Last year, there were almost 1 billion pigs throughout the world, and half of those were in China alone. With the spread of African swine fever, however, Chinese authorities have had to eliminate more than half of the 500 million pigs in the country in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.
That has created a tremendous pig shortage in the Far East and, along with recently imposed tariffs, driven the price of pigs in China up drastically — as much as five times as much as it is in the United States — while the Chinese attempt to rebuild the pig population. But that takes time and requires more boars to mate with the sows, yet the tariffs are preventing China from importing boars and sows from the United States at a rate needed to replenish their supply.
"Right now, because of how much pork they eat and how many people they have, if they bought every piece of pork that was exported from every country in the world, it would not be enough just to cover what they need, to cover what they've lost," says John McGlone, a professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and director of the Pork Industry Institute at Texas Tech University.
McGlone, however, just may have one answer in the form of a product he developed from his research at Texas Tech, which holds the intellectual property license, and has been licensed to companies both in the United States and overseas.
BoarBetter was developed when McGlone researched which pheromone, or combination of pheromones, in boar saliva and fat, was most responsible for increased sexual behavior in sows. He determined it was a combination of three pheromones exuded by boars that makes the sows most susceptible to impregnation, whether that is by the boar or through artificial insemination without the boar present.
This product is starting to gain some traction for use in the United States, and McGlone is confident it could help expedite pig production in China to help rebuild their pork industry until tariffs are lifted and the Chinese can again import more U.S. pork.
"There's no other product on the market like it. Products like hormones or feed additives will not increase the number of pigs," McGlone says. "That's the first thing. The second thing is not having boars around is revolutionary, because everybody thinks you need them. Well, you don't."
The basis for McGlone's research that produced the product began in the 1970s. Older studies claimed androstenone, a single molecule, as the boar pheromone. Recent research performed at Texas Tech identified three molecules unique to boar saliva — quinolone, androstenol and androstenone.
What McGlone discovered was that for a sow to be fully aroused sexually, it required a combination of the molecules stimulating all three of the glomerulus, just as it would be from boar saliva. He tested each of the molecules separately and in combination against a control of isopropyl alcohol, to determine what best enhances sexual behavior in sows.
"I thought there must be something missing from this original research, because androstenone was not enough," McGlone says. "This was the original idea that made us look at the boar saliva, and we have better chemistry tools than they had then. So I worked with the chemistry department, and we identified what was unique about the boar. We could see the combination of molecules was better than any two of them together or by themselves. Once we discovered that, we knew we had something."
McGlone applied for and received a patent for the chemical composition, and the product BoarBetter was developed. A synthetic analog of the natural boar pheromone, it is licensed in the United States through a company called Animal-BioTech, a company that works through research and innovation to develop products that benefit animals.
The product not only allows for more pigs to be impregnated, but could also potentially reduce the risk of injury to sows if it can be used successfully while not having the naturally aggressive boars present, an aspect which has yet to be researched. Boars can easily cause injury to sows and humans with their behavior.
McGlone says that since the product's introduction domestically and in China earlier this year, it has been gaining wide acceptance from pig farmers, having treated over 1 million sows so far. More importantly, by potentially eliminating the need for a boar and instead using the product to mimic the boar saliva, it could reduce costs as farmers are no longer required to have a boar.
"If you look at other species like cattle, chickens and almost all the other species, they don't need the male present to breed," McGlone says. "But the pig has a greater, more developed sense of smell than the other species. So farmers think they need the male there. The boar is not breeding them, he's just standing in front of them while they breed them by artificial insemination. But if you breed dairy cows, there's no bull there. So there had to be a way to induce the sexual behavior in the sow without using a live boar."
Since the product has hit the market domestically, it also has been picked up and is being marketed internationally by a company called Vetoquinol. McGlone says the next step needs to be determining whether it can be used without the boar being present. If that can happen, it could potentially help the Chinese rebuild their pig farms while eradicating ASF.
"Whether it's U.S. farmers wanting to use this to produce more pigs, or the Chinese wanting to use this instead of using a boar, they want to use it. So this is a success story," McGlone says.