By: Mark Jacques, Genetic Manager, Genesus Inc.

Running a nucleus farm cannot be that difficult, can it? This seems to be the thought that many large commercial producers have when deciding that they want to operate their own nucleus farm. The perception of producing their own breeding stock, at first appears to have no downsides…surely, we will reduce our genetic costs, the health of the animals will be better, and we can make the same genetic progress. This all sounds too good to be true…and in my experience it usually is. Let me explain some of the reasons why.

For sure the principles of running a nucleus farm are the same as a commercial unit, you have the usual service, farrowing, nursery and finisher sections and need to feed all animals. However, the main difference comes down to the detail required in the execution of a nucleus breeding program in all departments. Without the correct implementation at the nucleus level, genetic progress will not be made, and the ‘easy’ goals I mentioned earlier, will not be achieved.

Firstly, you work with all purebred animals, which means that all matings must be to a single boar, any multiple boar matings are automatically rejected, so the whole litter is lost.

Inbreeding levels must also be controlled so that you do not create problems later in time. This means that you cannot just mate any sow with any boar, or with multiple boars like you could on a commercial farm. Either of these mating errors will result in an automatic rejection of the mating and the whole litter is lost.

Once the sow farrows, all piglets need to be individually identified with their own unique ID as a minimum and in many cases, individual birthweights are taken and teat numbers counted. This usually involves a lot of manual recording and checks to ensure the integrity of the data, which applies throughout the pig’s life. If the data is recorded manually on a sheet and then entered into a recording program, then I can assure you there will be mistaken. How many clean sheets of paper do you usually see on a pig farm? How legible and clear is the stockpersons’ writing? Inevitably errors occur because there is duplication, interpretation, and we are all human. We all make mistakes; however hard we try not to.

Traditionally the unique ID was with a tattoo since it is seen as a permanent mark and then a corresponding tag number is used since it is easier to read, especially if you have a Duroc nucleus. However, now that the reliability of newer technologies like EID, barcodes, or QR codes have improved, they are being used as alternatives.

The presence of these forms of identification will only grow in the future as they help increase the accuracy of identification and automation of data capture. Any method or technology that prevents human error and improves accuracy will always be utilized by breeding companies since they help to drive improvement, especially when the margins are so fine. We need to avoid change when running a nucleus unit. If we are to measure genetic differences, then we need to rule out the management effects.

As an example of the benefits of using EID, nucleus units can now automatically capture data at all stages of the pig’s life. Once a pig is tagged at birth its EID number and birthweight are automatically recorded into a tablet or laptop and this information can be transferred to the recording system. There is no manual recording and therefore no errors. Later, weaning weights, on-test weights, and off-test weights can also be automatically captured and transferred. Pigs are easily and accurately identified without the need to scrape tags to read numbers.

DNA samples are now also routinely taken to genotype animals and further enhance the accuracy of selection. Usually, these samples are taken in the first days of life so that initial decisions can be taken when the pigs are in the nursery section. As well as providing information on the animal, these results can also provide particularly useful information on the unit staff and their work accuracy!

Management effects usually have the biggest impact on the performance of a nucleus unit. Not achieving the weekly service target, which is also by breed if more than one pure breed is present on the unit, has a direct knock-on effect of how many pigs will be available for ultrasound probing at the end of the test and thus the numbers available for herd retention. This may not sound to be such a big deal, but if it is not managed correctly then it can soon reduce the herd replacement rate, selection intensity, and increase genetic lag.

In addition, if all animals are not penned at the same stocking density and provided the same feeder and drinker space, then the performance of the animals and subsequent selection decisions could be incorrectly biased. So, for a nucleus unit that has a main goal to deliver genetic improvement down the pyramid to benefit the commercial farms, this is not the desired result.

To run a successful nucleus unit is not just about operating a farm and breeding some animals. It requires a team of specialist personnel with specific training and knowledge in the area to help oversee and manage an effective genetic program and exceptionally large databases to process all the phenotypic and genotype information.

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This post was written by Genesus