Our research makes a major impact
Interview with Dr Hubert Henne
Director of breeding at BHZP and genetics expert.
BHZP conducts intensive research into pig breeding and husbandry. Through our work on joint projects and collaboration with well-known universities we have made a valuable contribution to advancing knowledge in this field. This knowledge brings benefits to breeders and farmers, helping them to improve livestock health and welfare in the long term – and boosting the industry’s image at the same time.
Dr Henne, how long has BHZP been conducting research and how many projects has it been involved in to date?
BHZP has carried out research and development since its beginning. We began by researching into issues such as crossbreeding to select the best line combinations for our breeding programme, improve meat quality or eliminate stress genes from pig populations. We went on to study issues relating to sow stability, growth and meat quantity in various projects. In recent years the focus has shifted more towards functional, low heritability traits. Now concentrate on behavioural research in sows, survival rates, reduction in piglet losses etc. We've also investigated other topics such as improving feed conversion rates, resource-saving approaches to feeding, feeding strategies, boar fattening and the influence of genes on boar taint. In terms of animal health, we are currently researching lung and intestinal pathogen resistance. In future it seems likely that we will have to invest much more in research and development without being certain of recouping these expenses through the market.
An increasing risk to the company ...!
Absolutely. As a successful breeding company, it is therefore essential to collect information across the entire production chain, from breeding data and abattoir records to an understanding of the consumer market, including policy changes and political pressures. To get back to your opening question, I can name several projects in which we have been or are still actively involved.
Could you cite a few of your research projects?
Take FreeSow for example. This project seeks to integrate ethological and functional traits into the breeding programme for the sows of tomorrow. Or PigsWithTails, a project which aims to create a comprehensive database and develop breeding strategies to achieve a long-term reduction in tail biting. We are also involved in joint projects, for example pigFit, the subtitle of which is “Molecular and immunological analysis of survival and postnatal growth of piglets”. Another joint project, BoarTaintDown, is concerned with investigating specific feeding and husbandry concepts for finishing boars in order to reduce boar taint caused by androstenone and skatole levels in the carcass. I could continue this list of research projects and collaborative involvements almost indefinitely. As you can see, we are very active.
You said that BHZP has been involved in R&D right from the start. How has the research work evolved?
BHZP has significantly expanded its research budget in terms of both staffing and funding. Investment has more than doubled in recent years. Each year we invest a six-figure sum on genome selection alone.
To achieve this I assume you have in-house experts in the relevant specialist areas who contribute their knowledge to these research projects?
We employ some of the best brains in the business, including well-known specialists in pig production technology/insemination, genetics and IT, and of course veterinary surgeons. I am convinced that our R&D department is among the best in our industry.
That sounds like a major investment in improved breeding and rearing conditions – what resources in terms of time, personnel and expense do you dedicate to your research?
The R&D budget at BHZP is enormous. If we include primary breeding, I estimate that it equates to approximately 20% of our turnover.
A major investment in research. But most of the projects are supported by well-known scientific institutes. Who does BHZP collaborate with and how would you describe these partnerships?
We work with well-known institutes and universities on genetics research, we have developed a good scientific network.
What insights can be gained from these projects – and what impact do they have on breeding, husbandry and so on?
The findings from our R&D projects basically underpin our entire breeding programme. Our R&D department has researched and developed essential traits that boost profitability and increasingly integrated functional traits as well. The findings from our research work are incorporated directly into our breeding work to benefit producers and consumers alike. And if you look at it from our point of view: The wealth of knowledge gained from decades of research and the resulting expertise are without doubt some of BHZP's most valuable assets.
And this boosts the competitiveness of the farms?
Our competitiveness must always be reflected by the commercial success of the individual farm. Ultimately, improvements must produce ecological, biological or economic results at individual or group level. So we look at all performance-related traits rather than dwelling on single traits. If we focus our breeding efforts on single traits, overall profitability and sustainability will suffer. This goes against our corporate philosophy – after all, we are the dependable pig people!
And how does animal welfare and consumer protection ultimately benefit from BHZP's commitment to research?
We have already talked about research into tail biting. We are trying to find out whether this has any genetic background. This means that we are making a contribution to animal welfare even though we have yet to find the solution in genetics. Here is another aspect of animal welfare: We want sows that rear their own piglets with low rearing losses and we want consistent birth weights. I'll give you a good example of active animal welfare: What makes more sense: 16 live-born piglets with enough teats to go round, consistent birth weights and low loss rates or 20 live-born piglets yet higher loss rates and the need for a foster mother? It is self-evident that our approach makes an active contribution to animal welfare.
To what extent are BHZP research projects of international importance?
Our scientific research findings are published in international industry publications and specialist journals and presented at seminars here in Germany and abroad. Our specialist staff are in demand as speakers at home and abroad.
Our project work on key future issues affecting the industry is an extraordinary commitment that reflects our deep sense of responsibility. What image is associated with your research work? And what future research initiatives and projects are in the pipeline?
Research work at BHZP focuses on current and future real-life problems in pig production, including acceptance issues. In terms of research initiatives, we work closely with the Association for Bioeconomy Research (FBF) on research and genomic selection. We have managed to initiate several projects by sharing ideas within this network.