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Multi-state research seeks to increase survivability for pigs

By Doug Schmitz

Iowa Correspondent

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Iowa State University’s Iowa Pork Industry Center is slated to lead a multi-state research project in a concerted effort to increase the survivability rates within the U.S. pork industry.

“The study will use real world hog farms to identify the sources of hog and pig losses,” explained Chris Hurt, Purdue University professor of agricultural economics. “It will be important to identify the sources of losses and potential remedies.

“The researchers will identify these sources and develop cost/benefit analysis to identify which sources of losses can have the highest returns to the industry relative to the costs to reduce the losses.”

The National Pork Board in Des Moines and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in Washington, D.C., will provide nearly $2 million for the study, which will include scientists from ISU, Kansas State University and Purdue.

“This project is a great example of industry leadership coming together to address emerging issues through university and industry research partnerships,” said Jason Ross, ISU’s Lloyd L. Anderson Professor of Animal Science and center director, who will lead the five-year study.

According to ISU, an estimated 30-35 percent of pigs born die before reaching the market, creating significant economic loss for farmers across the country. In addition, research indicates mortality rates across all phases of production have been increasing, presenting a major challenge to animal well-being and sustainability.

“The members of the animal science and welfare committees of the National Pork Board recognize improving pig health, welfare and productivity are keys in extending pig survivability,” said Chris Hostetler, NPB director of animal science.

Tim Kurt, FFAR scientific program director, said an interdisciplinary team of nutritionists, physiologists, veterinarians, well-being and behavior experts, geneticists, toxicologists, extension specialists and agricultural economists will examine the causes of mortality occurring on commercial swine farms.

“We know that improving survivability will increase the efficiency and environmental sustainability of the whole industry, but solutions need to be economically feasible,” he noted.

Sally Rockey, FFAR executive director, said increasing sow and piglet survivability is one of the most intractable issues facing the U.S. pork industry. “While this is a clear animal welfare problem, it is also one of the most important productivity and economic issue for producers,” she said.

The project seeks a full understanding of the biological mechanisms that limit pig and sow survivability, how they interact and how they can be effectively improved. Moreover, the project’s overarching goal through effective research and extension activities is to improve swine survivability by 1 percent or more each year.

“The benefits of the new practices that reduce costs per unit or enhance quality accrue first to the producers who adopt the new practice,” Hurt said. “The extension component of the project includes education of producers about the new practices.”

Increasing the wean-to-finish survival of animals by 1 percent would represent an estimated gain in productivity of approximately 1.2 million pigs a year for the nation’s swine industry.

“Productivity is defined as output per unit of input,” he explained. “If practices to reduce death loss can either increase output with the same inputs, or keep output the same with less inputs, then a gain in productivity will likely occur.

“Higher productivity often can lower costs per unit, or increase qualitative measures of pork with the same costs. If a management practice can lower costs per unit of pork, or increase quality at the same costs, then consumers will tend to buy more pork with the lower price, or buy more pork with the higher quality (at the same price).”

Assuming the study uncovers multiple practices to reduce death loss and evaluate the cost of implementation, Hurt said, individual producers may pick and choose the practices that have the highest probability of success on their farms.

“It is likely that different producers will select different practices based on their individual and unique situation,” he said. “Overtime, as new practices become standardized in the industry, the benefits begin to move to the pork consumer in the form of more moderate prices and enhanced quality.”

In the most recent quarter (September-November 2018), the USDA stated pigs saved per litter reached a record 10.76 animals, up slightly from the previous quarter and a year earlier.

“Research plays a vital role in continuing on the historical progress that has been made in increasing pigs saved per litter,” Dave Miller, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation director of research and commodity services, said. “This comes from improved genetics and breeding techniques, better nutrition for both sows and piglets and a host of other factors that can be improved by investment in additional research.

“Improving the productivity of the U.S. swine herd has been and will continue to be a high priority for U.S. hog producers.”

Another aspect of the project is the significant effort placed on training future industry leaders, which includes graduate students and staff, but is also expected to employ many undergraduate and veterinary students through internship programs.

“While this project is slated to last five years, it is the vision of the committees that this effort will fundamentally shape the way pigs are raised to provide safe, wholesome pork far into the future,” Hostetler said.

For additional information on the project team, specific efforts and progress, visit the project’s website at