17 January 2017

Team spirit, proactive health control and stringent sow management earns Lincolnshire unit a top accolade

Unit Manager of the Year 2016 Gareth Virgo is a 'sow man. Optimising breeding herd productivity has been a primary objective.

Unit Manager of the Year 2016 Gareth Virgo. A ‘sow man’ he says optimising breeding herd performance is his key objective.

National Pig Awards Unit Manager of the Year 2016 Gareth Virgo manages JE Porters 620-sow breeding and finishing herd near Navenby, Lincolnshire. He joined the team four years ago and has been instrumental in re-shaping the business from an average performing herd, weaning 22.5 pigs/sow /year, to a high performance unit now rearing 29.31 pigs/sow/year that’s on target to top 30.

Fuelled on a diet of dedication and dogged determination to ‘do the basics best’, Gareth’s key objective was to build a productive, healthy breeding herd – capable of achieving the inherent genetic potential supplied in its Rattlerow stock. And he’s has achieved this goal and more with a passion and commitment that’s inspired unit staff and his employer Graham Porter, who have been hooked by his infectious enthusiasm to maximise performance at every stage.

By admission, Gareth’s a sow man. From day one, his ambition has been to drive sow productivity and to his credit conception rates have improved significantly since he arrived in 2012. The herd average is now 93%, up from 74.1% , and gilt management is better with conception rates up from 65.3% four years ago, to a commendable 95.5% to date. Empty days have been annihilated too – from a staggering 21.4 per sow in 2012 to a current 9.9 days. A proactive culling strategy to remove failure, plus greater attention to service techniques, oestrus detection and mating management, have turned this herd from mediocre to marvelous.

“You just have to keep analysing what you do… small changes can make big differences,” – Gareth Virgo


Fertility and conception rates are rising with benefits to litter size. Sows are currently weaning 29.31 pigs on a 12-month average, but did produce more than 30 during the summer months of 2016.

“We collect our own AI here and I’ve invested in our lab and semen preparation. I took advice from Bob Gornall of Rotech/Schippers and Paul Ibbotson of Flawborough Pig Services. We focused on hygiene and temperature control as they must be exceptional to produce consistently good quality AI, so we’ve standardised our processing system to reduce contamination risks,” says Gareth.

The installation of a water filtration unit has significantly improved water quality, which Gareth believes has helped boost numbers born, too. He also advocates independent pregnancy diagnosis and Paul Ibbotson scans the sows as Gareth says an unbiased eye is more critical and aids decision making.

With fertility and conception rates rising, litter size is also following an upward trend. Sows are currently weaning 29.31 pigs on a 12-month average and have achieved 30.8 during the summer quarter (3 months). Unfortunately, pre-weaning mortality has increased from 10% to 11.9%, so Craig and Gareth are now re-assessing farrowing management.

Investment in the AI collection and processing system has had a positive impact on conception rates and sow productivity

Investment in the AI collection and processing system has had a positive impact on conception rates and sow productivity

“You just have to keep analysing what you do, as small changes can make big differences,” says Gareth.

The herd’s 50% replacement rate has promoted genetic progress and improved gilt quality and now sow productivity is on track, Gareth is considering how many GGPs and GPs he needs to sustain genetic progress and tighten the parity profile.

“I’m strict with selection and having a large gilt pool has allowed me to get the quality standard I want in my GPs and F1s. Our replacements are now exceptional and I want to maintain this. We are still keeping proven females up to parity eight, and we need to think about this, but I realise that reducing the proportion of damline derived progeny in the finishing herd would offer further improvements to efficiency,” he adds.


Stringent selection, good nutrition, robust results

The Rattlerow genetics perform well. Progeny are robust and easy to manage, which has helped the team handle the massive improvements seen in herd productivity during the past two years. Numbers born alive have increased by three pigs a litter during the past two years. Sows now produce an average 14 live births per farrowing, while gilts yield 13.2 with birthweights around 1.3kg. Creep is introduced at 10 days of age and piglets are growing at between 200 and 220 grams a day from birth. They are weaned at 25/26 days and weigh an average 7kgs.

Virgo.P{orters service-house

The service house at JE Porters. Improvements in weaned sow management, oestrus detection and AI techniques have helped boost sow fertility and herd productivity.


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Disease profiles and health surveillance enhances infection controls and productivity 

Maintaining good health is ingrained within Porter’s pig business and a number of vaccination programmes are well established. However, pushing productivity has inevitably created pressure points and Gareth did feel that finishing pig performance was being held back by an underlying disease challenge. Abattoir grading sheets were also reporting evidence of an APP challenge.

Vet Gemma Thwaites MRCVS of the Garth Pig Practice

Vet Gemma Thwaites MRCVS of the Garth Pig Practice

During the past two years, the PRRS, EP and APP control strategies have been reviewed. Gemma Thwaites MRCVS of the Garth Pig Practice has worked with Gareth and his team to establish a clinical herd profile and a more ‘bespoke’ health management plan.

A keen advocate of disease surveillance and regular monitoring, Gemma implemented whole-herd clinical investigations to find out what pathogens were circulating and when.

A rigorous blood sampling programme, using ELISA and PCR tests provided by MSD Animal Health’s Vetcheck and Respicheck services, confirmed that PRRS was circulating throughout the herd. The virus was particularly active from two/three weeks post-weaning and was interacting with other disease complexes to weaken pigs’ immunity.

