Herd Boars

August 16, 2014

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Tater, the best boar I’ve ever raised, and the pinnacle of my attempts to create an Oxford Sandy and Black for the midwest.  Alas, Tater had one crucial problem.  He was sterile.  Or at least he was functionally sterile.  He would make a few feeble attempts, but quit before achieving the proper insertion.

When I told me son about Tater, he said, “If he’s so good, couldn’t you collect his semen and use it to artificially inseminate.”

“I think that’s what has contributed to this problem.  Twenty-plus years of artificial insemination has led to the rise of problem breeders,” I said.

My memory may be fooling me, but it seems like boars used to do a better job with natural service.  Part of the problem may be I don’t keep enough boars around.  You would think I would be smarter than this with close to forty years of experience.  We always said it starts with the boars.  If you don’t get the sows bred, you are out of the livestock business.

Fortuitously I had kept a backup boar, just in case Tater didn’t work.  Chris is pictured below, half Yorkshire, half Landrace.  He sired all the winter/spring litters.

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And then we come to Taiphan, pictured below.  Mean, ugly, difficult to be around, and he gets the job done.  I forgot what a truly aggressive breeding boar is like.

When a boar is sexually aggressive, you have to worry that he gets enough to eat.  I remember boars from years ago that we had to remove from the breeding herd to let them gain some weight.

Taiphan was in the first litter born in 2013 in a snowstorm.  Most of his littermates froze, so we know he’s tough as well as aggressive.  His dam was a Duroc sow and his sire was DRU semen from SGI.  So he’s 3/4 Duroc and 1/4 French Muscolor.  He sired the early summer litters.

DSCF1663I have some new litters out of Duroc and Landrace semen.  They look ok so far.  I kept quite a few boars, hoping I can keep from running short in the future.

It’s not easy.  You have to have some redundancy in case something goes wrong.  And if everything happens to be perfect, pour yourself a glass of lemonade and enjoy the two or three minutes while they last.

 


Duroc Gilt, Nursing Piglets

January 24, 2012

This is a picture of one of the most recent litters.  I’ve had three littermate Duroc gilts farrow.  Each is an excellent mother.

The Duroc breed is not considered good for mothering ability.  There are some genetic lines within the breed, however, which have been selected for mothering ability.  I’ve been selecting from within these genetic lines for a while.

Farrowing crates can mask poor mothering ability, and bring the worst performers closer to the mean.  Farrowing without crates allows a fuller expression of a sow’s maternal instincts.  I’m happy to see positive results from my years of selection.


Robert Frost: A Blue Ribbon at Amesbury

March 6, 2011

How can a poem, written years before, capture the way I feel?  In “A Blue Ribbon at Amesbury,” Robert Frost writes my thoughts, my feelings.

“A Blue Ribbon at Amesbury” describes a young man’s mind, as he observes his blue-ribbon winning hen.

Excerpt:

The one who gave her ankle-band,
Her keeper, empty pail in hand,
He lingers too, averse to slight
His chores for all the wintry night.

He leans against the dusty wall,
Immured almost beyond recall,
A depth past many swinging doors
And many litter-muffled floors.

He meditates the breeder’s art.
He has a half a mind to start,
With her for Mother Eve, a race
That shall all living things displace.

The cattle on my farm can be traced back over fifty years, the hogs over thirty, the chickens over ten.  We are always selecting, always monitoring, always striving.

Thank you Quantum Devices, Inc. for your guess. Since you were the only one to guess which Frost poem is my favorite, you win the $25 gift certificate to Kiva.


Inbreeding

February 16, 2010

My  post, “How We Decide: Listen To Your Gut,” explained how we had three littermate boars who all had the same abnormality in which they couldn’t extend their penis to breed.

Dad and I discussed possible causes for this condition.  He thought it may be an inbreeding problem.  I thought it had something to do with the increased use of artificial insemination, (AI), in swine.

