Gilt breed projects require planning, evaluation, biosecurity

Breed projects can be a frustrating necessity for many sow farms either on start-up or after a disease break.

March 24, 2020

7 Min Read
Sow, gilt housing in an electronic sow feeding system
National Pork Board

Breed projects, whether off-site or on-site, are a commonly used tool for sow farms looking to pause naïve gilt entry for an extended period of time during disease elimination programs as well as for new farm start-ups that need to begin generating revenue as quickly as possible to begin servicing debt.

Anemic prices for live hogs over the past several years have challenged even the most efficient producers to make money feeding pigs. While some have had found competitive advantage through lower wean pig prices, lower cost of gain or paid-off facilities, during this time there has also been increasing recognition of the relative advantage for Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae-negative and/or porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome-negative pig flows.

While there is certainly a real economic incentive during the grow-finish period for sow farms to eliminate Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae, especially in flows challenged with concurrent PRRS and/or flu infection, elimination programs are themselves costly due in large part to the fact that naïve animals can remain infectious for up to 240 days or more after initial exposure. The long shedding period of Mycoplasma requires sow farms looking to eliminate this pathogen to remain closed to naïve gilt entry for a similar period of time, ideally even longer.

Also, time to stability for herds undergoing PRRS elimination has increased and now commonly averages 40-50 weeks. This may be partially due to changes in the way we classify stability in farms; namely the rapid adoption across the industry over the past several years of processing fluids which allow farms to test hundreds of pigs at a time for PRRS. Additionally, there may be some yet unquantified genetic changes among contemporary PRRS strains, which are contributing to longer times to stability.

Regardless of the cause, achieving PRRS stability prior to entering naïve gilts has been increasingly difficult without a breed project. Likewise, farms attempting to eliminate PRRS without on-site gilt development units will, almost by definition, be required to complete a breed project or run out of gilts unless they can expose off-site.

When thinking about doing a breed project it is important to be certain that a breed project is worth the investment. In the context of a disease elimination program, the alternative is to run out of gilts until the farm is ready to begin entering naïve gilts again (perhaps as long as 10-15 weeks) and focus on culling as few sows as possible. Here it is important to have realistic expectations for production on the back end of a breed project. There are constraints on labor especially on weekends/holidays and gilts, which are already difficult to detect heat in, will likely be bred in large pens with older/terminal line boars.

At the conclusion of the breed project the last several weeks of bred gilts will ultimately be transported back to sow farms during the critical window for implantation. Given these constraints, it is realistic to expect farrowing rates of around 75-85% if all goes well, though there is risk of poorer performance, even with seasoned staff. Breed projects commonly cost upwards of six figures when including gilt purchase, site rental, labor, accommodations (depending on proximity to the main farm), transport and supplies.

Actual production estimates are hard to make without specific details of the breeding project site and staff. Once these details are defined you can make better assumptions about the likely outcome of your project proposal. Despite all of the constraints associated with breeding projects, the opportunity cost of not breeding gilts can easily be several times the cost of doing one well. Ultimately, it is a calculation that key decision makers need to work through before beginning a breed project so that everyone involved has realistic expectations from the outset.

When thinking about doing a breed project one must decide whether to do the project on-site or off-site. Advantages of doing the project on-site include increased control over biosecurity and access to employees already working for the farm who will not need additional accommodations. If an employee on the breed project is injured or ill, the manager can easily substitute staff from the main farm (following appropriate biosecurity measures). An on-site breed project makes a lot of sense for start-ups that have room to begin breeding gilts in one barn while additional barns are constructed.

In the context of a disease elimination program, it can be tempting to start a breed project on-site, for example in the on-site gilt developer unit if the farm has one. During a PRRS elimination, a breed project can buy the farm some extra time on their herd closure as they wait for processing fluids and wean pigs to test negative depending on their veterinarian's criteria to resume entry of naïve animals. In the context of a PRRS elimination specifically however, I would exercise extreme caution in doing an on-site breed project unless the farm has an air filtration system and there is high confidence that all of the airlocks, filter banks, etc., are fully functional.

In my experience, bringing gilts onto a site that has not fully eliminated PRRS often ends in frustration with gilts seroconverting to the farm strain of PRRS despite stringent on-site biosecurity measures to prevent spread from the older population into the naïve gilts. In such cases, I would always highly recommend doing an off-site breed project.

The success of off-site breed projects, like many things in life, is often location dependent. The ideal location is close enough to the main farm to achieve some of the benefits of an on-site breed project such as capitalizing on an existing labor pool without the need for accommodation or employees needing to spend weeks away from home. Additionally, this will allow for the farm manager to check in on offsite employees often as long as they are following biosecurity downtimes put in place for the project.

The site location should be biosecure, and if possible three or more miles from other farms. In a perfect world, the off-site breed project would take place in an empty sow farm where boar exposure can be controlled and gilts can be bred in crates. That said, in the vast majority of cases a finisher is the only realistic available option. If a contract grower is going to work with the breed project in any capacity it is important to make sure he or she does not feed other sites of unknown disease status and that they are committed to maintaining the biosecurity of the site. A well-executed breed project and all of the associated investment in time and money can be undone overnight with a disease introduction. Any site will ultimately be a compromise between location, biosecurity and cost.

When staffing a breed project it is important to find employees who already have experience breeding. The ideal situation is to take staff from the existing farm who will have ownership over the results of the breed project. If new employees need to be hired for the project I would recommend sending them to an existing sow farm to be trained for at least a month (including at least one pregnancy check on animals that they have bred) prior to be beginning the project. Regardless of level of training of the staff involved it is good to make sure the farm manager or site manager visits the site often to identify issues before they have an impact on production.

Even though the gilts are being held off-site from the main farm during a breed project, it is important not to forget about proper gilt acclimation. Gilts should still receive all of their normal vaccines at the normal times. For sow farms that are Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae stable (not eliminating) and entering mycoplasma naïve gilts, consider working with your veterinarian to set up a mycoplasma exposure program off-site to make sure gilts are exposed as early to avoid downstream transmission after those gilts farrow. The same goes for farms that use intentional exposure to help control other diseases such as porcine coronaviruses.

Breed projects can be a frustrating necessity for many sow farms either on start-up or after a disease break. While these projects are often revenue positive compared to running out of gilts during a disease elimination or unnecessarily delaying a startup, success depends upon careful planning and execution. Similar to other undertakings involved with raising pigs, it is important to get veterinary input tempered with advice from the production team or farm manager.

Source: Neal Benjamin, who is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.

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