Prairie Swine Centre: A focus on research

Posted on March 01, 2012

Back
By Erin Prosser-Loose

As the pork industry evolves and new questions arise, there is a need to promote the advancement of research in this field. Saskatchewan’s own Prairie Swine Centre continues to emphasize research at a time when pork research farms are dwindling. The Centre was established in 1980, originally as a University of Saskatchewan facility. Still affiliated with the university, its primary purpose today is to serve the pork industry through research, training of graduate students and technology transfer to industry with a focus on improving the financial position of the pork producer. While that is a priority, according to President and CEO Lee Whittington, PSC has expanded its research activities. “We’ve been doing work for the pork producer in the areas of nutrition, engineering and behavior, but we’ve expanded that as of late to make sure it includes the whole pork value chain: for example, the trucking industry, the meat packer, the genetics suppliers, feed and ventilation companies.” PSC offers a unique avenue through which key questions and potential concerns can be addressed - ultimately benefitting the entire industry. This work includes public as well as private contract research for clients from around the globe. Current research projects at PSC include examining ways to bring down utility costs - the third highest production cost after feed and labor. A nutrition project is investigating improving the reproductive health of sows via feed enrichment with omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, which also appears to improve immunity in her piglets. Another project is taking advantage of resources unique to western Canada by using canola and field peas as feed ingredients, which saves money compared to importing soybean meal. In the field of ethology, or applied animal behavior, ways to increase the well-being of the sows are being examined. “Research shows that if sows get more exercise they’ll deliver piglets easier, muscle tone and bone strength get better, etc,.” says Whittington. With this in mind, PSC built their Sow Research Unit in 2008 using a new system from Denmark. In this system sows live in groups, are able to interact with each other, have room to exercise and can choose when to leave the group and return to the protection of their own stall. For the sow and for research this provides the safety and assurance of individual feed and care in the stall combined with exercise and social interaction in the group. Research proposals at PSC often involve all three scientific disciplines (nutrition, engineering, and ethology), making for interesting, and industry-relevant projects. For example, a current project integrating engineering and ethology is examining how animals are handled during transport. Certain areas of the truck have been associated with more stress, so changing things like ventilation and the density of animals in that area can result in less stressed animals. Not only does this benefit the animals, it also benefits the consumer, since stress can affect meat quality. In diversifying their research, PSC is also involved in promoting the pig as a valuable scientific model for human or animal health. The Centre currently works with about 14 different research groups on the U of S campus involved in such research. According to Whittington, pig and human anatomy have many similarities, making it an attractive model for many areas of research. “Start from the skin and work in. There’s vaccine development and delivery, heart valves used for valve replacement, cystic fibrosis and arthritis work…” Since using the pig as a scientific model is not as common as rodent models, doing so may offer an advantage in terms of attracting funding and scientific expertise to the University. While exciting research has been ongoing at PSC, the Centre experienced a downturn along with the pork industry in recent years. PSC survived through budget cuts, layoffs, and reduction of number of pigs bred and is now looking forward with renewed optimism and expanding staff and production capacity. By having the research farm, PSC expects to be playing a greater national and international role, since the number of research farms in North America and Europe are decreasing due to the high cost of animal research. Whittington sees this – the 20th Anniversary of the Centre’s opening – as an exciting time for PSC and believes research will continue to be essential to an ever-changing industry. “Research is an investment that needs to be continually renewed. The animal, the production system, the market and consumer demand all keep evolving. So you have to keep re-investing in all those areas and keep answering those key questions.”

Erin Prosser-Loose is a freelance writer working in Saskatoon.