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20 October 2023

Benefits for food security, animal welfare and the environment: New study shows balanced breeding programmes in pigs can increase litter size while also increasing birth weights and improving piglet survival rates


A new peer-reviewed study has underlined the contribution of balanced farm animal breeding programmes in delivering combined benefits in terms of food production, animal welfare and environmental impact.


Published in the journal Frontiers in Animal Science, the study examines long-term trends in commercial pig breeding since the early 2000s, focusing on data relating to litter size, piglet birth weight and piglet survival rates according to different genetic types (breeding lines).


The results demonstrate that more balanced pig breeding policies introduced over the past 20-30 years have been successful in increasing litter size while simultaneously increasing piglet birth weights and piglet survival rates.


Improvements have been most marked over the past decade, with the data showing that from 2012 until 2022, average litter size increased by 3.5 pigs, birth weight increased by 30g per pig, while piglet survival rates improved by 8%.


Increases in litter size and reduced piglet mortality also support a reduction in sow numbers needed to produce the same amount of pig meat, with related benefits in terms of reduced overhead costs, resource use and emissions, which together improve production efficiency and lower the environmental footprint per kg of pig meat.


Over the period 2000-2022, for example, the average number of litters required to produce 1000 weaned piglets has reduced by more than a third from 123 to 78, as a direct result of genetic improvements in litter size and piglet survival rates.


The study’s lead author, Pieter Knap, notes that this is a win-win-win outcome for pig producers, animal welfare and the environment:


“Enormous progress has been made by farm animal breeders in recent decades to adopt more balanced breeding programmes, taking account of a range of production, sustainability, health and welfare factors, and based on an improved understanding of animal biology, genomics and genetic function.


"Modern breeding programmes target and select for a much wider range of characteristics than previously, with the aim of ensuring that selection for traits such as productivity and meat quality improvements do not compromise health, robustness, welfare or environmental impacts.

"This collaborative study, the first of its kind to bring together data from all the leading global pig breeding companies, demonstrates that balanced breeding programmes are delivering combined improvements in terms of farm productivity, animal welfare and sustainability.”

Dr Craig Lewis, chair of the European Forum for Farm Animal Breeders (EFFAB), one of the study’s co-authors adds:

“This study was conceived, at least in part, to address our frustration that perceptions of modern livestock breeding among policymakers, NGOs and the general public are rooted in the past, and are not up to date with modern pig breeding strategies.

"For example, under proposed new EU rules on animal welfare, and under pressure from animal welfare NGOs, the European Commission has discussed placing an arbitrary maximum limit on pig litter size. Through this study, we have shown that such a move would do very little to improve welfare or reduce piglet mortality. But it would instead have the perverse effect of increasing the number of sows needed to meet consumer demand for pig meat, so increasing the environmental footprint of pig production in terms of feed use, resource use and GHG emissions. 


"The world is facing a number of stark realities. We need to double global protein production to meet the demands of a population set to exceed 9 billion by 2050. But we need to do so in a way which reduces the environmental impact of livestock production while addressing society’s expectations of the very highest standards of animal health and welfare.

"As this peer-reviewed study demonstrates, modern, balanced farm animal breeding programmes are harnessing our improved understanding of genetic science to help deliver on these urgent challenges. We hope the paper will go some way towards improving wider understanding and appreciation of the positive contribution farm animal breeders are making.”


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