New developments in swine breeding herd technology are focused on the ability to allow operations to capture greater genetic value, or help farms adapt to industry changes. Genetic impact on reproductive efficiency of pigs produced per sow each year, as well as traits related to growth, carcass lean, and feed efficiency, pave the way for sustainability and profit for the farms.
One of the most important ways for maximizing the genetic potential for the operation is the use of semen from high indexing boars. This allows for the rapid and wide distribution of valuable genes affecting numerous production traits into the herd. Approaches to accomplish this objective have included the deposition of semen deeper into the female reproductive tract (post-cervical artificial insemination or PCAI) and when reducing the numbers of sperm used in each artificial insemination (AI) dose.
Devices have been developed by commercial companies that allow for insertion of the catheter into the uterus and insemination in less time when compared to conventional methods. The PCAI technology is now used on approximately 50% of the breeding farms worldwide. An even more valuable technology involves the process for controlled time of ovulation followed by a single, fixed time AI. This is not widely used at the present time, and while the technology is effective, it will not work on infertile females, and will require some method to identify females that would respond well. New products for AI that extend the useable shelf-life for boar sperm in long-term semen extenders in solutions or containers that limit bacterial growth but that are antibiotic free are quickly gaining traction. While Computer Assisted Semen Analysis (CASA) machines have been in use in boar studs for some time, added features now enhance the capacity for rapid assessment of the boar ejaculate for sperm concentration, motility, abnormalities, and AI dose production.
Improvements have also occurred with respect to the housing of boars for reasons related to health and environmental stress. Viral disease entry into a stud, such as that with PRRS, is catastrophic to the future use of the sires for gene transfer, and must be prevented by all means necessary. Because the PRRS virus can be transmitted by air, and survives well in cold weather, many boar studs have invested in high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems. In addition, boars are often susceptible to the effects of heat stress in summer and can become less fertile for weeks to months with reduced sperm output and greater sperm abnormalities. To prevent this annual problem, many boar facilities have now added air-conditioning systems as well.
For housing the females in the breeding herd, most new developments have revolved around welfare of sows in crates, and looked at alternative housing for sows in groups. The group housing of sows creates its own management and welfare challenges, but innovative developments have modified crate and pen systems for to allow for quick identification of animals, for feeding and breeding. New systems are in use that use algorithms to assess and track animal patterns for movement to help identify female health, welfare and fertility events.
The use of real-time ultrasound has now become the standard for pregnancy diagnosis in larger commercial farms. With these machines, pregnancy can be confirmed as early as four weeks after breeding. Simple, but useful devices for quickly estimating the body condition of sows in gestation are also in wide use, and can be helpful for adjusting feed to improve the performance of the sow at farrowing and in lactation, with each important to how long the sow will remain healthy and productive in the herd. New systems are also being evaluated in farrowing, for crate design, and for use in saving pigs with alerts that capture distress vocalizations that can help save piglets from being crushed.
There are several other technologies that are of similar high importance and impact, but must still overcome some major technology hurdles before advancing toward widespread application. The livestock industry has always shown high levels of interest in new technology, so it is always exciting to see what comes next.
Robert Knox is a Swine Extension Specialist, Department of Animal Sciences, University of Illinois.