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Sustainable statistics, delivering authentic outcomes in an increasingly sensitive world

Jane Jordan reports

Herd recording and pig business analysis is changing, and it has to if pigmeat production is to meet the challenges of climate change and increasingly judicious consumerism.

Further globalisation, with growing pressure to be more sustainable, is forcing livestock businesses to re-evaluate key performance indicators and question the effectiveness of current benchmark statistics. Productivity measurements, such as pigs weaned/sow/year, tonne of feed/kg gain, are relevant but no longer satisfy modern production perspectives because supply chains, consumers and political strategists want more meaningful data. They want figures that quantify environmental impact and the ethical value their choices bring to the wider community. They want to know what a food product offers them, in terms of the resources used to bring it to market, the carbon footprint it leaves behind and that it meets their expectations for eating quality, health benefits and value for money. Lifecycle econometrics embrace wider production perspectives and can go some way to satisfying these new demands. These measurements offer a clearer definition of production performance and how it really stacks up against available resources, such as the genetic capability of a herd, the nutrition supplied, the skills/labour available, the equipment/facilities used and the re-investment a business can afford to plough back in.

Jesper Toft, agri-business and data/IT consultant with WinOpti, AgroVision's feed optimisation programme, is a keen advocate of Life Cycle Assessment. He says it offers a more comprehensive analysis of food production systems and is more accurate than measuring carbon emissions.

"Carbon footprint is an ambiguous measurement for agriculture as farming's primary GHG offenders are nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4), which account for 43% and 55% of total emissions respectively. CO2 is about 2%, so to compare the effect of all these emissions, methane and nitrous oxide are converted to carbon equivalents with CO2 valued at 1, CH4 equal to 28 and N2O scored at 265," he explains.

And another weakness of environmental appraisals, claims Mr Toft, are the UN's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines as they only require each nation to measure the GHGs emitted within the its own borders. These parameters are central to European and UK environmental policies, but they don't take account of the emissions generated by any imported goods that might be used in a particular food production or manufacturing process.

"LCA delivers a far more reliable measurement because it embraces all of the impacts (positive and negative) created by a food production/supply process. If imported feed ingredients or fertiliser are used, then their emission values are calculated, along with those associated with processing, waste disposal and by-products, further manufacturing and the transport and packaging involved in bringing that particular product to market. It represents all the impacts of that chain and is very valuable information," he adds.

Denmark's food and agricultural sector has been using LCA's to benchmark GHG emissions in food supply chains for decades. An increasing number of politicians, environmental organisations, activist groups and progressive agriculturalists are also endorsing this technique. A variety of IT and software packages to measure LCA at farm level are emerging. These digital tools process real-time production data, using benchmarks that can continually analyse business performance at many levels. They measure lifetime productivity, rather than traditional performance statistics (pigs/sow/year or litres produced/annum etc.) and can meticulously evaluate the production efficiency of a given farming system and authenticate its environmental status.

Lifetime logic Stephen Hall, independent pig production specialist and statistician, has been exploring how lifetime analytics can improve pig breeding herd efficiency for around ten years.

"Using lifecycle measurements takes the emphasis off performance per sow per year and instead equates the value and impact a sow's lifetime performance has on a business overall," he explains.

Sow retention from parity one through to five is a key element here, with clear objectives to maximise potential from every breeding cycle. It's an innovative concept that redefines production expectations, and Mr Hall says it exposes the limitations of continually driving prolificacy to improve herd output.

"Lifecycle analytics have the potential to change the infrastructure of the pig industry and could certainly alter the relationship breeding herds have with their genetics suppliers. These measurements are more holistic, with a capability to assess how a pig enterprise is performing in physical, financial and environmental terms. They're very good at pinpointing 'wasted potential' too, and pig businesses that are exploring this exciting realm of herd monitoring are finding they can redefine business expectations and unlock previously undiscovered inefficiencies," he adds.

Not many herds can harness the inherent production capability that exists in modern genotypes and questions must be raised about the economic relevance of this 'wasted potential'. Failing to capture what's on offer does have a negative production value (it adds to costs and carbon footprints) and if sustainability is the goal, then Mr Hall believes producers will need to consider how all inefficiencies can be benchmarked.

"It's likely all waste (both physical and untapped) will need to be reconciled across the whole production process, going forward. To achieve carbon neutrality the pig sector will require a valid means of quantifying the inter-relationship between the 3Es: Economics, Environment and Ethics and how they influence business viability," he adds.

