If you think caring for a sick toddler is a chore, try handling a 300 lb pig with a fever. It’s not a pretty picture, and neither is the bottom line for a pork producer when his herd is sick. That may be why the industry is excited about the potential of a Genome Alberta-led research project for harnessing genomics to improve disease resilience and sustainability in Canadian pork production.
“When we talk to producers their number one priority is disease prevention,” said Stewart Cressman, Chairman of the Advisory Board at Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario and Board Chair for Swine Innovation Porc. He also runs a hog finishing barn where he finishes 7,500 hogs annually.
That thinking changed with the advent of genomics and research efforts like the “Application of Genomics to Improve Disease Resilience and Sustainability in Pork Production” project.
“This project is coming at disease from two angles. To start, it seeks to identify animals that are more resilient or have better outcomes in the face of disease. Is there a way to select for such animals through genetic panels?”
The other angle examines the microbiome and its role in pig health.
Fawning over flora
“Is there microflora in the gut that contributes to more resilient animals? If the microbiome contributes to better immune response, we may have pigs that react better to vaccines or fare well even in the absence of vaccines”.
Essentially, genomics allow researchers to take a two-tiered approach that addresses both the pig itself and the organisms living inside it.
That approach has earned the support of industry, something that’s critical to success.
“Canada is viewed as a world-class supplier of breeding stock and genetics, so it’s a good sign that competing companies are working together on this project for the benefit of all.”
Since genomic research involves analyzing a large quantity of animals, collaboration is vital to provide the numbers and dollars needed for genomic improvement. And for a pork industry that exports 70 per cent of its product and competes on a global scale, that improvement is essential.
“With the growing concern worldwide about antibiotic resistance, we must reduce our reliance on antibiotics. If we can do that through breeding strategies and best management practices that include biosecurity, vaccination and enhanced resilience, the public gets the product they demand and producers, processors and retailers all benefit by meeting that demand.”
Apart from the financial boost, having major breeding companies as project participants has another advantage.
“It means that any discoveries from the research will immediately be part and parcel of breeding programs, and that is very encouraging. A big part of any research project is implementation of findings and knowledge transfer, so when you have stakeholders embedded in the program from the outset it really assists in that process.”
For his part, Cressman feels those findings could be a game changer.
“Until now vaccines have been the major disease prevention tool and they certainly have their place. At the same time, certain diseases keep mutating so you may have a vaccine that worked on last year’s strain but is useless against the current mutation. If we impact the pig’s immune response genetically we could have an animal that doesn’t fall apart on us regardless of the disease challenge. By understanding the underlying biology and basis for genetic improvement we can make a significant impact.”
And if we learn to treat that 300 lb pig, maybe the sick toddler will be less intimidating.
Dare to dream…