When an industry stalwart announces retirement, I sit up and take notice.

Such was the case when George Foxcroft, reproductive biologist at the University of Alberta, presented his keynote address at the Al Leman Swine Conference recently. The room was chock-full of swine veterinarians and other science-minded folks.

Recognizing the “enormous influence” the swine veterinary corps has on shaping the management of North American pork industry, Foxcroft began: “Your industry is driven by attention to large-scale efficiencies, production flows, low staff input costs, health control at a population rather than an individual animal level, and the need to manage relatively ‘robust’ pigs. This is supported by the phenomenal data capture and analysis systems, economics driven by scale, specialized management teams and protocol-driven production practices. By the same token, the industry is consistently challenged by population-level disease outbreaks, relative inflexibility in changing existing infrastructure, a lack of skilled labor, etc.”

Foxcroft went on to pose four questions about why pig reproductive biology doesn’t always translate into better breeding herd efficiencies:

  • With the vast reproductive knowledge available, why is implementation so variable?
  • Will more data help us understand reproductive performance better?
  • Are technologies available to accelerate genetic gain?
  • How can research and development (R&D) and management structures help improve genetic transfer and breeding herd performance?

From that platform, Foxcroft focused on what we know about the estrous cycle: length of estrus varies from about 24 to 72 hours; onset and intensity of estrus is dependent on the sow’s cues and people’s ability to read them; time of ovulation varies from 12 to 72 hours after first standing heat; breeding results are affected by boar semen quantity and quality; and, standing heat coincides with increased secretions by the reproductive tract to reduce vulnerability to invasive bacteria.

Fewer and fewer breeding technicians have ever observed the “natural” mating process in pigs where Mother Nature provides the fluids necessary for lubrication and the natural cleansing action required for success. With artificial insemination (AI), the trick is to mimic this natural process as closely as possible.

Even with the variability, good breeding protocols consistently yield 90% farrowing rates and large litters. Therefore, the opportunity lies in identifying the sires that can achieve nearly 100% conception rates with a single service vs. pooled semen and multiple matings.

Genetic Gain

Genetic gain is channeled through replacement gilt development programs and the use of superior sires across the largest number of gilts and sows — the original argument supporting the use of AI.

Still, there is little information about the economic efficiencies of one gilt development program vs. another. Foxcroft’s challenge is to better define target weight and age, minimum non-productive gilt days and the best measures of sow longevity, then implement them more universally.

Take 30 seconds to use a weight-measuring tape to estimate breeding weight and guide feed allotments from that point forward, he suggests.

Excellent data exists on target weights and backfat levels and their association with lifetime breeding performance, yet a focus on feed costs and production efficiencies often fails to involve simple measures of body condition.

While 50% of the genetic make-up of every pig comes from the sire, Foxcroft argues that more than half of the commercial value — lean growth rate, feed conversion, meat quality — is sire-driven.

Rethinking AI

Foxcroft feels the industry lost its focus on the genetic benefits of AI in lieu of the efficiencies gained by pooling large doses of semen and multiple inseminations. More effort was placed on the efficiency of semen delivery and breeding herd performance than on genetic transfer.

“In retrospect, it is alarming that for the last 10 years, we have collectively missed the opportunity to bring our primary producers up to $1.00/head added value by not staying focused on efficient genetic transfer,” he noted.

Foxcroft encouraged an expanded vision of R&D. Whether the focus is on prenatal programming or genomic selection, access to commercial breeding populations is essential. Funds must be allocated to the production systems that are willing to absorb some of the costs of research and innovation. He closed with the hope that the challenges he presented would stimulate “some renewed focus on the effective integration of good science into good production.” That is, likewise, why I wanted to share his thoughts with you. Text Box: NHF