“We were confident that no new diseases had arrived here, more that the situation had evolved and the control strategies already in place were just not providing enough protection for the whole production period,” she explains.

Although the PRRS vaccination programme used with sows was offering protection to piglets early on, once that maternal immunity waned, the pigs became vulnerable and consequently more susceptible to other disease challenges, too. A PRRS piglet vaccination programme was introduced at two weeks of age using MSD Animal Health’s Porcilis PRRS, the vaccine already used successfully with the sows. To minimise stress, Gareth also chose to use the needle-free IDAL intradermal (ID) vaccination system.

A typical litter at 14 days of age. Vaccinating piglets against PRRS at this stage has proved very effective in controlling this ubiquitous disease.

A typical litter at 14 days of age. Vaccinating piglets against PRRS at this stage has proved very effective.

“We wanted to vaccinate early rather than add another jab to the weaning routine as we’d successfully cut down one intervention by using the combined Porcilis PCV MHyo vaccine for EP and PCV2 at weaning. Previous experience with pre-weaning PRRS vaccination had also shown me that vaccinating at two weeks could be tough on young piglets and you really want to keep stress to a minimum when you’re dealing with this virus, so a needle-free approach seemed sensible,” he adds.

Vet Gemma agrees. She says needle-less vaccination has key advantages within PRRS vaccination programmes as this ubiquitous viral infection is easily transferred though tissue and body fluids.

“Even when needles are changed between litters, the risk of spreading this disease can still exist. Injecting one viraemic piglet, then subsequently injecting its littermates can readily transfer infection and these carrier pigs can then go on to become reservoirs of infection, capable of mounting a perpetual challenge to your herd. Intradermal vaccination eliminates such risks as it’s non-invasive,” she explains.

IDAL is proving an asset in PRRS control

The stress-free, time-saving IDAL is a valuable asset offering time savings and improved hygiene when vaccinating pigs

Regular blood tests and serology are ongoing and results do confirm that PRRS is now under control. Overall, pig health has improved significantly during the past six months, there are fewer sick pigs around and the number of medications/interventions has fallen. Production is more uniform and Gareth says no pleurisy (APP) has been reported in abattoir data for several months. Going forward, disease surveillance will become a routine part of Porter’s health policy. 

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Core qualities offer strong opportunities

JE Porter is an established, family-owned farming company. It employs more than 55 staff, cultivates 3000 arable acres, mills 5000 tonnes of feed a week and producers around 8 million broilers and more than 17,000 pigs a year. Its values are rooted in efficiency, high quality production and exceptional welfare, and although pig farming is the ‘smallest’ enterprise, it’s a valued and sustainable part of this integrated operation.

Exterior showing farrow-service-and finish-sheds

JE Porter has produced pigs since 1968. The entirely straw-based enterprise uses a selection of older, refurbished buildings that are well managed and maintained

There have been pigs here since 1968 and the business has evolved to keep pace with industry demands and developments. The closed herd was restocked in 1995 to an SPF status, but is now a commercial unit supplying lean, high-conformation slaughter pigs to processor Woodheads and a local wholesaler.

“Our customers like the quality of our stock and the welfare aspects of our straw-based production. There is a strong market for this kind of pig production in the UK with good opportunities for efficient herds.”  – Gareth Virgo

Porters pigs are healthy, well grown and uniform. Customers like the welfare-friendly production system used here.

Porters pigs are healthy, well grown and uniform. Customers like the welfare-friendly production system used here.

It sells 300 pigs a week at 90 kgs (lwt) for processing, with a further 100, ranging from 60 to 120 kgs, marketed to independent outlets.

Current performance shows an ADG of 900 to 1000 grams for growing and finishing pigs with an FCR of 2.3. And with productivity booming in the breeding herd, more pigs are being sold to butchers’ shops, hog roasts and specialist retail outlets.


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People: The vital factor

Porter’s successful straw-based, high-welfare production system might be founded on good health, proven genetics and excellent nutrition, but Gareth is quick to point out that his staff are what holds it all together. Exceptional stockmanship and attention to detail is what achieves good results and efficient performance.

Yes, it’s labour intensive, says Craig Brown, farrowing house/assistant manager, but mucking out here (3 x 1.5 hours a day) is also as a valuable part of the daily routine.

Craig Brown, farrowing house and assistant unit manager is enjoying a career in pig production

Craig Brown, farrowing house and assistant unit manager is enjoying a career in pig production

“It’s not tedious; it’s when you’re in close proximity to your pigs and you can observe them individually,” he adds.

Craig came to pigs from the racing industry (via construction) and says there are many similarities between pig production and racing.

“Both are performance-focused business that depend on fit, healthy animals that are well cared for and managed so they can perform efficiently and achieve their full potential,” he adds.

He thoroughly enjoys his job and both he and Gareth agree that the UK pig sector should be looking beyond traditional sources for new entrants.

Today’s pig sector relies on a high level of technical aptitude and Gareth believes the lack of skilled, motivated people coming into the UK industry will limit its ability to secure market share in the future.

“Pig production in this country has a lot going for it, but if can’t find capable, skilled technicians and reward them so they stay, then it won’t be able to build on its current success with high welfare pork.”  – Gareth Virgo

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Abridged from an article that appeared in Pig World January 2017. Written by Jane Jordan on behalf of the UK Pig Team, MSD Animal Health.