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
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.
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