A group of 250 intact male piglets arrives at the demonstration farm ready to be the face of a new type of pork production.
Beginning at approximately 25 days of age, these piglets will unknowingly spend the next 125 to 150 days showing all links of the pork chain the value of a castration alternative that’s slowly been gaining traction worldwide over the past 10 years.
Located near Greensburg, Indiana — about 4 hours southeast of Chicago — the nursery-to-finish facility houses 500 male pigs in groups of 25, all raised under the same housing and management standards found in a typical commercial swine operation.
“The demonstration barn provides an honest look at pork production in a commercial swine facility,” said Larry Rueff, DVM, and farm owner. “Visitors will see that these treated, intact boars can be handled like all market swine in commercial units.”
Traditionally, commercial pork operations in the US and many other markets have castrated male pigs to avoid what’s known as “boar taint” — an odor that can develop in cooked meat from male pigs, particularly those raised to 220 pounds (100 kg) or more. Castration also reduces aggression in male animals, which results in less stress and fewer injuries in the swine herd.
Instead of being castrated, male pigs at the demonstration farm receive two doses of a veterinary prescription product approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. It works like an immunization to temporarily reduce the naturally occurring substances that can cause an “off odor” to be released when the pork is cooked.
As a result, pork producers get the full, natural benefits of intact males — most notably faster growth and better feed conversion — without the downsides associated with boar taint and aggressive behavior — traits sometimes associated with non-castrated or intact males.
Treated pigs receive two doses — the first when they’re 9 weeks old to prime their immune systems and again as they enter the finishing period, usually about 3 weeks before they go to market. Because the second and more impactful dose is administered later in life, pigs are able to spend most of their lives as intact males and capture their inherent value and efficiencies.
The uncastrated males also receive the second dose at a time when they begin to display aggressive behavior. It’s been Rueff’s experience that treated males are less aggressive following the second treatment and behave similarly to gilts and barrows (castrated males). Seeing the calm male animals in a real production setting is believing, Rueff says.
Two other benefits: In addition to growing to more of their full potential and converting feed into meat more efficiently, the treated, intact males eat less feed and create less manure while yielding more pork.
The demonstration barn — which is sponsored by Zoetis, the animal health company that developed the castration alternative — is also equipped with a camera system that documents behavior changes as the pigs move through the production cycle.
“Individuals actively involved in pig production immediately notice the lack of vocalization and activity that goes on in the boar pens,” Rueff explains. “Other visitors comment on the cleanliness, access to feed and water, and calm, relaxed demeanor of the pigs.”
Focus on sustainability
During their time at the demonstration barn, the intact males receive nine different diets designed to match their changing nutritional and lysine needs at each step of their grow out. These diets are formulated to improve their performance and ultimately their carcass quality.
Information gathered on each pen of pigs includes the amount of feed consumed during each growth stage. Pig weights are also taken at the beginning and end of each growth stage correlating with changes in the feed rations.
“This is a demonstration barn, so we’re not doing trials here,” Rueff explains. “But we do collect performance data on every pen, as well as at close-out. The feed conversions have been in the area of an 8 percent improvement over what we would expect to see in barrows with the same genetics and the same diets — and that’s a really big difference. Our growth rates have been very good, as well.”
As a veterinarian, Rueff also sees health benefits from not castrating pigs. “Castration is a minor surgical procedure, but it still provides the opportunity for infection,” he says. “It’s a good thing for potentially reducing mortality rate in pigs. It’s also a plus for worker safety. Anything we can do to take sharp blades out of people’s hands, that’s a benefit from a safety standpoint.”
Rueff is also pleased with the quality of the meat produced by the treated males. “I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a number of events where they’ve actually served some of the meat from our facilities. And in fact two different times, the chef brought us two loins on the same plate — one from a treated male pig and one from a physically castrated pig — and asked if we tell a difference between them. Both loins tasted exactly the same.”
The veterinarian also thinks treating male pigs instead of castrating them could help the pork industry become more efficient and sustainable.
“Look, I’m in the business to help feed the world. And one of the ways we’re going to be able to feed the world is take advantage of new technology that allows us to make the pigs we raise more efficient, which is more sustainable in our environment,” he reasons.
“So when I can improve the feed efficiency of half the pigs in the US by potentially 8 percent, that’s a good thing.”