Health, feed, growth – Nothing happens in isolation

16-01-2014 | |
Health, feed, growth – Nothing happens in isolation

Precision Livestock Farming is becoming very popular; many technologically driven companies are zooming into data-collecting methods. Thus focusing on exact needs of the modern pig will allow producers to meet tomorrow’s challenges, says Prof Sandra Edwards.

By Roger Abbott

“We cannot hope to improve the performance of today’s pigs if we continue to rely on the nutritional, feeding and performance data we collected from (traditional) pigs a long time ago,” says veteran UK pig researcher and scientist and chair of agriculture at the University of Newcastle, Prof Sandra Edwards.

She argues that the type of pig that most commercial producers are working with at the moment is completely different to the animals on pig farms even a decade ago, when consumer demands were totally different.

A whole new bank of research data reflecting the needs of the modern pig are urgently required to ensure progress by researchers in pig development on the scientific front.

Edwards, who is particularly interested in the multidisciplinary interactions between nutrition, reproduction, behaviour and welfare in pigs and other livestock, also believes that it is necessary for producers and researchers to look at the whole pig when considering how they can improve production, health and welfare.

“Nothing happens in isolation,” she told Pig Progress in-between her hectic schedule of national and international speaking engagements, which she has combined with her work and research for the past 30 years.

“You must consider how changes in one area will affect the pig in other areas. For instance when you are considering feeds and nutrition, you cannot just look at the way they might influence growth; you also need to consider their effect on other functions, such as aspects of health, the immune system, welfare and the environment.

“You also have to know about the genetics and health situation of the whole herd, as well as the farm and the way it is managed.”

She argues that nutritionists should be helping producers to improve the quality, rather than the quantity of the piglets they produce.

For example, Edwards says she had recently been looking at sow nutrition at the time of breeding and she now believes producers should concentrate on the feed and condition of sows much earlier than they had in the past – even before the eggs were fertilised; in fact, she suggested that the best way to improve the quality of future piglets was to improve the way sows were fed from weaning right through to the end of pregnancy to ensure high quality piglets that could be weaned more easily.

“Instead of focusing most of our efforts on providing the right feed and nutrition to maintain the sow’s condition in the last week of her pregnancy, I now think we should be looking at her before mating to obtain the best possible results.”

“We should be feeding the sows to get their condition right before they go into the farrowing house and even before that. The pre-mating diet can have a big impact on embryo survival and high plane feeding before mating will help reduce embryo mortality.”

She points out that she was not advocating that sows should be fed to produce bigger litters, but rather fed to meet the challenges of weaning more top quality piglets successfully.

She says research had shown that producers needed to feed sows with arginine and glutamine supplements to help increase the placental quality, which reduced birth weight variation, as well as the number of under-weight piglets born alive.

Recent work had also shown that including essential fatty acids such as docosahexanoic acid (DHA), which is found in algae and fish, in sow diets during the last month of their pregnancies led to a significant drop in the number of stillbirths. It also resulted in a longer farrowing duration.

Edwards says, “This is all very interesting and certainly needs some more investigation. I would like to see more work done in this field, especially as geneticists work towards increasing the size of litters, which will inevitably mean lower birth weights.”

Costs of production
Turning to the ever-rising costs of production, which she is sure will continue to be one of the main challenges in future, Edwards said the industry also needed to look at ‘alternative’ feeds and how they could be produced and used more efficiently.

“We are already looking at a whole range of new co-product feeds derived from the bio-energy industry at the University of Newcastle that could be usefully incorporated into pig diets.”

One of the few scientists to receive Britain’s prestigious David Black Award, presented annually to those who have made an outstanding contribution to the pig industry, Edwards also believes plant breeders are likely to tailor crops better for the type of animal they are going to feed in future.

Quietly confident that genetically modified (GM) crops will eventually be accepted in Europe, Edwards is convinced that the global pig industry needs to harness all the tolls it can get to ensure a profitable future, including GM feeds, genetics and modern housing systems, in addition to fine-tuning nutrition to meet the needs of the pigs, especially sows.

And this is where her concept of Precision Livestock Farming comes into its own, because she believes future scientists and researchers will need to consider individual herds and then look within herds to consider the effects of nutrition and feeds on the pigs at different stages within the herd.

“It’s possible that in future we will have to start looking at – and working on – smaller and smaller units within pig herds in order to fine tune inputs to their best advantage to meet the needs of the pigs, which are always changing these days.”

She has also called for more research into micronutrients to encourage placental development, adding that the industry also had to focus on the future welfare of the pigs and the effect all these changes could have on the environment, which she was sure would play an increasingly vital role in the pig industry of the future.


After graduating with a BA (Hons) in Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, UK, Sandra Edwards completed a PhD at the University of Reading. She has since worked for more than 30 years in applied research for ADAS, the Institute for Grassland and Animal Production, and the Scottish Agricultural College, where she had responsibility for projects on pig housing and welfare, nutrition and management. She moved in 1998 to become reader in animal science in the department of agriculture at the University of Aberdeen. In 2000, she was appointed to the chair of agriculture at the University of Newcastle, where her research interests focus on the interactions between nutrition, reproduction, behaviour and welfare in e.g. pigs. She has served on many working groups relating to pig welfare.

Source: Pig Progress magazine Vol 29 nr 10, 2013