The subject of home breeding is a much-debated topic, between those who have always been strong advocates and those who believe it is an unnecessary risk. There are certainly a number pros and cons to taking on this extra stage in the production cycle. Different requirements for biosecurity, nutrition, health, housing, etc., need to be considered. Clearly, for some producers in some situations it works well, and for others it does not make financial sense.
Why do people home breed?
In a time before genetics companies and specialist pig breeders, the only way to replace stock was to breed it yourself. However, even hundreds of years ago, farmers knew the necessity of introducing new blood into their herds, and the practice of buying, selling and even borrowing boars took place. Over time, breeds were defined and pedigrees created so that breeding became a more specialized operation.
Developing new lines and keeping nucleus herds is an expensive business, and one that can take 15-20 years to offer a return. The supply of grandparents and parents, in many countries, lies with specialist companies. It is these kinds of enterprises that have the ability to invest in the technology and facilities necessary for a high-health unit. Similarly, large integrated pig operations may want to keep control of the whole production cycle or even sell genetics as part of their business model.
At the other end of the scale are those farmers who keep rare breed or traditional pigs. For them, home breeding is part and parcel of their business. Artificial insemination (AI) may not be an option, or replacement gilts difficult to acquire; this is when collaboration with like-minded producers become necessary to preserve bloodlines.
Biosecurity. It is paramount for any breeding operation, whether you are only rearing a small number replacements a year or managing a nucleus herd. In outdoor systems where it is inherently harder to control, it is therefore a bigger risk to breed replacements. Ultimately, a closed circuit system is better for biosecurity -- which means home breeding. Bringing in replacements is a risk and a cost. Gilts need to be kept in isolation for at least six weeks, and a period of acclimatization is important.
Health. Managing a breeding operation will undoubtedly mean extra veterinary costs and additional vaccinations. Any serious disease outbreak on the farm will mean stopping the breeding program to prevent losses of valuable animals. But even when buying in, you will want to check the health status of the herd they came from to prevent the introduction of disease. While it is possible to pass on infections through AI, if buying from a reputable business it is unlikely. However, disease transmission via boars is common.
Nutrition. By keeping boars and rearing gilts you are adding to the numbers of diets and complexity of feeding programs. And in the case of the former, you are feeding them everyday, even when they are not working.
Labor. Having designated staff to managing breeding may be the preserve of very large businesses, however all those involved in breeding on any need to be highly skilled. Similarly, managing isolation units may take extra staff or dictate schedules to prevent cross-contamination.
Housing. Home breeding will require a specific unit with facilities particular to the needs of boars or rearing gilts, which requires investment. Buying in sock will require an isolation unit but will only have to be suitable for adult animals.
Costs. Buying quality boars is a significant investment, and the correct ratio of boars to sows needs to be observed. Also, a boar suitable for producing profitable progeny may not be the same as that which you would use for creating replacement gilts. By buying semen you are always getting the best genetics for the purpose you require. Buying in gilts is an up-front cost, but breeding them only to find them not suitable is also a risk. In both situations, the cost of mortality and morbidity in these groups needs to be factored in.
For some producers home breeding is something that they have had to start considering more recently. Disease outbreaks and political situations have meant that importing replacement animals may not be practical. A production director working in the Ukraine explained the difficulties arising from movements bans due to Asian swine flu (ASF) and porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus. Alexander Dolzhenko said, “Currently it isn’t economically viable to bring in small numbers of replacements.” “I need to give the breeding companies at least four weeks notice and then the animals would have to be held in quarantine for a month. And in terms of costs, a member of staff is required to work with exclusively those pigs, which wouldn’t keep them busy full time, and they would require additional vet visits.”
Disease risks were the top of Canadian producer John Vandorp’s list of reasons why he has moved away from keeping boars and buying in gilts. “Each new group of open gilts I brought in would create a new PRRS flare up causing abortions or premature deaths in the finishing room. Even worse was that some of my boars would get a fever, leading to infertility -- creating empty stalls in the farrowing room and reduced numbers to market six months later.” He now relies on AI for all his breeding needs, choosing semen from the boars best able to deliver him the efficiency and meat quality he needs, from the progeny he will sell. However, he still keep two "teaser" boars to help bring sows and gilts into standing heat.
The risks and costs of home breeding need to be considered before deciding if it will work for each operation. For many producers it doesn’t make financial sense to breed replacements, but serious disease outbreaks may change that situation. Even large commercial producers, who buy in semen, will still keep a boar to bring in new blood lines. Whether you should buy or rear your own parent gilts depends on the type of production system and in some cases the current agricultural climate.