By Kilby Willenburg
Editor’s note: Kilby Willenburg is a research scientist with Fast Genetics. He presented during the ‘Sow Productivity’ breakout session at the 2022 Banff Pork Seminar. For more information, contact Sarah Heppner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The last few years have been a whirlwind for the swine industry. Market fluctuations throughout 2021 drove hog prices to levels comparable with the demand created by porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) in 2014. Prices at the meat counter are squeezing consumers, too, which is perplexing, given the record number of pigs slaughtered. Producers are expected to be profitable in 2022 despite an increase in production costs, general inflation and cost of living.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly created labour shortages in agriculture and processing, which is one reason for higher consumer costs. Fear of the virus, unemployment benefits and government assistance have all contributed to the labour crisis, forcing farms and meatpacking plants to compete with local restaurants and retailers for workers.
As the pandemic continues, production systems will need to be creative, implementing new technologies and leveraging employees to fill this void while maintaining current production levels. In addition, there is a need for significant increases in production, as the global population is expected to rise to more than nine billion by 2050. The world will require more food, and farmers will face pressure to keep up to the demand with minimal increases to existing infrastructure, which will have to be addressed at all levels of production with technology.
Artificial insemination meets artificial intelligence
The swine industry has a reputation for being a slow adopter of technology, with one example being artificial insemination (AI). Arguably, AI is one of the greatest successes in reproductive technology that has reduced labour, increased genetic improvement, enhanced biosecurity and helped to control disease outbreaks.
However, this technology was available for 30 years before it was truly put into practice, which is no different in other industries, as it takes about 25 years for a technology to be fully embraced – just look up the inception of electricity, the automobile and the computer.
Automation is boundless and not restricted by the size of the operation, as robotics can automate the slow, monotonous chores, enabling producers to focus on more essential, time-sensitive tasks. The ‘BoarBot’ by Swine Robotics and ‘CONTACT-O-Max’ by Ro-Main are technologies that optimize heat detection by reducing labour normally required for handling boars, while maximizing boar contact with females.
Another product offered by Swine Robotics is a robotic power washer, which, according to the company’s website, reduces wash time by 85 to 90 per cent and limits worker exposure to disinfectant chemicals. Lastly, a feed-dispensing, classical-music-playing robot has become quite popular in Brazil, where they are also experiencing a labour shortage. RoboAgro, the manufacturer, has stated that a farm can save $8,000 per year for every 1,000 animals by dispensing the exact amount of feed required per animal while reducing employee labour.
Collectively, automated products like these give hog farmers the tools to mitigate fluctuations in daily routines from employee turnover or health, so focus can be directed towards pertinent farm responsibilities, such as mating, gilt development and post-natal care in farrowing.
The other AI, artificial intelligence, has successfully entered the swine industry with products such as the camera-based technology by Ro-Main called ‘PigWatch’ that monitors sow activity post-weaning and notifies the farm at the optimal time for insemination. Data has shown that, when used in conjunction with heat detection, PigWatch can identify the optimal breeding time and lower the average number of inseminations per sow. A similar behavior monitoring technology for group housing, designed by Nedap Livestock Management, records the frequency of female visits to the boar area and notifies the farm when the threshold for estrus has been reached.
Another sensor-based technology, the ‘E Doctor,’ loosely referred to as a Fitbit for pigs, is being developed by SmartAHC. This wireless ear tag collects real-time data on body temperature, physical activities and estrus. Although in their infancy, wearable smart devices have the potential to revolutionize the industry, reduce human error and improve farm efficiencies. This is a relatively new area, but according to IDTechEX, a market research firm, the global demand for wearable technologies for animals, including livestock, is estimated to be $2.6 billion by 2025.
Sex-sorted sperm generates economic value
Another technology that has become a staple in other livestock industries, particularly dairy, is sex-sorted sperm (SSS). Inguran Sexing Technologies, Inc. has been the driver in SSS and has produced more than 110 million straws of SSS via its 26 sorting labs worldwide, which are responsible for more than 50 million replacement heifers. In the swine industry, SSS is not available for commercial use, yet. However, within Fast Genetics, the application of SSS has created economic value at nucleus and multiplier farms with a faster rate of genetic improvement by increasing the selection intensity, whereas at the multiplier level, doubling the output of the preferred sex without impacting infrastructure cost. Commercially, the value of SSS has been estimated at $5 to 7 per market hog but will vary depending on the production system and desired outcomes.
Looking at the U.S., a five per cent drop in pre-weaning mortality would improve litters per sow per year and pigs per litter – together known as ‘PSY’ – and enable the industry to drop sow inventory by almost seven per cent. Furthermore, lowering the number of sperm per insemination from the standard three billion cells to one billion cells could trim boar inventory by 67 per cent. Even at three billion cells per dose, with a single fixed-time insemination, there would be 50 per cent fewer boars required. A similar situation would exist in Canada.
As an industry, efficiencies must improve at all levels of production, which requires supporting technologies that can make barn life easier by doing away with mundane occupations so that greater attention can be paid to sensitive tasks.
Historically, the swine industry has been slow in this regard, partly because there has not been a driver that offsets the potential loss in fertility, or because the cost of implementation was not justified. But as labour shortages remain imminent and global population grows, companies will have to integrate technologies to improve efficiency and remain competitive during times with high input costs and irregular markets.