Bigger litter sizes, better weaning rates and weights have helped the Northern Ireland pig industry ‘bounce back’.

A combination of changes have seen the average 250 sow birth-to-bacon unit now produce 88t more pigmeat than it did five years ago; but with greater size comes greater challenges.

Resilience and adaption

The industry has been through many tough times over the years. However, industry researchers say it continues to thrive due to its determination, commitment, enthusiasm and ‘bounce back’ ability.

This ‘bounce back’ ability is illustrated by the continuing increase in herd performance and output.

Much of the improvement is due to the implementation of new technologies, many of which CAFRE pig advisers have investigated and encouraged farmers to adopt.

These include the use of more prolific genetics, methods for increasing lactating sow feed intake, improved housing design and management techniques for increasing piglet survival rates.

Better performance

As part of a College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) technology project, the breeding herd performance of pig farms has been monitored over recent years using computerised recording programmes.

Analysis of the figures show that over the last five years there has been a 14% increase in litter size and a 11.5% increase in pigs weaned per sow per year.

In 2013, the average born alive for sows and gilts was 12.6, average gilt litter size was 12.0 and pigs weaned per sow per year were 26.0.

The equivalent figures today are 14.4, 13.6 and an impressive 29.0 pigs weaned per sow per year. Of the farms participating in the CAFRE technology project, 14 are now weaning over 30 pigs per sow per year.

However, the improvement in breeding herd performance is only half the story.

Over the same period the average live weight of pigs at slaughter also increased. The average deadweight of pigs slaughtered is now almost 89kg.

The combined effect of more pigs sold per sow per year and higher sale weights is a 350kg increase in the amount of pigmeat produced per sow per year.

Overcoming challenges

The increase in output however comes with its challenges – the main one being the management of large litters.

As litter size increase more small pigs are born and there is also a greater variation in the birth weight of pigs in a litter.

This variation is due to overcrowding and the position of pigs in the uterus, with some pigs receiving more nutrients than others, resulting in the birth of some very large pigs.

CAFRE has investigated several techniques to help with the management of large litters.

‘One step’ and ‘cascade’

These include the use of nurse sows, with both the ‘one step’ and ‘cascade’ systems now widely used.

The use of nurse sows works well as the pigs moved to the nurse sow do not have to compete for a teat as all her pigs have been weaned.

Although cross-fostering has always been used to even up litter size, more pigs are now fostered due to larger litters.

The general rules for cross-fostering are that it should only take place between litters that are 12 to 24 hours old and – as far as possible – pigs should only be fostered once.

However, this is not the case on some farms where pigs are fostered in the second and third weeks of lactation and even some moved several times.

One step management involves weaning piglets which are at least 21 days old from a chosen nurse sow and then fostering on surplus piglets from freshly farrowed when the piglets are at least 24 hours old.

The nurse sow will then rear this second litter until weaning and the sow will return to the dry sow house for service.

However, under the cascade strategy the nurse sow weans her own litter and then receives younger piglets from another nurse sow who in turn receives younger again piglets. The process continues on until there is a sow free for surplus newborn piglets.