Few of us enjoyed tests in school. All of that cramming, quizzing and copying off the kid next to you was hard work. Yet in research, testing is essential, and that’s clearly the case with a Genome Alberta project using genomics to boost disease resilience and sustainability in Canadian pork production.
At the Deschambault Swine Testing Station run by the CDPQ (Centre de développement du porc du Québec Inc.), researchers are applying a disease challenge model to test their theories under real life conditions.
“We want to mimic a commercial pig environment and introduce disease in a controlled manner with strict protocols,” said Frederic Fortin, a geneticist in animal breeding at the CDPQ. “In this way, we can collect all the data and samples we need to reach the objectives of the project.”
Using a wean-finish structure that can handle 350 animals per side, the station employs a system where pigs are introduced in a continuous flow.
“This approach ensures that pigs are challenged and that pathogens are transmitted from current pigs to new pigs on an ongoing basis,” said Fortin.
Those who are unfamiliar with the project would be excused for asking the obvious: Don’t we want to get disease OUT of the barn, not bring it in?
Watch & learn
According to Fortin, bringing it in is the first step towards getting it out.
“The project’s main goal is to improve disease resilience of pigs through genetics. In order to identify the markers of resilience we need to observe healthy pigs in a challenging environment and record their performance in a number of areas such as weight, feed consumption and water intake.”
Based on the information gathered, pigs are separated into three categories: resilient, somewhat resilient and not resilient.
“The disease challenge model is an original protocol that provides extremely useful data on the genetic composition of these animals and helps explain why certain pigs fall into certain categories of resilience. That’s why so many researchers and breeding companies wanted to be part of this project.”
In sickness and in health
One of the most impressive aspects of the research is the successful implementation of the disease challenge model, which proved, well, challenging.
“We needed to make the pigs sick but not overdo it in order to study their reactions, while also keeping many of the pigs in good condition throughout the test; it wasn’t easy to strike that balance.”
From an animal welfare standpoint, it was also critical that the pigs be well treated. To that end, an animal protection committee was established to supervise the test station activities and ensure proper animal care at all times.
Altogether, there were a lot of moving parts to address in starting and running the test station trials. For his part, Fortin has no doubt that it was worth the effort.
Given what he has seen so far, where some pigs get very sick in the challenge model while others “go through like it’s a walk in the park”, Fortin and his colleagues are convinced that resilience has a genetic component. That resolve has them excited about the potential applications of their research for producers and industry.
“I strongly believe that we must improve the health of animals in the swine industry. Not only does health have a major impact on producer revenue, but from a welfare standpoint disease is not pleasant for the pigs. As well, it’s important to reduce our dependence on antibiotics to address anti-microbial resistance.”
For this project, that impact is the ultimate test. If they can keep pigs healthy and producers out of the red, the team should pass with flying colors.