As sensitive topics go, animal health is up there with politics and the latest flood. Yet when pork producers do discuss their feeling around animal health, the results are revealing. As researchers on a Genome Alberta-led project continue their quest for greater disease resilience in pigs through genomics, producer feedback is a key piece of the puzzle.
“We surveyed 67 pork producers and associated professionals in the UK from 2017-2019 about their thoughts on selecting for disease resilience,” said Dr. Ann Bruce, senior lecturer, Science Technology and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh. “UK pig producers have reduced their use of antibiotics by over 50% since 2015, so continuing to reduce use while maintaining pig health will be a major challenge.”
In the face of that challenge, Dr. Bruce and her team found many producers who saw disease resilience selection as attractive in principle, but not without its problems. Skepticism exists about whether such selection would work, and whether something that’s effective in the lab will translate to the farm.
The eyes have it
These doubts are worsened by the difficulty in viewing progress on resilience. While selecting for faster growth is easy to see, it’s harder to spot incremental progress with resilience, especially if a farm isn’t facing the particular disease challenge that selection is targeting. Making this even more problematic is the perception that prior claims around better disease resilience have not always been realized.
“That may be true or the result of false expectations, but either way, it fuels the fires of doubt for many respondents,” said Dr. Bruce.
Concerns were also raised about unintended consequences and economic effectiveness.
“Some producers worried about changes in behavior that might result from selection for resilience, such as increased aggression and tail biting. There is the perception that certain lines or breeds have a greater propensity to tail bite than others, and that there is a genetic basis for this tendency. There was also a fear among respondents that selection could worsen meat quality.”
From an economic standpoint, interviewees were wary about the impact of resilience selection on another critical trait: productivity. As in Canada, pork producers in the UK work with very tight margins, so productivity is critical to their survival. Though a strong case can be made that disease resilient pigs will perform better, those surveyed shared a common worry: Since you can only select for so many pigs in each generation, and you can’t select for productivity and resilience at the same time, focusing on the latter will render pigs less commercially viable.
“In fact, scientists have algorithms that work out the best combination of productivity and disease resilience in terms of impact on the bottom line.”
An irresistible trait?
In spite of the skepticism, many producers felt that given a specific disease challenge on farm which couldn’t be solved by other means, it would be useful to have a pig that can resist that disease. At the same time, they found the idea of resilience to all diseases as lacking in credibility, largely because resilience is more a concept than a “thing”.
“If we could make resilience more concrete for farmers, so they knew exactly what it was, they might change their views on whether it’s possible. They would also be attracted to such pigs if the resilience is strong enough to preclude the need for vaccinations, thereby saving on drug and labour costs.”
With the drastic reduction of antibiotic use in the UK in recent years, tools like selection for disease resilience that could lower those levels even further hold a certain appeal. This is especially true with diseases like PRRS that often increase the need for antibiotics.
For the project headed by Genome Alberta, the results of Dr. Bruce’s survey hold some promise.
“I think there is encouragement here in that the project’s experiments are being run in more commercial conditions, which should allay producer concerns around lab results not applying on farm. I’m hoping this will get scientists thinking about how best to communicate their research goals to the industry.”