12 August 2019

GMU investment widens gilt replacement options

By Jane Jordan


Progressive innovation and an innate understanding of commercial production has earned genetics company Rattlerow Farms much-deserved industry recognition. The company is well-respected for its pioneering, practically-focused approach and continuous investment in breeding technology, training and knowledge transfer. Its latest investment, a second specialised Gilt Mating Unit (GMU) in Cambridgeshire, is another visionary development. 


Replacement gilts at Rattlerow’s new GMU facility in Cambridgeshire. All in-pig, fit, healthy, well-handled and ready for a lifetime of production.


Rattlerow Farm’s new GMU came on stream earlier this year and is already making quite an impact. It’s improved economics for a number of restocks, enabling herds to get back into production sooner and release land previously used for gilt rearing/service to allow for herd expansion. The GMU-linked sourcing option is also encouraging some units to re-align their replacement policies and re-examine the merits of regular repopulation within their health/genetic improvement plans. Choosing ‘professionally’ reared in-pig gilts also guarantees that every female delivered to the farm is pregnant and prepared for a productive life – valuable assurance for producers as they sit tight and wait for their investment to bear fruit.

Simon Guise, Rattlerow UK Sales Manager.


“Our focus is to help customers improve efficiency and increase profit potential. Expanding GMU activities fits that remit. We’ve seen how it’s benefited our own pyramid and the ones we manage for key customers, and we’re certain other herds could benefit from sourcing gilts this way. Pig genetics is an increasingly competitive market place and how we deliver products to industry must be flexible and cost effective, we must innovate to progress,” says Simon Guise, Rattlerow Farms’ UK Sales Manager.


“How we deliver products to industry must be flexible and cost effective, we must innovate to progress… Our focus is to help customers improve efficiency and increase profit potential…” – Simon Guise 


The Cambridgshire GMU team: (l-r) Adrian Scarfe (Production Manager), Alistair Mulholland (stockman), Hadleigh Kirkby (Unit Manager) and Nick Lawson (General Manager).

In simple terms, the GMU-linked concept entrusts the genetics supplier to manage the entire gilt rearing and mating process, and in Rattlerow’s case, to then deliver quality assured, professionally-produced replacement females, that are guaranteed 10 weeks in-pig, to a breeding herd.

It’s a highly successful formula and pig businesses that have chosen to source GMU-produced gilts continually report farrowing rates of 98-99% for first litters with exceptional litter qualities and successful re-breeding outcomes post weaning. Subsequent results, in terms of fertility and on-going reproductive performance, are also commendable.


“On our own farms, and in partnered businesses, we’ve found a GMU-sourced replacement plan can help improve litter performance in gilts and that productivity is generally sustained into the next breeding cycle,” says Nick Lawson, General Manager, Rattlerow Farms.

Much of AHDB’s current Gilt Watch initiative is targeted at reducing loss in parity 1 and 2 females, as statistics still show high cull rates in early life, with reproductive failure a principle

factor. Some meaningful progress is being made, but feedback from commercial herds still suggests gilt rearing is fundamentally flawed.


“Producing, good quality replacements, whether they are maidens or in-pig gilts, is a specialist job. The rearing objectives for breeding gilts are not the same as those for finishers. Growth must be controlled; the right diet is vital and specific targets for body weight at a given age must be achieved in the lead up to that critical first oestrus mating. Fortunately, that message now appears to be filtering through to industry,” says Adrian Scarfe, Rattlerow Farms’ Production Manager.


We’ve found that a GMU-sourced replacement plan can help improve litter performance in gilts and that productivity is generally sustained into the next breeding cycle…” – Nick Lawson


Both Adrian and Nick have been working closely with specific customers during the past six months to repopulate some sites and re-organise gilt supplies. Monitoring outcomes on herds that have chosen the GMU-linked option has proved quite satisfying, as sourcing replacements from the GMU has enabled a more single-minded approach to pre-service management and that’s helped to raise performance.


