13th June 2019
Conducting a partial depopulation of a pig unit as a means of re-setting its health status is not something to be undertaken lightly, but Aberdeenshire producer Kevin Gilbert has completed the process and is now looking forward to reaping the benefits.
Kevin, a director of marketing cooperative Scottish Pig Producers and a former chairman of NFU Scotland’s pig committee, runs a 450-sow herd and grows 700 acres of combinable crops at his base at Womblehill, Kintore.
He said: “I had two main diseases I wanted to eradicate from my herd through a partial depopulation: Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), otherwise known as Blue Ear; and Enzootic Pneumonia (EP).
“I opted for a partial depopulation, as the cost for a total depopulation would have been huge. It would also have interrupted the business’s cash flow and made it difficult to source breeding gilts of a suitably high health status as replacements.”
Planning ahead was key to the successful completion of the project, with the process beginning 13 months ahead of the start of depopulation. Kevin met with the farm’s vet, Bruce Bremner of Donview Veterinary Centre, and Lysan Eppink of Boehringer Ingelheim to discuss the best approach to take.
For a partial depopulation to be successful and break the cycle of disease, all pigs on the farm had to be over 300 days old. Kevin therefore arranged for all weaned piglets and pigs up to 40kg from Womblehill to be taken to other farms for ten weeks for rearing and finishing. In Kevin’s case, he rented accommodation on two units at Peterhead, one at Edzell and one at Auchenblae.
The sow herd, which would have built up a level of disease immunity to PRRS and EP, remained in place and continued to farrow in the normal routine. The sows and replacement gilts were vaccinated against PRRS en masse. At the same time, the replacement gilts were also vaccinated against EP whilst the sows were given an antibiotic for four weeks and the suckling piglets were given an antibiotic injection to ensure that all traces of EP were removed. This stage was vital for the partial depop to be effective and for every animal to be disease free at the end of the process. At the end of the four-week period, piglets were weaned back on site as normal.
Kevin said: “This was an expensive operation, with a six-figure cost. Some of the pigs were in bedded courts and it was not a cheap season to be buying straw. But it meant the cash fow was not interrupted and I was able to keep the staff on. In fact, they were very busy washing and disinfecting pens.
“As an extra measure, we cleaned the underside of all the slats and the slurry channels. It needs that sort of attention to detail to break the disease cycle. We started to depopulate at the end of May last year and weaned pigs were back on site in August. All of the pigs in rented accommodation were sold before Christmas.”
With no young pigs allowed on the farm, it meant that the routine introduction of homebred breeding gilts was interrupted. This meant Kevin needed to arrange for more sows than usual to be inseminated with damline semen so that there would be plenty of gilts available for serving before depopulation began and after it had finished. JSR genetics were used throughout the process.
Kevin said: “It was a big operation and quite expensive, but the target in the long run is to save money on vet bills and to reduce the use of antibiotics. We are already seeing the benefits of having healthier pigs. Daily liveweight gain from weaning to slaughter was 800gms per day and has now increased to 900gms per day. Conception rates in the absence of PRRS have increased from 80–85% to 90%.”
Pigs have been the main enterprise for the Gilbert family for many years. Kevin’s father, previously a pig farm manager, started on his own account in the 1960s on 10 acres of tree stumps and some prefabricated buildings, before moving his family to Womblehill in the 1970s. Kevin, who had been working in England, came home to help run the business in the late 1980s when his father was sadly diagnosed with a terminal illness.
“It was a big operation and quite expensive, but the target in the long run is to save money on vet bills and to reduce the use of antibiotics. We are already seeing the benefits of having healthier pigs."
The original farm buildings were demolished in 1998 to make way for the Kintore by-pass. This, however, proved to be advantageous, as it allowed Kevin to design the new buildings with loose housing for sows with electronic feeding. The business has continued to progress and introduce innovative practices since then, with all finishing pigs now on a liquid diet.
Although building up his pig enterprise has been his main focus, Kevin has always devoted time to the wider agricultural community without thought of reward. His efforts were recognised last year when he was the recipient of the NFU Scotland’s North East Region Unsung Hero award. Making the presentation at Turriff Show, regional chairman Davie Winton said: “When we are engaged in promoting Scottish produce at supermarkets in the region, Kevin is the one member you can rely on to turn up and do a sterling job. As a pig producer, he always goes the extra mile to promote Scottish pork.”
Kevin and his family also support QMS with PR behind the Specially Selected Pork brand – including one of his sons manning Harry Trotter, the brand mascot, at Taste of Grampian!
Kevin has also been involved recently in raising awareness of mental health issues. In typically modest manner, he said: “I was happy to help launch a mental health initiative by Aberdeen Royal Infrmary, Robert Gordon University and others. It was thought a local farmer should be involved, and it turned out to be me.
“It was quite daunting doing television and newspaper interviews on such a sensitive issue, but I thought it was important that the rural community was represented.”
Kevin is obviously a perfect example of the old adage: “If you want something done, ask a busy man.”
Diseases Eradicated by Partial Depop
Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) is a global problem. PRRS virus infects sows and growing pigs, leading to reproductive failure and respiratory problems, and to increased mortality in young animals. The disease is estimated to cost the UK pig industry around £80 per sow, £3.50 per nished pig, or typically £40,000 for a 500-sow herd per year.
Enzootic Pneumonia (EP) is the most common respiratory disease seen in pigs, both in the UK and worldwide; it is thought to be present in more than 80% of pig herds in the UK. As well as causing respiratory disease, it can also reduce growth rates. Infected animals can be treated with antibiotics and a vaccine is also available.
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