Start­ing Over

All work and no play is no way to en­joy your­self, but when Liz Shank­land gets a break from her new small­hold­ing, it’s of­ten a bus­man’s holiday

Country Smallholding - - Welcome -

With Liz Shank­land

Ikeep say­ing I need to get out more, and I have started to lis­ten to my own ad­vice at last. In­evitably, though, when I go out, it’s nor­mally to do some­thing as­so­ci­ated with small­hold­ing. I’ve joined two lo­cal small­hold­ers’ groups down here in west Wales – the long-es­tab­lished Dyfed Small­hold­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, and the more re­cently-formed Tal­ley and Cwmdu Small­hold­ers’ Club – so, at long last, I am start­ing to widen my cir­cle of like-minded peo­ple. It’s al­ways good to meet fel­low landown­ers, visit their homes, and lis­ten to oth­ers talk­ing about their pas­sions for dif­fer­ent types of live­stock, the crafts they en­joy, or the var­i­ous ways they have cho­sen to make their land work for them.

Still, how­ever in­ter­est­ing it may be to learn about new sub­jects, my pri­mary in­ter­est is, and al­ways will be, pigs. Some peo­ple reckon it’s be­come a bit of an ob­ses­sion over the years, and I never tire of talk­ing about them. Since mov­ing to west Wales, I’ve been within easy reach of a num­ber of re­ally use­ful work­shops and train­ing events or­gan­ised by Men­tur Moch Cymru, a Welsh Gov­ern­ment-funded project set up with the aim of in­creas­ing the size of the pig herd in Wales.

Free work­shops so far have in­cluded ses­sions on im­prov­ing piglet sur­vival, suc­cess­ful far­row­ing, and man­age­ment of gilts, and I was even lucky enough to get a place on a sausage mak­ing and ba­con cur­ing course which would oth­er­wise have cost sev­eral hun­dred pounds.

Univer­sity visit

Events are spread evenly across Wales, with the most pop­u­lar re­peated in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. Oc­ca­sion­ally, they are held fur­ther afield, and I was de­lighted when I got the chance to visit Harper Adams Univer­sity in Shrop­shire, where the renowned agri­cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion has a highly-suc­cess­ful pig unit. As well as be­ing a cen­tre of ex­cel­lence when it comes to pro­vid­ing fa­cil­i­ties for agri­cul­tural stu­dents, the univer­sity’s pig unit is a profit-mak­ing busi­ness in its own right, mak­ing around £100,000 a year from pig sales alone. In ad­di­tion, it is the cen­tre of choice for nu­mer­ous ma­jor com­pa­nies wish­ing to trial new prod­ucts, in­clud­ing feed, ve­teri­nary prod­ucts, and equip­ment.

Get­ting up at 4.30am to feed ev­ery­thing in the dark and get on the road for a jour­ney last­ing more than three hours was no joke, but the ef­fort was well worth it in the end. I wasn’t just go­ing to ad­mire the fa­cil­i­ties: I was go­ing to spend the day get­ting to know more about ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion.

I’ve ad­min­is­tered AI to my own pigs a

few times over the years, but with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess, and I’ve al­ways won­dered whether there might have been things I could have done to im­prove on re­sults. At Harper Adams, they AI all 240 sows and gilts, be­cause they op­er­ate a batch far­row­ing and wean­ing sys­tem which works like a well-oiled ma­chine. What that means is that the sows and gilts are di­vided into seven groups so that, at any one time, there will be groups be­ing in­sem­i­nated, groups far­row­ing, and groups be­ing weaned. All sows are put into crates for far­row­ing and the piglets are weaned at 26 days, when they reach the tar­get weight of 8.4kg. There is a two-week gap be­tween sows leav­ing the far­row­ing pens and the next batch ar­riv­ing, which al­lows for the en­tire area to be deep-cleaned and dis­in­fected and, cru­cially, gives plenty of time for drying-out, to en­sure no bac­te­ria sur­vive.

Once weaned, the sows are treated with Regu­mate – a prod­uct which mim­icks the ef­fects of the nat­u­ral hor­mone pro­ges­terone – for 18 days. The prod­uct can ei­ther be mixed with the feed or squirted straight into the mouth, us­ing the kind of dos­ing gun used for oral worm­ers. Regu­mate sup­presses oestrus (i.e. pre­vents pigs from com­ing into sea­son) but, when it is with­drawn, oestrus oc­curs within five to six days – al­low­ing the whole batch to be in­sem­i­nated at the same time.

