New developments in swine breeding herd technology focus on the ability to enable operations to capture greater genetic value or help farms adapt to industry changes. The genetic impact on the reproductive efficiency of pigs produced per sow each year, as well as traits related to growth, carcass leanness and feed efficiency, pave the way for sustainability and profit from herds .
One of the most important ways to maximize the genetic potential of the farm is to use semen from high index boars. This allows the rapid and wide distribution of valuable genes affecting many production traits in the herd. Approaches to achieve this goal have included depositing sperm deeper in the female reproductive tract (post-cervical artificial insemination or PCAI) and when reducing the number of sperm used in each dose of artificial insemination (AI).
Devices have been developed by commercial companies that allow insertion of the catheter into the uterus and insemination in less time compared to conventional methods. PCAI technology is now used in about 50% of farms worldwide. An even more valuable technology involves the process of monitoring ovulation time followed by a single fixed-time AI. This is not widely used at present, and although the technology is effective, it will not work on infertile females and will require a method to identify females that would respond well. New AI products that extend the usable shelf life of boar sperm in long-term sperm extenders in solutions or containers that limit bacterial growth but are antibiotic-free are rapidly gaining traction. While Computer Aided Semen Analysis (CASA) machines have been used on boar farms for some time, additional features now enhance the ability to quickly assess boar ejaculate for concentration, motility , anomalies and the production of AI doses.
Improvements have also taken place in the housing of boars for reasons related to health and environmental stress. The entry of a viral disease into a stud, such as that with PRRS, is catastrophic for the future use of bulls for gene transfer, and must be prevented by all means necessary. Because the PRRS virus can be transmitted through the air and survives well in cold weather, many boar farms have invested in high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems. Additionally, boars are often susceptible to the effects of heat stress in the summer and may become less fertile for weeks or months with reduced sperm production and greater sperm abnormalities. To avoid this annual problem, many boar facilities have also added air conditioning systems.
To house females in the breeding herd, most new developments have revolved around the welfare of sows in crates and looking at alternative housing for sows in groups. Group housing of sows creates its own management and welfare challenges, but innovative developments have changed cage and pen systems to enable rapid identification of animals, for feeding and breeding. New systems are being used that use algorithms to assess and track animal movement patterns to help identify events related to female health, welfare and fertility.
The use of real-time ultrasound has now become the standard for pregnancy diagnosis on large commercial farms. With these machines, pregnancy can be confirmed as early as four weeks after breeding. Simple but useful devices for rapidly estimating body condition in pregnant sows are also widely used and can be useful in adjusting feed to improve farrowing and lactation sow performance, each of which is important. for the length of time the sow will remain healthy and productive in the herd. New systems are also being evaluated for farrowing, crate design and for use in rescuing pigs with alerts that pick up distress vocalizations that can help prevent piglets from being crushed.
There are several other technologies that are of similar importance and impact, but still need to overcome some major technological hurdles before progressing to widespread application. The livestock industry has always shown great interest in new technologies, so it’s always exciting to see what’s next.
Robert Knox is a swine extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Illinois.