When we started using AI fifteen years ago, maybe only 10% of the nation’s hogs were produced with AI.  Now, probably over 90% of the nation’s hogs are produced using AI.

Boars which would have been culled because of poor natural breeding ability are now being artificially collected and their genes are spread throughout the population.  I detailed the steps I am taking to combat this problem in my last post.

Dad recently read an article about inbreeding which discussed the deleterious effect it has on reproduction.  And he rightly assumed that the dam of the three boars may have been slightly inbred.  So, combining these two facts caused him to theorize the problem was inbreeding.

Good thinking.  Except I told him I knew the sire of the boars was completely unrelated to the dam.  So there is no chance of inbreeding.

But Dad thought if one of the parents is inbred, then inbreeding may be a problem in the offspring.  And that brings me to my point.

It doesn’t matter how inbred one or both parents are. As long as the parents are not related, the offspring will not be inbred.

Let me explain.  But first let me define two terms, homozygous and heterozygous.  Homozygous is when a pair of genes at any location, (locus), is identical.  Heterozygous is when a pair of genes at any locus is different.

Let’s use coat color in cattle as an example.  One parent is an inbred Black Angus and one parent is an inbred Red Angus.  The Black Angus is black and its pair of genes is represented by BB.  The Red Angus is red and its pair of genes is represented by bb.

Because we know one gene is inherited from each parent, the offspring will get one black, B, gene and one red, b, gene.  The offspring’s genes are heterozygous, Bb, even though its parents were inbred and homozygous.  A single mating between unrelated, inbred individuals wiped out all inbreeding in the offspring.

This example also illustrates how inbreeding and homozygosity is not necessarily a bad thing.  Just ask any Black Angus breeder if she is concerned that her cattle are homozygous black!


How We Decide: Listen To Your Gut!

February 9, 2010

As I struggled with my personal life last fall, our farm struggled.  We have only four new litters of pigs when we normally would have twenty.  The reason?  I failed to listen to my gut!

I’m reading an excellent book by Jonah Lehrer titled, “How We Decide.”  It’s about what’s going on in our heads when we make a decision.  In the second chapter, Jonah talks about how experts typically make a decision.

“Although we tend to think of experts as being weighed down by information, their intelligence dependent on a vast amount of explicit knowledge, experts are actually profoundly intuitive.  When an expert evaluates a situation, he doesn’t systematically compare all the available options or consciously analyze the relevant information.  He doesn’t rely on elaborate spreadsheets or long lists of pros and cons.  Instead, the expert naturally depends on the emotions generated by his dopamine neurons.  His prediction errors have been translated into useful knowledge, which allows him to tap into a set of accurate feelings he can’t begin to explain.”

I used three littermate boars for breeding this past fall and they failed to successfully conceive a single litter.  I had a bad feeling about these boars from their birth, probably before their birth.  But I failed to listen to my intuition.

These boars were sired by artificial insemination, (AI), using semen from a boar housed in Iowa at a company called Swine Genetics International, (SGI).  I like SGI and have had a lot of good luck working with them.  We have had a closed swine herd for fifteen years.  This means we haven’t brought any new swine onto the farm.  We introduce new genetics using artificial insemination.  I joke that the only swine we buy is delivered by UPS.

SGI helpfully separates their boars by breed, and further separates by type and expected function.  For example, boars may be classified as maternal, meaning they will sire excellent mothers, or terminal, meaning they will sire excellent market hogs.  They also have high marbling lines, high growth, high lean, and other types.

The type that gets us in trouble is the Showpig line.  These boars are always very attractive to look at, but usually end up disappointing us in the end.

The sire of our three boars which couldn’t breed was a Yorkshire from the Showpig line and his name is “Be Bold.”  That is a fitting name, because we were, even though we knew better.  But look at his video, isn’t he awesome?  Can you see why we were tempted?