It’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent sys­tem to the one that I and the ma­jor­ity of small­hold­ers would choose, but we can all learn valu­able lessons from ob­serv­ing good prac­tice with re­gard to things like hy­giene and feed­ing. In fair­ness, even though crat­ing sows is some­thing I pre­fer not to do, it must be said that the sows I saw ap­peared in­cred­i­bly con­tent, de­spite their con­fine­ment.

All of the univer­sity’s sows are home­bred com­mer­cial hy­brids, se­lected for ef­fi­ciency and pro­duc­tiv­ity, and the se­men bought in is from a high-per­form­ing hy­brid sire line. Nor­mally, ac­cess to the pig unit is se­ri­ously re­stricted, for ob­vi­ous biose­cu­rity rea­sons, but our group was for­tu­nate that a ma­jor changeover of stock was about to take place, due to a new sci­en­tific trial due to start soon, so we had the op­por­tu­nity to see ar­eas which were nor­mally off-lim­its. Unit man­ager Richard Hooper, who also lec­tures at the univer­sity, is amaz­ingly com­mit­ted to his op­er­a­tion and was a mine of in­for­ma­tion through­out the day, as was top pig vet Bob Steven­son, who gave us an in­tro­duc­tion to the dos and don’ts of AI be­fore we headed off to the unit to prac­tise.

Try­ing out AI

Per­form­ing AI on pigs isn’t any­thing like as tricky as with cat­tle, and the actual me­chan­ics are fairly sim­ple, but there are key things that you have to get right. Most im­por­tant of all is know­ing pre­cisely when your pigs are ready to be in­sem­i­nated. We’ve all seen the phys­i­cal and per­son­al­ity changes in our sows and gilts when they start to come into sea­son – swelling of the vulva, slight dis­charge, noisy, vo­cal be­hav­iour – but know­ing when they are ab­so­lutely ready can be a bit tricky, and or­der­ing se­men to ar­rive ex­actly when you need it is cru­cial.

There is no point try­ing to in­sem­i­nate at the first sight of a puffy vulva; a rookie mis­take is to think that, just be­cause your pig’s lady bits are big and pink (in light-coloured breeds) and flash­ing like a bea­con, that you are good to go. This very ob­vi­ous change is usu­ally a sign of prooestrus, and should be seen as an am­ber light rather than a green one. It means now is the time to or­der your se­men, which is nor­mally sent on a next-day-de­liv­ery ba­sis. When the swelling sub­sides, in the next day or two, you may see a thicker dis­charge, your pig may be­come more ac­tive and crave at­ten­tion, she may mount other sows, and her grunts will be­come more high-pitched and more like a whine. The clear sign that she is ready for in­sem­i­na­tion is that she will stand rock-solid when you put pres­sure on her back. At Harper Adams, they keep a cou­ple of ‘teaser’ boars which are only brought into the build­ing when the pigs are about to be in­sem­i­nated.

One of the key things we were taught on the visit was that the el­e­ment of sur­prise is key: whether you are plan­ning to AI your pigs or al­low nat­u­ral ser­vice, don’t al­low con­stant con­tact with a boar, be­cause fa­mil­iar­ity can be a bad thing. It was fas­ci­nat­ing to watch as the boar was in­tro­duced to the unit and to see the be­hav­iour of the sows change within sec­onds. As he got nose-to-nose with them through the bars of their crates, they in­stantly stopped mov­ing, arched their backs, and their ears flicked back­wards. At the same time, some be­gan to trem­ble slightly, uri­nated, and lifted their tails to one side, ready to be mounted.

So, while the boar was at the front, de­liv­er­ing his chat-up lines, my­self and my col­leagues were busy at the busi­ness end, nudg­ing our pigs in the flanks, press­ing down on their backs, and get­ting the catheters and se­men ready. Not every­one’s idea of a great day out, I know, but I loved ev­ery minute of it.

Liz Shank­land is the au­thor of the Haynes Pig, Small­hold­ing, and Sheep Man­u­als. She lec­tures in live­stock pro­duc­tion at an agri­cul­tural col­lege, and teaches cour­ses in small­hold­ing and pig keep­ing at Kate Hum­ble’s farm, www.hum­ble­by­na­ture.com

Not every­one’s idea of a great day out, I know, but I loved ev­ery minute of it.

Liz takes a look around the pig unit at Harper Adams Univer­sity

A far­row­ing crate A sow stand­ing for ser­vice

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