Genetic Improvements – A Key Component to Success on The Farm

- Chief Development Officer, Topigs Norsvin

Together we live in a dynamic and exciting business environment in which the market and technology are constantly changing. In this context Topigs Norsvin must make the right strategic choices to follow our vision “Progress in pigs. Every day.” Topigs Norsvin’s mission is to serve people, planet, and profit. We do this by striving to be the most innovative genetic company in the world.

Over the next few decades, global pork consumption is expected to increase by 1.5% per year. Pork producers are becoming bigger, more professional, and more vertically integrated. The green bar for sustainability continues to be raised for the different actors in the pork value chain. Within this context, Topigs Norsvin is passionately striving to be the world’s most innovative swine genetics company. Our breeding program is designed to cover the entire value chain. This integrated approach has two dimensions: optimizing cost throughout the chain and maximizing added value. Through optimal breeding, every trait can now be genetically improved by 2%-3% per year. Topigs Norsvin’s ambition is to double this progress by making better use of big data than anyone else, understanding the genomics of crossbreeds and heterosis, and using full-sequence information in the breeding program.

Genetic progress is powered by an intensive R&D program. Topigs Norsvin develops and implements the latest technology and knowledge to achieve genetic progress and create either added value or reduced costs in pork production. In 2015 our R&D budget is $20 million, proving that we put our money where our mouth is and contribute to a better pork production.

We invest in R&D, human resources and joint venture projects with universities, research institutes, and customers worldwide to meet our vision. Topigs Norsvin reinvests more than 15% of its revenue into new R&D for future success. Our R&D platform is built on five pillars: Reproduction, Health and Environment, Total Feed Efficiency, Meat Quality and Processing, and Genetic Technology.

Topigs Norsvin is one of the leading companies in AI stations all over the world with close to 9 million doses of semen sold annually. Our research focuses on high precision technology to assess quality of individual semen cells, to maximize semen dose shelf life, and maximize the number of inseminations per AI boar per year. This increases the genetic contribution of superior AI boars, giving more progress to more people faster. When it comes to the sows our goal is that every pig born is weaned. Quality and uniformity of piglets are vital for a later successful finishing performance.

Realized & projected rate of improved total feed efficiency

Our scientists work on themes such as disease resistance and tolerance, coping with climate challenges, social interactions, structural soundness, piglet survival, and general robustness. On all of these themes, novel technology and protocols are being developed and used. Animals should perform even under the challenging conditions related to climate, disease, feed or labor. Quality of feed as well as water can strongly limit technical results in the production chain. Furthermore, labor is growing more limited in terms of both quality and cost. Animals need to be self-sufficient and easy to manage. Resilience and disease resistance are traits that will become more selectable through the introduction of newly developed genomic tools. Customers will experience an easier and more constant production flow with less input of resources.

Almost 70% of the production cost is feed. That is why Total Feed Efficiency is the number one trait in our breeding program. For us, Total Feed Efficiency is not only feed conversion, but also the avoidance of leakages such as death loss or inefficient sows. There are no short cuts in improving Total Feed Efficiency. Individual feed intake stations were first implemented in 1992 on both maternal and terminal lines; sow stayability and piglet mortality were implemented in operational breeding in the last decade. Finisher mortality is now being worked on directly in our research through a combined purebred and crossbred selection program. This brings efficiency directly to our customers and partners.

“Topigs Norsvin is passionately striving to be the world’s most innovative swine genetics company. ”

The last step in the chain of meat production is bringing the meat to the consumer. Topigs Norsvin delivers specialized terminal lines to meet differentiated market demands. Meat quality traits such as drip loss, intramuscular fat, and color are monitored and improved using highspeed, accurate protocols that we have developed ourselves. We can already deliver products specialized for branded quality pork, reducing boar taint in intact males, reducing skin and tail damage, and carcass defects, etc. So far, we have CT scanned more than 22,000 genotyped purebred boars, generating more than 500 GB of data per boar. Together with ultrasound measurements of back fat and loin depth, as well as feed efficiency of all off-tested animals in our nucleus populations, this fuels our selection differential with high accuracy, as phenotype is king in the era of genomics.

