Herd productivity focus

21 November 2016


We talk to independent pig business consultant and analyst Stephen Hall about a possible ‘blueprint’ for breeding success.


Observations of UK herd performance reveal certain trends in breeding herd management that are worthy of consideration. There is a theory that a ‘Blueprint’ does exist that could help producers improve productivity and gain better control of their pig production process.

Independent consultant Stephen Hall works with a number of Rattlerow customers

Most that have adopted this type of herd management are seeing good results with more uniform production and improved performance across all parities. Such outcomes are also being realised within a single herd turnover period of less than two years and are benefiting individual business margins and the supply chains they serve.

Parity profile is an area customers are scrutinising as there is convincing evidence to suggest that a consolidated age range of parity 1 to 5 has merits, says Stephen. Indoors and out, statistics from a wide selection of breeding businesses show that herds operating a planned and precise gilt development and sow culling programme, to actively remove and replace ‘high risk’ females, are more productive. Efficiency levels, in terms of pigs weaned per sow per year, and ultimately the volume of pigmeat (kg) sold off the farm, also ranks these herds among the top 10% of UK pig production businesses. Their performance figures equal to those achieved by our continental competitors.

He advocates a consistent 1 to 5 parity profile as it will allow a herd to function appropriately and optimise its potential.

“Retaining older sows devalues a herd and increases the likelihood of production failure. Young herds carry fewer risks and are more cost effective,” he explains.


Young herds carry fewer risks and are more cost effective.

Management plans should strive to have a healthy, productive and efficient female occupying every place in the herd, so it’s important for producers to establish the level of ‘potential failure’ their herd can carry. Along with a planned culling policy, there must be a strong commitment to eliminate reproductive failure at source. By analysing performance on an individual parity basis, managers can pinpoint specific areas that require decisive action.

“If producers are vigilant and proactively remove females that fail to meet expectations – irrespective of their age – they can prevent production failure from being recycled. Theoretically, this strategy should put productivity on an upward trend and enable a herd to condense its parity profile, maintain a stable herd size and increase efficiency,” says Stephen.

“If producers are vigilant and proactively remove females that fail to meet expectations – irrespective of their age – they can prevent production failure from being recycled.”

This is a valid concept and the foundation for a ‘Blueprint for Pig Production’. He says evidence from the regular statistical analysis of a population of around 150K sows, along with comparative production outcomes recorded by his clients, proves this is a viable business plan. And his observations also suggest that certain genotypes appear to respond very positively to this management strategy – and Rattlerow stock in particular.


“There are indications that breeding females produced from dam line programmes which embrace the more ‘functional’ aspects of sow productivity, perform well under blueprint protocols. These dams tend to optimise more of the genetic potential available and function well,” says Stephen.


It’s an aspect Rattlerow Farms wants to raise awareness about, too.

UK genotypes so have the potential to consistently wean 30 pigs per sow per year indoors and 27 outside. The performance achieved at nucleus level clearly demonstrates production potential is not an issue. However, the diverse and extreme production environments we use in the UK can be challenging and do impact on sow performance, even on well managed units. And this is why an evidence based management structure is critical to success, says Stephen.


“Many of the UK’s most productive herds still find it difficult to maintain a consistent level of production and that creates volatility – something pig businesses must try to avoid.  Stabilised production and cost control are vitally important in an unstable market, so within this framework output per sow lifetime warrants continual observation. Wasted or empty days add significant costs to breeding herds and devalue every piglet produced. Reducing unproductive days and minimising other breeding failures does improve margins,” he adds.


Life time capability

If a herd’s genetic strategy is built on strict selection criteria, where producers and their genetics supplier work closely to meet business objectives, then the dam lines used should be capable of optimum productivity from the outset. All of the females supplied into a business, whether as maiden gilts, weaner gilts, or produced from an in-house replacement programme, should achieve their full potential throughout their lifetime – providing they are correctly managed and cared for. It’s an ethos Rattlerow Farms wholeheartedly encourages and supports through its balanced approach to dam line development.

Although optimising prolificacy is central to the genetics company’s female breeding programme, a principle objective is also to ensure their females can rear large litters of viable piglets without compromising lifetime productivity.


A key objective should be to ensure females can rear large litters of viable piglets without compromising lifetime productivity.

“Our ‘Easy-To-Manage’ philosophy works and by focusing on management techniques that can help maximise the potential that’s available in our breeding stock from the start we can, and do, achieve consistently good results. Results from our own herds prove our dam lines are efficient, both indoors and outside, and capable of producing good quality, uniform progeny. The performance we achieve on our own farms, together with that seen on customer units, are testament that a more holistic approach to selection has advantages,” explains Simon Guise.


Performance from Rattlerow’s own commercial health status farms ranks alongside the top 10% UK recorded herds. Outdoor units report more than 27.0 pigs reared per sow per year, and indoor herds rear 30 pigs or more. Average numbers born alive are between 12.9 and 13.7 pigs a litter and sows are producing around 2.35 litters a year. Pre-weaning mortality rates are consistently below 8% with weaning weights 8kg and above, producing total litter weights of between 90 and 100kgs.

Stephen Hall says these performance levels are achieved because the breeding herds have firm, production focused foundations, which sets up the feeding herd to achieve its potential, optimise performance and improve its financial standing.

“This is a blueprint integral to business success, whether producing breeding stock or commercial finishers,” he adds.

“Breeding herds with firm, production focused foundations, will set up the feeding herd to achieve its potential, optimise performance and improve its financial standing…”

Stephen Hall

Simon Guise UK Sales Manager at Rattlerow Farms, agrees, and says Rattlerow’s genetic development strategy is well-equipped to meet the challenges faced by the UK pig production sector.

“We recognise how valuable our ethos is within on our own production systems and the other pyramids we manage. Our balanced approach to selection and the unique focus we place on gilt development is effective and we are building on these assets to further improve herd efficiencies at every level,” he adds.

Rattlerow also recognises the value of herd recording and proactive management plans aimed at harnessing more of the genetic potential available in its genotypes. Even basic records and simple analysis would help more breeding herds improve reproductive performance and raise their consistency of production to more sustainable levels.