Levy funded research at AFBI Hillsborough delivers for pig producers

Date published: 21 June 2016

Pig Regen Ltd, a producer-funded body has, over the past three years, supported a programme of research at AFBI Hillsborough focusing on maximising the performance of piglets from large litters and improving the technical efficiency of pig production. Pig Regen used this funding to complement additional funding from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affair’s (DAERA) Evidence and Innovation Fund. This complementary funding more than doubled the scale of the programme and provided additional value to Pig Regen funding.

The modern sow is not only capable of giving birth to large litters, she is also capable of rearing large litters to good wean weights when provided with the right nutrition and when feed intake is high.

Pig Regen funding has also supported a postgraduate studentship in the area of sow nutrition and AFBI involvement in a Teagasc lead project (Optipig) which is also investigating management practices for small piglets. Results from the work have been published in the AFBI/CAFRE Pig Bulletin and in the proceedings of the recent AFBI Pig Conference, which is available via the AFBI website here.

 Some of the key findings from the work are listed below.

Sow milk yield potential is high: There is significant potential for sows to overcome the barriers posed by large litters.  In the study, sows offered a standard lactation diet (containing 13.5 MJ/kg DE and 10 g/kg of Lysine) consumed 7.1 kg per day of a diet and the resultant litter wean weight was 101 kg.  In comparison, sows offered higher specification diets weaned over 110 kg litter weight from the crate (13 piglets on average 8.5kg each). 

These sows consumed on average 108 MJ DE and 77 g/kg of total lysine per day during the 28 day lactation period. Furthermore, 25% of the sows on the trial weaned over 120 kg litter weights from the crate over the 28-day lactation. These top performing sows had a high daily feed intake (7.9 kg/day) and this, coupled with the high specification diet, contributed to their superior litter performance. This study demonstrates the ability of sows to wean heavy litter weights when provided with the appropriate nutrition and when feed intake is high.

Impact of litter size:  Using the extensive data pools that are gathered routinely on the Hillsborough pig research farm, a mathematical exercise was used to answer the question ‘Are large litters worthwhile?’.  This exercise noted that even though the average birth weight of piglet’s decreases as litter size increases, the number of ‘normal’ piglets (weighing over 1.5kg at birth) in large litters (15-19 born) is similar to the number present in smaller litters. The extra piglets in these large litters are mainly the smaller piglets born. Although these smaller piglets have a poorer lifetime performance (in terms of growth rate and feed efficiency) the fact they are there, and the fact that large litters contain a good number of ‘normal’ piglets, means that as litter size increases the ‘margin over finisher feed cost’ also increases.

Supplementation of small pigs:  Using the facilities of a large commercial herd, supplementation of small piglets (under 1kg) after birth with energy boosts or cow colostrum was found to have no effect on their performance to weaning and even after weaning. In this study, the supplements were provided as per commercial practice on a large busy sow unit and it may be the case that piglets were offered the supplements too late.  However, this reflects the reality in many commercial situations.

Managing low birth weight piglets:  When low birth weight piglets (4.5 kg at 4 weeks of age) were reared on a nurse sow for a further 3 weeks (to 7 weeks of age), their growth performance up to 40kg was similar to when they were weaned at 4 weeks of age and offered a very high specification dietary regime (e.g. if using A One diets, 1kg/pig of Special Flat deck followed by 4 kg/pig of starter 1 and then 8kg per pig of starter 2). The adoption of these different management practices will depend on the availability of crates for the nurse sow and the cost of feed.

Commenting on the work programme, the chairman of PigRegen remarked; “During the last few years, there has been a significant improvement in numbers of pigs born and weaned in the Northern Ireland pig herd, mainly as a result of the importation of improved dam lines."

"This is not entirely a win-win situation, since, with the large increase in numbers born, there has also been an increase in the number of small, low birth weight piglets. Analysis of data by AFBI shows that the increased number of piglets born will improve the unit margin over feed, however, we still have much to learn with regard to the management and nutrition of both sow and piglet to ensure there is a net improvement in unit margin."

"In view of this, a major part of the funding provided by Pig Regen Ltd to AFBI Hillsborough, in conjunction with DAERA, during the last three years  has concentrated on this essential area of research. Some of the results of this work have already been reported and more information will be posted on the AFBI website as it becomes available."

In addition, it is intended that a ‘farmer friendly’ booklet will be prepared in conjunction with CAFRE, summarising the findings of the research and this will be circulated to the industry. Pig Regen Ltd consider that the research undertaken by AFBI and co-funded by DARD and the industry is essential for the survival of the NI Pig Industry in ever more demanding times.

Notes to editors: 

AFBI carries out high-quality technology research and development, statutory, analytical, and diagnostic testing functions for DARD and other Government departments, public bodies and commercial companies.

AFBI's Vision is “Scientific excellence in Northern Ireland …  serving the world”.


   All media enquiries to AFBI Press Office 028 9025 5326.

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