Selecting the Best Pig

The swine industry faces many challenges, such as implementing loose sow housing, reducing antibiotic use and contending with labor shortages. In light of these challenges, providing producers with a pig that is self-sufficient throughout its life will be a vital role for genetic suppliers.

Selecting the Best Pig When implementing a selection program, genetic suppliers must first determine their breeding objective, or the combination of traits that will bring the most value to producers in the target market. The breeding objective defines the goal for genetic improvement and provides a vision for the future product. Without a strong breeding objective, a genetic company can lose focus.

DNA’s vision for its terminal line is “A market pig that is the most profitable pig within the integrated production chain by achieving 97% grade one market pigs that excel in efficient lean growth and have carcass and meat quality characteristics that exceed the expectations of purchasers of high-quality pork.” Efficient lean growth has been the focus of genetic programs for numerous generations and will remain a focus. Given that throughput drives profitability, increasing the genetic potential for key performance indicators, such as growth rate and efficiency, will continue to provide value to the customer.

Increasing the proportion of grade one market pigs has a very high economic value for pork producers. Selection to improve overall survival can be difficult in a nucleus system given the relatively good health status of a nucleus herd compared to a commercial herd. The goal is to find those genetics more robust within challenging environments.

To create the best scenario, DNA has established a pedigreed commercial herd with the aim to select sires that improve the survival of their offspring within the environments more typical of the commercial industry. Better survival rates will result from disease resistance and tolerance for any pathogens present in the herd and other characteristics such as birth weight and appetite. Additional methods to incorporate disease resistance into a selection program, such as gene-editing, can only be utilized in a selection program at the expense of continued improvement in other economically relevant traits.

As consumers become more sophisticated in their purchasing, meat quality will become a priority for packers, which in turn will put meat quality on a genetic company’s radar. Packers are already targeting certain breeds due to their relative carcass value. In addition, producer ownership of production will likely impact the genetic improvement that needs to be provided to the industry by moving the pig’s value proposition further down the supply chain. A challenge with many meat quality traits is that the pig must be slaughtered in order to collect a phenotype. With ultrasound technology, intramuscular fat, or marbling, is one meat quality trait that can be recorded on the live animal.

The data collected on-farm must be accurate and consistent from site-to-site and day-to-day. If measurement of a trait cannot be executed effectively within a production system, it is not a strong candidate for selection.

DNA’s vision for its maternal line is “A parent female that, as a sow, is easy to manage, is culled by choice, has minimum maintenance cost, produces and weans 14 uniformly sized pigs weighing 14 pounds and reduces the level of management required for achieving industry leading sow productivity.” Like growth rate and feed efficiency, litter size has been emphasized in selection programs for generations. In recent years, the focus has shifted to pig quality. Live pigs at day 5 (LP5TM) has been utilized to select for litter size and pig quality simultaneously due to its association with number weaned. Birth weight’s relationship with pre-weaning survivability makes the trait an indicator of pig quality.

While litter size must be maintained, selection emphasis will continue to move toward maximizing the number of quality pigs weaned. A sow that can wean her own pigs without intervention is needed to capture the full value of large litter sizes. Understanding the genetic factors impacting weaning weight will be a required to improve weaned pig quality. Another trait that can aid a sow in nursing her litter is functional teat count. It is important to capitalize on the litter sizes that are already being achieved across the industry by weaning more of the pigs that are already being born.

Regardless of the genetic company’s vision, the foundation of a genetic program is the phenotypic data collected within the production system. Having a production team committed to genetic improvement is a key asset for a genetic company. The data collected on-farm must be accurate and consistent from site-to-site and day-to-day. If measurement of a trait cannot be executed effectively within a production system, it is not a strong candidate for selection. DNA is committed to its AccuGainTM philosophy. These six principles define the genetic program and represent areas of the program that are never compromised.

Last year, genomic selection was incorporated into the DNA selection program as a means to improve the selection accuracy. This addition to the selection program has increased the rate of genetic gain without infringing on the AccuGainTM principles. DNA is committed to vetting all new technologies and being prepared to implement any technology that aligns with the AccuGainTM philosophy and will create value for the customer.

As new traits are added to the selection objective, it will be crucial to determine the relationship of the new trait with traits currently under selection. An undesirable genetic correlation can cause indirect selection in a negative direction for a trait. Going forward, genetic suppliers will need to balance an increased focus on new traits with a continued focus on maintaining current performance for economically relevant traits. Implementing a genetic program that loses sight of the key performance indicators will lead to a product that does not meet the needs of producers.

Caitlyn Bruns
Caitlyn obtained her PhD from Iowa State University with co-majors in Animal Breeding and Genetics and Statistics. Since graduating in 2013, Caitlyn has been on the DNA Genetics team. Her role includes working with the team on trait development and implementation of the genetic program. DNA Genetics is a genetics supplier servicing commercial pork operations in North America and internationally. DNA Genetics is committed to providing customers with a product that is designed for production efficiency and profitability by investing in the latest technologies proven to increase genetic progress. DNA strives to bring the industry the “Best People. Best Pig. Best Genetic Option.”