Huge investments are being made in the development and implementation of genomics technology in our breeding program. By implementing genetic markers and the genomic relation matrix, the reliability of breeding values increases. Topigs Norsvin invented the system of using crossbred, customer data in genetic improvement and we are now continuing to develop this system with genomic selection on the crossbred level. Our scientists are moving towards understanding the genomics of crossbreeds and heterosis and using fullsequence information in the breeding program. Our next step will be to use DNA patterns for precision farming and genomic management as well as new technology to increase and disseminate the frequency of desired functional genes within our populations more quickly.

Genetic improvement is driven by the accuracy of the phenotype being collected. Over the years many tools have been used to drive genetic change some made big impacts others made minimal. The tools we use for phenotypic collection must be challenged from time to time or the impact of that tool deteriorates. The use of ultrasound as a proxy for fat and lean accretion revolutionized the industry, however the variation today from this tool is minimal (backfat ± 1mm). Since the standard error of the machine used to measure backfat is ≥ 1mm how accurate can your estimate be? Thus, we must find a more precise tool to measure fat and lean. Because of the rapid changes in computing power we are able to use a very precise tool, computed tomography (CT), to determine actual lean and fat accretion without making an estimate of what it is and not a single point on the animals back to predict what the lean and fat accretion is. The correlation of backfat and loin depth with true primal composition is 0.40 and 0.10 respectively (internal data), whereas the correlation of fat and lean from the CT and true primal composition is 0.99 (internal data). The most important thing geneticists do is measure phenotypes. The application of genomics has been suspect so far, but shows that it can add some value of accuracy on traits that are difficult to measure. However, you must ask if genomics is necessary if the phenotype you are measuring is the most precise with the highest accuracy possible. When traits are difficult or costly to measure why should that be the burden of the producer? This is the responsibility of the genetic companies to deliver value to the producer and not just talk about value.

At Choice Genetics our main focus and use of resources is to measure true phenotypes and not estimate them. The drive of our company is to partner with producers and deliver more value/margin to them through innovative technology and methodology of selection. We employ the best possible tools available to measure our phenotypes including: computed tomography and immune response to pathogens. It has been shown that selecting for number born alive is effective at increasing the number; however as can been seen in certain genetic lines throughout the industry this causes more variation in piglet size complicating the producer’s ability to grow quality pigs when used alone. Our vision is to improve number of quality pigs per female and not focus on a single trait that does not add more margin to the producers P&L. Just because a sow produces more pigs does not mean she is more profitable nor does just surviving to weaning. Many runts can survive to weaning and potentially through finishing, however they are poor in feed conversion and bring little value when sent for processing. One of our methods for selection for more quality pigs is by measuring number born alive above a threshold birth weight. It has been demonstrated (Fix et al., 2010) that birth weight has a significant impact on pre-wean mortality, growth rate, and feed efficiency. We have found similar results to this and that the heritability and genetic correlations are more favorable with other production traits than number born alive alone and number weaned.

“Choice Genetics partner with producers to deliver more value/ margin to them through innovative technology and methodology of selection.

Many genetic companies talk about robustness yet have no real measurement for response for pathogens or challenges. How can you talk about a trait like robustness but not measure it? How much value can you add in your program when you don’t measure it? Several genetic lines in the industry have excessive death loss when it faces challenges so you can see what the impact is if you don’t measure it. At Choice Genetics we have demonstrated that disease tolerance (DT) can be effective at improving the innate immune response. Previous work (Petryet al., 2005) demonstrated that genetic variation exists for the pigs’ ability to fight off infection. One misleading idea is that you can select for disease resistance for viruses like PRRS or PCV2. However, why would you be simple-minded to focus on one particular pathogen when there are a whole host of potential sources of infection. Our focus is on the innate immune response as we don’t care what the pig is challenged with, we want it to fight off the infection without ever showing signs or symptoms from being sick. It does us no good if the pig gets sick and does not continue to grow at its proper rate or even worse dies from the challenge.

When considering a genetics company to partner with remember to ask why they do what they do versus just how they do it. We believe in challenging the status quo and in thinking differently than the rest of the industry. Our product is exceptional because it is simple to maintain, producer friendly, and innovatively designed. The people of Choice Genetics just happen to make great quality pigs too.

Derek Petry
Petry, named CEO in 2014, has worked in the swine industry for over 10 years, and first joined Choice Genetics USA in 2012 as Vice of President of R&D. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas A&M University majoring in poultry science. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he earned an MBA as well as a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in animal science focusing in quantitative and molecular genetics with a minor in statistics. Petry also holds a Master’s Degree in food science from Kansas State University.