Data from his own client base, and from herds involved with AHDB Pork's on-going Gilt Watch programme, clearly demonstrates how a targeting an 85% gilt retention rate across a five-litter lifetime can maintain genetic progression, improve breeding productivity/sow and raise efficiency across an entire breeding and production process.

"It's universally accepted that a gilt must reach parity three to break even (three good litters balance that investment). AHDB Pork rightly identified that UK herds were throwing away genetic potential and wasting £1000s because too many second parity sows were being culled due to reproductive failure or second litter drop. To counter this loss most breeding herds were keeping too many parity six-plus sows, which presented a greater risk of breeding failure and excessive feed costs, because big sows eat more," he explains.

Evidence from client herds that adopted a proactive culling policy that removed parity six and above sows and all females reporting reproductive failure, consistently proved this policy could boost productivity and margins. These herds were more efficient and consistently reported better farrowing rates, fewer empty days, sustained numbers weaned in each batch and had lower feed costs. Also, by focusing on gilt management and retention, these businesses soon found they could cut breeding failure in subsequent parities and achieve more predictable and cost-effective lifetime performance for all sows in their herd. This evidence encouraged AHDB Pork to launch Gilt Watch in 2017. Mr Hall helped roll out the programme and five years on the UK's breeding herd demographic is noticeably different. Parity profiles (indoors and out) are more concise and both gilt performance and retention rates are better. However, Mr Hall believes further improvement could be achieved if producers introduced lifecycle measurements into their herd recording programmes and explored 'herds-within-a herd' data analyses. A number of his clients are now using Gilt Watch Together, an extension of the original programme, that's embracing much wider production perspectives. This independent, data-rich, herd management/evaluation programme, focuses on lifecycle performance metrics and has the capability to evaluate numerous efficiency factors, relating to different stages within a breeding process.

"The approach is quite 'Avant Garde', but producers who are testing the 'prototype' are impressed with what the analytics are revealing. They are learning to understand more about the metrics involved, what they mean to real-time herd efficiency and how this valuable data can be used to define their own key objectives in terms of the herds parity profile, productivity/performance, culling rate and dam retention," Mr Hall explains.

Sustainable scores
Another unique feature of this innovative digital herd management package is its CO2 evaluation facility. 'Gilt Watch CO2' uses sophisticated IT to calculate 'Carbon Days', a value that corresponds with specific life cycle analytics and creates a numerical sustainability score. These values/scores can then be used to assess how management decisions might influence environmental impacts and economic outcomes, or collated as 'currency' the business can trade with or derive benefits from.

LCA, and the econometrics associated with them, will become a fundamental part of pig business management because society will want to know what impact producing a kg of pigmeat has on the planet, not how many pigs a sow can wean in a year. The industry must develop new methods of measuring business performance. It needs tools that can identify where and how finite inefficiencies occur, how they can be resolved and also a robust means of validating its sustainability. Innovative platforms such as Gilt Watch Together, offer producers an opportunity to take herd recording to the next level, away from fixed annual performance data and into a more meaningful sphere that's more representative to the supply chains and markets it serves. These systems can deliver sound rationale and decisive evidence, data that individual pig businesses, and perhaps the farming industry at large, can use to define objectives and achieve the outcomes our more eco-sensitive, ethically-driven society is now demanding.

Key points
Gilt Watch Together® is a robust internet platform for 'big data' analysis open to all industry stakeholders. It's format and analytical processes have applications across agriculture.
Currently, data is drawn from stakeholder herds who provide records and statistics that have already been collated by an independent or in-house software provider/supplier such as AgroVision, PigChamp, Agrisyst and Cloud Farms etc.
The data shared with Gilt Watch Together is protected and processed/managed exclusively by the platform to provide reports and analytics relevant to each individual stakeholder businesses and for comparative analysis. Some information might also be shared with producer groups/ allied industry organisations (NPA, AHDB etc) that choose to support the initiative.
The aim is to maintain a 'community-focused' ethos and ensure the platform is stakeholder driven. It's a visionary concept that offers immense opportunity to add value to the UK pig sector and build a more sustainable, carbon-neutral production sector.

Refs: Gilt Watch Togethe® is managed by Quill & Pig Limited, Email: shall.ppasa@gmail.com or Tel: 07973 701404. WinOpti : http://agrosoft.eu/uk/products/winpig-net/

The Pig Guide, 4 Barleythorpe Mews, Main Road, Barleythorpe, Oakham, Rutland, LE15 7UZ
Tel: 01572 757600. ~ email: bc@pig-guide.com