Breeding Goals and Technologies

Past, Present and Future of Swine Production

by Tom Rathje, Ph.D. MBA

The landscape of genetic suppliers has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. There are many reasons behind these changes, but perhaps those that come to the top are:

  1. Changes in the market for our product and consumer preference
  2. Modernization and consolidation of production systems
  3. Advances in technology

Changes in the marketplace for pork have been fascinating to watch, but perhaps one of the more striking changes was the push for leanness that began with interest in feed efficiency and growth in the post-WWII years and moved forward in earnest in the 1990s. As packers understood the value of lean yield, and the market for fat waned in-light-of consumer preferences for leaner meat, payment matrices reflected the desire for lean, high-yielding pigs through premiums paid to producers.

This led to changes in the sire lines offered to the industry and created the pull that resulted the Hampshire and Pietrain breeds being the dominant sire lines of the 1990s and early 2000s. As breeds, these two lines were the fastest way to meet the demand for lean pigs, while the Duroc as a terminal sire contributed as a cross to add daily gain to the slower-growing Hampshire.

What changed? In a word, exports, which combined with domestic demand for higher eating quality of pork to fundamentally change the North American commercial pig.

This all changed as the 2000s progressed and by 2010, the purebred Duroc lines became the dominant terminal sire. What changed? In a word, exports, which combined with domestic demand for higher eating quality of pork to fundamentally change the North American commercial pig.

In our own experience, genetic advances in leanness, growth and feed efficiency for the Duroc line created a boar that was capable of competing and beating the existing Pietrain and Hampshire-based lines in live performance, while also bringing improved intramuscular fat content, higher pH and other quality characteristics that produced a higher value product for domestic and international consumers.

Production systems have continuously evolved, modernized, consolidated and integrated.

These changes created the pull-through that has resulted in, by our estimates, well over 70% of market pigs today being produced by a Duroc sire. Duroc line boars have now become the most widely used sire line in North America due to the ability to meet the needs for competitive production costs for pork producers, and high yields of excellent quality pork desired by our consumers.

Production systems have continuously evolved, modernized, consolidated and integrated. The ability of the producer to measure performance in increasingly sophisticated ways has consolidated genetic suppliers. Producers cannot afford to use genetics with inferior genetic potential and are quickly sorting out those lines that do not work in their system. Furthermore, the integration of production systems with packing and processing will further change the traits and characteristics that must be delivered to producers.

Yet, even though performance is important, even more is the ability of a production system to capture the genetic potential available to them. In short, people are the biggest challenge we face.

These changes have influenced the selection objectives for both terminal and maternal lines. Using our own program as an example, at DNA Genetics we took a hard look at the type and kind of sow that our customers need to be successful in the future. The need for a highly productive, self-reliant female quickly became the leading driver for our program. From this, we developed the 14:14:21 objective which results in the average sow producing and weaning 14 pigs, weighing 14 pounds, at 21 days of age, on her own.

To achieve this goal, sows must excel in three areas. First, she has to give birth to enough pigs to reach 14 weaned. Second, those pigs must be of high quality. An increased number of pigs without high survival rates, does not help achieve the goal. Third, the sow must have the ability to provide the maternal environment required to care for and wean 14, 14-pound pigs. The DNA maternal line selection objective addresses each of these areas and is well on its way to achieving the 14:14:21 goal.

The number one driver of profitability is survival rate, or ‘percent of full-value pigs’. This benchmark exceeds even feed efficiency and growth as a driver of profitability. It is also, from a genetic perspective highly complex, difficult to measure and lowly heritable. Again, using our own experience as an example, DNA Genetics initiated our Full Program Test (FPT) to focus primarily on developing the phenotypes required to tackle this aspect of profitability. Through production of pedigree sows and single-sire terminal pigs, we can measure survival and component traits of survival in real-world, health-challenged commercial conditions. Using extensive phenotyping in these environments, combined with sophisticated approaches to genomic selection, we will be able to drive progress in overall survival from birth to harvest.

The future for swine genetics and capturing genetic potential is bright for those companies able to invest in and apply new technologies. Here are just a few to look forward to:

  • Advances in genomics will expand genetic companies’ ability to apply increasingly sophisticated models to better predict genetic merit at a level of accuracy and genetic gain never before achieved
  • Video systems, combined with machine learning, will provide the ability to measure pig behavior and other characteristics (e.g. time at the feeder, water consumption, body temperature, etc.) on large numbers of animals, producing novel phenotypes for balanced selection objectives
  • Commercial adoption of video and sophisticated environmental monitoring will produce additional automation and refinement of growing environments that optimize performance
  • The pace of genetic change is advancing rapidly. So the pace of adapting and being able to capture that change must increase, such as through investment in sow and grow-finish nutrition research
  • A more ‘bleeding edge’ technology with a much longer time horizon, gene-editing holds immense promise for accurate genetic change, but we must deal with significant hurdles in regulation, consumer acceptance and supporting reproductive technologies in order to apply this technology to breeding programs

Genetic suppliers have been an integral participant in the changes of the past, application in the present and drivers of future technology. As exciting as the industry has been in the past, the future holds even greater potential for pork to remain the worldwide protein of choice.

breeding goals and technologies

Tom Rathje serves as Chief Technical Officer at DNA Genetics. Tom currently works with key accounts and is responsible for genetic and product research including ongoing strategy for the genetic program, genomic technologies, trait development, nutrition, reproductive technologies and production research. Tom received his Ph.D. and MBA from the University of Nebraska.