, the most effective additives were enzymes and acids.
He advised producers to concentrate on improving their pigs' lean growth since it was much more efficient to produce than fat. He said that lean contained 75 per cent water while fat contained only 10 per cent!
He said that producers should make a feed budget. They should work out how many pigs were sold per year and calculate how much feed is fed per pig then compare it with the budget.
"Accurate data on feed intake is not readily available on many farms. Much is estimated from long-term averages and fails to identify short-term deviations. Knowing feed intake is a must these days as there is no room for error," he said.
Transforming an industry
An example of how a country's whole pig industry has been transformed by changes to health, management and genetics was given by international pig consultant, Brian Edwards.
When the Maltese islands joined the European Union in 2003 the previously-protected and subsidised pig industry was suddenly open to competition from other EC states. This rude awakening meant that the farmers had to quickly become more efficient if they were to maintain their market.
The KIM Co-op, which represents the islands' 170 pig producers, decided to import new genetics and Brian Edwards was called in to advise on a strategy for survival.
After gathering dust for a number of years the hard-hitting recommendations in the strategy document he produced were put into effect following pressure from the agricultural ministry.
Significant changes included a vaccination programme to reduce the disease challenge, imported creep feeds to lower mortality and increase feed intake while a switch to ACMC genetics have improved growth and performance still further.
Such has been the improvement that the Malta's breeding herd of 4,700 sows is now producing as many pigs - 85,000-95,000 annually - as 6,000-7000 sows were before.
Quality has started to improve and a "Maltese Branded Pork" campaign has been successfully developed. "A sustainable Maltese pig industry is now on the horizon," said Mr Edwards.