let's talk farm animals

Bringing piggies to market is a science

By JOE SCHWARCZ, Montreal Gazette, 2021.04.26

I must admit I had never heard of a “boar limo.” Neither was I familiar with “Prosperm,” “pit additives” or the risks of “plug pulling.” But when you sit at a table with a bunch of pork producers, you learn quickly.
And when you find out that the lady sitting next to you can castrate a boar in 1.5 seconds, you pay attention to the conversation. You learn how hard these farmers work, how daily life centres on feed costs, pork futures, worries about bacteria, concerns about smells and insecurity about income.

But you also find out how scientific pork production has become and how extensively animal welfare and environmental concerns are addressed. These days, production generally begins with artificial insemination of the sow. Farmers can purchase a variety of sperm to match their needs, but they need to know exactly when a sow is in heat to maximize the chance of breeding. The best indication of heat is the “immobilization response” whereby the sow’s ears become erect (they “pop” in trade lingo) and she assumes a rigid position, ready to be mounted.

But sows did not evolve to have romantic relationships with artificial
inseminating rods, so a boar is still needed. Or at least, his smell is.
Boars produce a mixture of male steroid hormones, androstenol and
androstenone being the most dominant, which trigger mating behaviour in the female. These compounds make for an unpleasant “boar-taint” in meat which is the reason most boars lose their testicles soon after birth.

Farmers can detect heat in a sow by guiding a boar (with testicles intact) down the aisle between the stalls that house the females as they watch for a response. This process is made more efficient with a “boar limo,” the remote-controlled, motorized cart into which the boar is loaded for his romantic journey. As the farmer watches from behind the female, he manoeuvres the limo to allow full “snout to snout contact,” taking advantage of the factors needed for sow stimulation: sight, smell, sound and saliva.

Producers who don’t want to deal with a boar can use “Boar Mate,” an aerosol that contains androstenol and androstenone. If a sow is in heat, she will assume the mating position when Boar Mate is sprayed in front of her nose as pressure is applied on its back by the farmer. If the sow responds, the insemination rod goes into action. Just how successful the insemination is, and how large a litter is produced, depend on many factors, including quality and quantity of sperm.

This is where products like “Prosperm” come in. This fertility enhancer can be fed to boars as a dietary supplement. Its marketers claim a significant increase in effective matings and in piglets per litter. What is this magic formula? Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a fatty acid that is an essential component of sperm cells, combined with vitamin E and selenium to protect the DHA from oxidative damage. DHA is readily isolated from tuna.

Needless to say, some unethical entrepreneurs are already promoting such products to men and are suggesting that the “Tuna Love Pill” can perform miracles. They cite a 15 per cent increase in boar sperm count and a testicle size increase of some 20 per cent. As far as I can tell, scientific literature provides no data on whether tuna eaters are better lovers.

Feeding pigs is not a simple business. Not because they are finicky eaters; in fact pigs will eat almost anything. Cost and nutrition are the issues. Soy, corn, oats, barley, peas, lentils and canola are the common feed components, but these differ in price and protein content so they have to be judiciously selected and blended.
Pigs, like humans, need amino acids to synthesize muscle tissue and enzymes. These come from breaking down dietary protein into its component amino acids. But if the amino acid ratios are not exactly what the pigs need, some of the excess will be excreted in the feces. This can be a problem because amino acids can be a source of nitrates as well as ammonia, which are environmental concerns. An effective approach is to add amino acids such as lysine or methionine to the feed in appropriate amounts, but the viability depends on relative costs.

One of the greatest concerns of a pig facility is the copious amounts of manure the animals produce, up to eight pounds a day each. The stuff falls through the slats in the floor of the piggery and collects in tanks underneath. Periodically the farmer pulls a plug allowing the liquid manure to flow into outdoor lagoons. This is a potentially dangerous process because anaerobic fermentation produces toxic hydrogen sulphide gas which is liberated into the air when manure is agitated. The lagoons are designed by engineers and use various high-tech liners to ensure no leakage. No manure is dumped into lakes or rivers and groundwater around lagoons is constantly tested.

Pig manure makes for a highly effective organic fertilizer, which farmers
pump into the soil to raise crops. Pig sludge can even be dried, mixed with waste paper and sawdust and burned for energy production. Waste management systems can be designed to capture the methane gas produced by decomposing manure, which in turn can be burned to produce electricity.

No doubt about it though, the smell of manure is a huge problem. Trees planted around manure lagoons and “pit additives” such as certain enzymes and copper compounds that break down odiferous compounds can help, as well the use of zeolites (a special form of volcanic rock) which can absorb smells.

Odours are not only a problem for neighbours; they are worrisome for the farmer too. A buildup of ammonia in a barn threatens the health of piglets and there is concern about some of the “endotoxins” produced by bacteria that are housed by pigs. Inhaling these can cause severe respiratory problems.

Antibiotics in the feed control bacteria but raise the issue of developing resistance to these drugs. To prevent this, stringent laws are enforced and animals with even a trace of antibiotic residue cannot be marketed. Farmers risk crippling fines if they do not obey regulations.

Even if the animals have been successfully raised, there is the matter of transportation on their final journey. A study in The American Journal of Public Health, with the tantalizing title of Salmonella Excretion in Joyriding Pigs concluded that stressed pigs release higher levels of salmonella. Obviously, bringing piggies to market is not a simple business, but it is one that engages a host of scientific principles.


Posted by FFC on July 21st, 2009 :: Filed under Farm life,Innovation and technology,Pork
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One Response to “Bringing piggies to market is a science”

  1. Gordon Chesnut
    March 5th, 2012

    Great post.Really looking forward to read more. Keep writing.

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