The three boars we kept out of him looked awesome as well.  Dad even said they were the best-looking boars we’ve ever had on the farm.  So we turned them in with the gilts and proceeded to work on corn harvest and didn’t pay much attention to them other than at morning feeding or a casual glance walking by their pen.

The problem was they couldn’t extend their penis out of the sheath.  Boars have a long, pink, corkscrew-shaped penis.   Here is a link to a diagram of a boar’s penis.

 They would mount the right end and get all tight in there and get that orgasmic look in their eyes. But their penis was not going into the gilt.  They ejaculated inside the sheath.  That’s why I even saw the cervical jelly the boars produce which is usually a sure sign something is getting bred.

Now I probably could have pulled the penis out of the sheath and helped them get started breeding.  Some farmers would do that.  But by the time I figured out the problem, I was so frustrated I was looking forward to letting Johnsonville make bratwurst out of them.  And I had other boars which had grown large enough to breed.   

This isn’t the first time we’ve been disappointed.  In fact, it happens so often, I’ve been toying with an idea that would be a safeguard.  The problem is this idea also slows genetic progress. 

Here’s the idea.  Only keep gilts out of AI litters, no boars.  You see, on our farm, a boar can produce 200 offspring in a year while a gilt can only produce 20.  If I end up liking the gilt, then I can keep gilts or boars out of her later.  That way I  introduce the new genetics into my herd, but at a slower, safer rate.

I’ve already implemented this idea in some fashion.  If a gilt or sow has a litter and is a poor mother, or there is a genetic defect in the litter, or any other reason for not liking the litter, I don’t ear notch the piglets in the litter.  That way, five months later, when I am selecting replacement gilts, I’m not tempted to choose a gilt from that litter. 

I keep detailed records and write down any problems that may have occurred.  But I have been known to justify keeping a gilt from a problem litter because she looked so good.  If she is not ear notched however, I have no records on her, and the cautious curiousfarmer of five months ago, trumps the reckless curiousfarmer of today.


Selection: A Force for Change

April 27, 2009

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769: a two year old heifer with her first calf; nursing, just twenty minutes after being born unassisted.  Observe her maternal instinct as she licks her calf.  She is undisturbed by my taking of her picture a few yards away.  Anyone who has raised cattle knows that it isn’t always this easy.  The following post will explain how we select for these traits.

 

Selection:  “A natural or artificial process that results or tends to result in the survival and propagation of some individuals or organisms but not of others with the result that the inherited traits of the survivors are perpetuated.”  Webster’s

A geneticist has a powerful tool with which to change a population:  Selection.  A herd is a moving population of genetics.  The selection decisions each farmer makes will determine the future of his/her herd.

I just had a revelation.  Selection is also what changes our personal lives.  The choices we make determine to a large extent the content and quality of our life.  Do I put as much thought and effort into personal life decisions as I do in selection decisions for my herd?  How about you?  Do you map out your life, or does it just happen to you?

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”  Peter Drucker

 

My parents went on a bull-buying trip to Leland Red Angus Ranch in North Dakota. They purchased three bulls for $7,650.  Most farmers don’t spend over $1,500 on a bull.  Why are we willing to spend more?

In many respects we are frugal farmers.  We don’t own any one piece of machinery worth $7,650.  Why would we spend that much on bulls?  Simple, we understand and value the tremendous genetic contribution a bull, (herdsire), makes in a herd.

Our cowherd consists of 135 cows and 5 bulls.  A bull has 27 times the genetic impact of a cow in our herd, (135 divided by 5).  Some may argue that we should spend more on our bulls.  The cost is ancillary.  Finding the right bull for our herd is the main thing.  How do we know which bull is “right” for our herd?

I will explain which selection factors are important to us and how we choose a herdsire.  We have simplified our selection criteria into four main factors and in this order of importance:

1.  Disposition/Appearance

2.  Calving ease

3.  Fertility

4.  Maternal Soundness

If these four criteria are successfully met, we will start to look at other factors such as growth and carcass traits to choose between two similar bulls.  This is probably opposite of most in the cattle industry.  Growth and carcass traits usually receive top merit and our four criteria receive much less selection weight. 