The GMU synchronisation pens have a Trickle-feeding system that allows individual feeding. In here, maiden gilts are housed in groups of 30 and undertake a Regumate programme to synchronise oestrus.
Served gilts move into deep straw yards. Dump feeding and natural ventilation are key features in this light, airy building. Gilts are scanned at 4 and and 9 weeks post-service to confirm pregnancy.

“The gilts now coming into these herds are more uniform in size and body condition, and the batches are very settled, too. Farrowing rates in the first parity are 98% and ‘not-in-pigs’ have been eliminated, which has helped productivity. They’re seeing good numbers born and reared with very few issues in subsequent cycles. This feedback’s really encouraging,” says Adrian.


The results mirror Rattlerow’s own experience on outdoor units, and are a key reason behind its GMU expansion.





Blueprint origins bring benchmarked success

The GMU concept has been part of Rattlerow’s dam line strategy since the late 1990s, which culminated in the development of a dedicated production site in Norfolk five years ago. This unit now has a pivotal role producing in-pig gilts for Wayland Farms, although the methods used here have become a blueprint for gilt rearing and pre-service preparation across Ratterow’s production base.

The accommodation, management routines, nutritional programmes and production objectives are well-honed, with proven results at multiplication and commercial level – techniques that have become benchmarks for many breeding herds.


The purpose-built service pod enables efficient, easy to manage AI procedures. With individual AI stalls, it also offers ample boar contact from the central passage. Th pods successful design/layout is used on most of Rattlerow’s breeding units, indoors and out.

“So much of a herd’s reproductive success rests on gilt management and how these young females are set up from the start. How they’re matured, fed, housed and managed right through to that first mating impacts on subsequent performance and we’ve learned through experience how to optimise genetic potential for a lifetime of sustained performance. Our methods work well, with consistently good results, both indoors and out,” says Adrian Scarfe.

“So much of a herd’s reproductive success rests on gilt management and how these young females are set up from the start…” – Adrian Scarfe

Standardised management is evident at the Cambridgeshire GMU, with pre and post service facilities similar to those used at the Norfolk   GMU.

Gilts are housed in straw-based, naturally-ventilated yards with trickle/dump feeding systems and the unit has a specifically-designed AI pod offering copious, strategic boar contact. The heat detection, mating and service procedures are the same, too.  The only difference here is that gilts are supplied pre-selected at 100-110kg liveweight from a dedicated multiplication unit, whereas the Norfolk site takes 7kg weaners.

On arrival, they are grouped in batches and run with a vasectomised boar to stimulate cycling. They are fed a restricted diet, grown on slowly for four weeks to 125kg and then move on to the synchronisation pens. Here they’re trickle-fed individually to administer Regumate.

Stress is kept to a minimum throughout the whole process, it’s a calm environment, although this relaxed atmosphere belies the precision management needed to keep things running smoothly.

The uniform size and quality of Rattlerow’s GMU-produced gilts are clearly evident throughout the production system.

“Our standardised routine and purpose-built facilities mean it’s relatively easy to manage,” says Hadleigh Kirby, unit manager.

He’s a skilled technician with more than 16 years’ experience in Rattlerow’s nucleus and he’s enjoying his new role.

Professionally produced. These gilts are confirmed in-pig and ready to join a breeding herd.

“We have to fit our production process around customer requirements and that dictates most of our activities. Record keeping’s a priority though and we must know where every gilt is in the system. It’s good to be part of a new initiative with good prospects; that’s very motivating,” he adds.

Alistair Mulholland, stockman agrees. He joined Rattlerow in October 2018 and has taken full advantage of the company’s in-house training programme.

“I like working with livestock, but hadn’t much experience with pigs, so I’ve trained on the job on a number of Rattlerow’s units. The batch production process and structured approach to management has given me confidence to progress and I’ve learned quite a lot in a relatively short time,” he says.






First published in Pig World July 2019