Breeding for animal welfare is increasingly becoming a part of our daily lives. Animal producers and breeders ignore these issues at their peril. The global environment is changing, with a growing population, increased urbanisation and more wealth, but with shrinking land and water resources.
Worldwide, there is a drive to produce more, while using resources more sparingly. In the livestock industry, efficiencies are best improved through more productive animals and better feed conversion. But feed efficiency is not just the food conversion rate in the finishing barns. One needs to look at total farm feed efficiency: calculated as total feed into the farm divided by total meat out.
Efficiency and profit
The number of pigs produced per sow per year is a major driver of farm efficiencies. In China, where 50% of the world’s pig population is grown, the production rate is low at 15 pigs/sow/ year. Good producers get up to 28 pigs/sow/ year, while excellent pig farmers produce 30 pigs/sow/year. South African farmers fall into good and excellent categories.
Improved breeding and feed conversion will show improved profitability, a reduction in the production of farm manure and a reduction in the carbon footprint. The consequent reduction in costs helps the bottom line. Breeding should take into account societal and environmental concerns without losing sight of producers’ concerns about profitability and improved production efficiencies.
Added to the changing economic environment come changes to animal welfare. This is a polemic, controversial, and emotional topic and has proponents both for and against it. The impact of changing animal welfare regulations is currently being experienced in Europe and USA. In the USA, the drive appears to be against the big pork producers, while the producers are demanding the freedom to decide on production methods themselves.
In Europe, because of societal pressures, producers are more or less coerced into complying with animal welfare regulations. This has influenced the way pigs are farmed. EU producers are working on ways of adjusting to the restrictions, which include moving pigs from individual pens to group pens.
In Asia and Africa, it is a matter of time before the welfare effort gathers momentum. In South Africa, pig producers are already feeling some pressure from the National Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which wants to move the SA crate-free production deadline from 2020 to December 2016.
The industry can either fight, flee or adapt. I believe producers should act smart and use the changing environment to their advantage. The challenge is how to be innovative and responsible. Key considerations in modern porcine breeding include efficient use of animal feed; efficient use of energy; less waste (effluent); reduced animal stress; reduced water usage; improved working conditions and socially acceptable production systems.
Ongoing genetic selection makes it possible to select for traits such as disease resistance, which reduces the need for medication and enables the production of healthy, trouble-free animals. With societal pressure rising in North-Western Europe against physical castration, we must breed for non-castration by breeding animals proven low in boar taint. Breeding for heat tolerance is another key consideration. Pig production is growing in regions with relatively high temperatures, such as Asia, where disease pressure and feed quality is challenging. Genetic lines need to be adapted to the production circumstances of each environment.
Breeding can favour pigs with high social values: sows that are less aggressive and less prone to tail biting are better suited to group housing. Breeders need to select for problem-free production. Breeding for animal welfare and environmentally sustainable traits is taking place and clever producers will use this to their advantage. It should be viewed just the same as any other economically important trait. We need to be sensitive to society by selecting and breeding for animal welfare while never losing sight of the economics of farming, by producing more pigs, more meat, more efficiently and more profitably.
Phone Stefan Vermaak, TOPIGS SA managing director, on 012 348 3676 or email [email protected].
The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.