Why is this so?  Have you heard the golf saying, “drive for show and putt for dough?”  What this refers to is most golfers want to impress their buddies with a super-long drive and will spend much of their time practicing that aspect of their game.  Analytical golfers know that the club that takes the most strokes is the putter, and any improvement there will have the greatest effect on reducing their scores.  But putting isn’t sexy.

In the cattle industry, most people want to wean big calves and brag to their buddies about the awesome growth of their cattle.  Unfortunately, growth is negatively correlated with percent calf crop.  Percent calf crop, (the number of calves weaned compared to the number of cows in a herd), is the number one production parameter by far when predicting profitability.  But percent calf crop isn’t sexy.

Selection criteria that will affect percent calf crop are: calving ease, fertility, and maternal soundness.  A cow needs to have a live calf, successfully raise the calf until weaning, breed and have a calf next year.  That is why we select for these three traits.

Why is disposition/appearance on the top of our selection criteria?  It is a convenience trait.  A convenience trait is something that makes life easier. 

We like to have a calm setting when we work with our cattle.  It’s better for the people and better for the animals.  Much of that can be accomplished with excellent animal handling and we always strive to approach our animals with patience.

But disposition is also highly heritable.  We make our life easier by maintaining a genetically calm herd. 

Appearance is also subjectively evaluated at the same time as disposition.  We want to raise animals we enjoy observing.  This may seem silly and unscientific, but I suspect years of observing cattle causes us to favor functional cattle over unbalanced cattle.

Now you know what we select for in our cattle.  How do we select?

The first selection is the selection of a breed.  Choose a breed based on its strengths, what it’s known for.  Red Angus is known for calving ease, fertility, good mothers, marbling.

The next selection is the selection of a herd.  We want to buy bulls from a breeder that has similar philosophies and management as us.  Like most people, we also prefer to buy from someone we like and trust.  It’s important to visit the farm and meet the producers and see the cattle before the sale to alleviate time crunch.  We make farm and ranch visits a part of our vacations.  Producers are always happy to take a couple of hours to show you around their place.  My parents and I have each visited Leland Red Angus on separate occasions.

Now we come to bull selection.  Disposition, our most important trait, has to be evaluated in person.  We approach a bull and observe his behavior.  Disposition is a pass/fail trait.  The bull should quietly walk away from you as you come closer.  This would be a pass.  He fails if he runs away with his head up in the air; too flighty.  He also fails if he holds his ground or approaches while shaking his head.  This is aggressive and dangerous behavior which will only get worse as he gets older.

We have experienced one other type of behavior in the Red Angus breed which is worth noting.  The ultra-quiet bull will not exhibit any aggressive behavior; but will not walk away when approached.  We thought this was a positive and selected two bulls in the past like this.  We now classify this behavior as a fail.  The reason?  Each of these bulls turned aggressive after a few years.  We think it’s because they failed to respect us.  Disposition can be taken too far.  Animals can be too quiet.  What about our other traits?

Fortunately, calving ease, fertility, and maternal soundness cannot be selected to an unhealthy extreme, unlike most traits.  We are striving for 100% success in each of these traits.  How do we select for these traits?

Maternal soundness is the ability of a cow to take care of her calf.  She has mothering instinct.  She has enough milk for her calf to grow well.  Yet she doesn’t give so much milk that her udder begins to lose form and her calf has a difficult time nursing on a too-large teat for the first time.

Selection for this trait can be done two ways.  Make sure the herd you are selecting from doesn’t make excuses for a cow that fails to wean a calf.  They should have a philosophy of culling problem cows.  And observe the cows and specifically the mothers of the bulls you are thinking of buying.

