For years, Britain has boasted some of the world’s highest standards of pig welfare. But as continental Europe moves to ban surgical castration, the UK’s “castration-free” status may no longer serve as a strong market differential. Furthermore, some fear that major European pork exporters, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, may start to view the UK as a dumping ground for “inferior” boar meat.
Both issues have the potential to dent consumer confidence and could prove damaging for the domestic market, which is currently showing renewed interest in pork due to its healthy, versatile and environmentally sound qualities. As the UK pork industry strives to maintain high welfare standards while meeting increased demand for better-tasting pork, the case for using a vaccine that delays puberty in male pigs is gaining momentum.
The vaccine in question is an immunological product that is used to temporarily delay sexual maturity in male pigs. It works by stimulating the pig’s immune system to suppress skatole and adrostenone, the naturally occurring compounds that are responsible for producing boar taint, a potentially unpleasant odor found in the meat of some sexually mature male pigs.
The injection works like a vaccine, and it causes no damage to pigs’ testes. Meat from vaccinated boars is completely safe for human consumption, as the vaccine is not a hormone and does not accumulate in animals’ tissues. Having been rigorously tested for safety and efficacy, it is registered in all 28 EU-member states, including the UK, and has been administered to more than 65 million boars globally to date. In the UK, however, farmers who use it are not eligible for the Food Standard Agency’s Red Tractor accreditation, the predominant, national farm-assurance scheme.
Still, a number of UK producers and processors are beginning to challenge the industry’s “zero-tolerance” edict because they have found vaccination offers many production benefits, while maintaining — or even improving — pig welfare. This is prompting them to ask industry bodies, retailers and their respective quality-assurance schemes to reconsider their positions on this valuable and readily available tool.
Production value and profit potential
According to prominent pig business consultant Stephen Hall, much of the supply chain currently sees no disadvantages in rearing entire males, but the puberty-delaying vaccine does have a place. In addition to reducing boar taint, it could help producers satisfy a number of production issues, such as aggression, while enhancing carcass and eating qualities — and, consequently, profits.
For pig farmers, Hall claims there are several key production advantages, including trial data showing that the daily live-weight gain of vaccinated males can be up to 10% better than their unvaccinated counterparts.
“My assumption is that suppressing hormone development somehow alters the pig’s physiology and how it assimilates feed into lean and fat deposition. But we should also consider how the removal of sexually stimulated behaviors, which naturally occur as pigs mature, might also affect production efficiency, performance and carcass development,” he adds.
‘Not a niche-market concept’
Increased recognition of these benefits is driving some UK producers to vaccinate during the final stage of finishing, even though doing so disqualifies their male pigs from Red Tractor accreditation. By choosing this option, however, these businesses have gained access to premium markets that endorse this strategy. According to Hall, their customers recognize the value of meat from vaccinated pigs — and, furthermore, are willing to pay for it.
“These companies must satisfy very discerning quality and animal-welfare expectations and consistency is paramount,” he says. “Vaccination is a tool that helps them to improve product consistency, carcass quality, pork tenderness and taste. It adds value and assurance to the whole supply chain.”
Although these businesses are supplying specialty retail and foodservice outlets, Hall firmly believes their vaccination strategy could be successfully applied to the UK’s commercial pig production sector.
“This is not a niche-market concept; it’s a worthwhile innovation with applications for all pork production processes and should not be sidelined by industry,” he states. “The improvements it can bring to meat quality and pig welfare are significant, and my own experience suggests there are performance and economic advantages to be gained from it, too.”
According to Hall, allowing UK producers to use the anti-taint vaccine could help them and the rest of the supply chain add value to their products, while nurturing greater consumer confidence in pork and the systems used to produce it.
To determine how the vaccine might win favor in a non-castrating market, Hall is evaluating the benefits it offers pig producers in terms of increased production efficiency, improvements to pig welfare and husbandry, enhanced pork quality and any associated economic rewards. Following are some of his initial observations:
Animal health and welfare
- Reduced aggression. Limiting sexually driven behaviour and aggression, particularly in mixed sex groups (a common practice in the UK) positively affects the social environment and, consequently, animal welfare. When males are vaccinated, all pigs remain calmer and more rested throughout the finishing stages. Additionally, there is a considerable reduction in social threat between animals and, in some cases, a complete eradication of bullying during feeding and drinking. There is also minimal risk of gilt pregnancy.
- Lower veterinary costs. Less aggression means not only better welfare but also reduced veterinary and medical costs due to fewer injuries. Casualties and mortality are noticeably lower, too.
- Improved feed conversion. Danish growth-curve calculations from Agrosoft show that boar-taint vaccinated males tend to have a consistently lower feed-conversion ratio (FCR) than entire males — around 0.1 FCR points across the whole production period, which has a considerable effect on total feed cost per kg gain.