Calving ease and fertility are best selected by using modern genetic evaluation programs.  The Red Angus breed has a genetic evaluation tool called EPDs, Expected Progeny Differences.  EPDs show the relative genetic merit of an individual within a breed.  The easiest way to use EPDs is to look up the breed percentile rankings for the EPD for each trait you are selecting for, and then determine how well you want your herdsires to rank.

Fertility is expressed with an EPD called Stayability.  Stayability predicts the odds that a cow will have a calf every year until at least the age of six.  The Red Angus breed used the age of six because economic research shows that this is the age when a cow begins to show a profit.

Calving ease is expressed in two ways:  calving ease direct and calving ease maternal.  Calving ease direct predicts the odds that a bull’s progeny will be born unassisted.  Calving ease maternal predicts the odds that a bull’s daughter will have her first calf unassisted.

Based on experience and availability, I wanted bulls that ranked in the top 40% of the breed for these three traits.  Leland Red Angus sends out a sale catalog before their sale with all of this information and more.  I went through the catalog and found 45 bulls that met my criteria out of 153 bulls available. 

My parents drove to Leland’s and evaluated the 45 bulls before the sale.  They eliminated some based on appearance and disposition.  The bulls that would work for us they assigned a relative value in dollars to guide our purchase during the sale.

They ended up purchasing bulls 41, 118, and 145.  I calculated the average EPD’s for the three bulls they purchased and congratulated them on a job well-done.  The three bulls averaged in the top 15% of the breed for calving ease direct, top 10% for calving ease maternal, and top 20% for stayability.  Because of selection, our future looks bright!


Genetics or Environment?

April 5, 2009

I sold showpigs to 4-H and FFA students this past week.  Showing swine is near and dear to me as I probably wouldn’t be farming today if it weren’t for showing swine.  Striving to improve on my placing at the Lafayette County Fair caused me to begin my life-long study of genetics and improvement of livestock through selection.  Check out “How I Became a Swine Seedstock Supplier.”

Our swine show is an excellent learning opportunity.  Showpigs are weighed and identified in April.  The maximum weight was 88 lbs. on Saturday. 

The students then have the responsibility of caring for the swine until the show in July.  After the show, each student is allowed to sell one showpig in the livestock auction.  Local businesses support the students by purchasing a pig or other species of livestock.  Prices are usually above market price so the students are almost guaranteed to make money on their livestock project.  Students are also required to keep production and financial records on their livestock project.  Students learn responsibility, accounting, and marketing skills all in one fun project.

Not everyone is successful, however.  There is a minimum weight, (220 lbs.), to sell in the livestock auction.  This requires an average daily gain of about 1.5 lbs per day, (170 lbs. of gain in 113 days).  This is not difficult to accomplish with today’s swine.  However, to achieve this average daily gain, a pig needs clean feed and water, shelter, shade, and a way to cool off, (sprinkler or wallow), when it gets hot.  If a student fails to provide these ingredients every day, he/she may find his/her pig is too light to sell at the auction.  Another great learning experience.

One family had never purchased from me before.  I helped them deliberate whether a smaller pig, (46 lbs.), would be big enough by fair-time.  They asked me how well my pigs gain weight.  I told them average because I was more interested in what their pigs have weighed at the fair in the past.  I asked this because it’s been my experience that families tend to have similar experiences from year to year even though the pigs are different.  Some families always bring 300 lb. pigs to the fair.  Other families always struggle to make the minimum weight.

This is easily explained because average daily gain is only moderately heritable.  Heritability is expressed from 0 to 1 with 0 being not heritable and 1 being completely heritable.  Average daily gain in swine is about .3.  This means that 30% of the variation in average daily gain is due to genetics. 

What causes the other 70%?  Environment!  That explains why the people managing the pigs are a much greater factor than the genetics of the pigs.

The family decided to take the smaller showpig.  I will let you know how they did after the fair in July.

What are you blaming genetics for?  Could your environment be a greater factor?


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