- Greater efficiency. Vaccinated male pigs perform similarly to gilts, so mixed male and female groups can be managed more consistently to optimize performance. This can help improve the efficiency of batch production systems, as pens can be cleared more readily.
- Higher returns. Anecdotal evidence suggests there are visual, phenotypic enhancements in live, vaccinated animals. Higher yields at processing and potentially fewer carcass condemnations due to physical injury could lead to further economic rewards.
Genetics and nutrition
- Optimized genetic potential. Currently, most commercial UK herds cannot achieve their inherent genetic potential for growth and performance. Producers could unleash more of this untapped potential through more precise and strategic management. As pigs reach heavier weights, postponing sexual maturity or manipulating hormonal development could help optimize genetic potential.
- Performance gains from better nutritional strategies. Performance data suggest that most genotypes are still not realizing the genetic potential expressed early in life during the latter stages of finishing. Using immunological hormone suppression could allow nutritionists to explore new feeding regimes for finishers that are capable of extending growth potential and balancing fat deposition, while lowering feed costs.
Taste and quality
- Consumer preferences. UK consumers consistently criticize pork for being difficult to cook, tough and dry, and variable in taste and texture. These characteristics discourage regular, repeat purchases — a trend that impacts negatively on UK consumption. The diversity of production systems and genotypes used in the UK might influence carcass quality, but some believe the high volume of pork supplied from entire males is also a contributing factor. Using the vaccine could help the industry cater to increasingly discerning consumer preferences.
- Fat is flavor. Master butchers generally prefer gilt carcasses because they cut well and are “juicier.” Gilts have relatively slow growth rates, lay down fat more readily and usually exhibit higher intramuscular fat (IMF) — traits that enhance cooking and eating qualities. Boars grow fast, produce lean carcasses and tend to have low IMF. Vaccinated boars retain their potential for fast, lean growth from weaning until they are given the anti-taint vaccine at around 80 kg. Once treated, however, their growth and fat deposition are similar to that of gilts.
- Better quality. Although genetics play an intrinsic part in IMF levels, vaccination seems to enhance pigs’ potential for optimum physical performance and eating quality.
Hall adds, “I believe that entire males, sexed at weaning and then finished in intensive systems, already produce better-quality meat than some free-range animals, due to greater control afforded by these systems. Therefore, the potential to further improve and control other factors that influence meat quality might be enhanced through vaccination.”
Assurance and innovation
In the UK, there is no official ban on the vaccine, but the production sector is highly sensitive to retailer demands and acts accordingly, Hall says. However, most animal-welfare groups, including Compassion in World Farming, support the use of the vaccine as an alternative to surgical procedures. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also permits the vaccine in its standards.
According to Hall, assurance schemes that prohibit the use of the puberty-delaying vaccine fail to take into account the negative welfare issues associated with rearing entire, sexually driven and aggressive boars. In addition to considering consumer “wants,” assurance schemes should reflect the practical, economic and ethical realities of sustainable pig production.
“Schemes need to evolve and adopt a longer-term strategy to ensure everyone involved in the production process is consulted,” Hall says. “All available data, scientific evidence and practical experience must be properly analyzed to ensure scheme standards and requirements are fair to the producer and the consumer, while protecting the well-being and welfare of farm animals.”
Furthermore, he believes innovation is key to progress and boar-taint vaccination is a tool that can lead to greater improvements throughout the pork chain.
“Vaccination offers opportunities to improve the process control of finishing-pig management and the quality of the product produced,” Hall asserts.
“These benefits are too valuable to ignore. Our quality-assurance schemes and the sectors they serve must consider the vaccine as a tool that could help the commercial pig sector make significant gains in areas that will boost efficiency, positively influence consumer confidence and ultimately raise pork consumption.”
Stephen Hall has worked in the pig industry since 1970. He has more than 20 years’ experience in both commercial production and the breeding and genetic development sector and was involved in developing genetic measurement, selection and preparation for commercial sire-line breeding pyramids for a leading breeding-stock supplier in Europe.
In 1999, he joined Danish software analysis and data collection company AgroSoft to lead its UK activities, recording and monitoring the British pig industry’s performance.
In 2013, Stephen Hall Management was founded, leading him into independent pig management and business consulting. He now works with a number of UK producers, alongside their vets, nutritionists and geneticists, and has an integral role in the strategic planning and continuous management of these cutting-edge pig businesses.
Hall is an advocate of process control and believes a blueprint for more efficient production clearly exists within the performance reports of every pig enterprise. For more information, visit stephenhallmanagement.com.