June 2016

Research and Development

Genetic Research Strives to Increase Pig Welfare

Photo credit: Nanda Ursinus (W.W. Ursinus)


Recent research into animal genetics has led to multiple advancements in the livestock industry. This includes the development of genetic tools and enhanced management practices that help producers increase animal feed efficiency, leading to a boost in operational productivity and efficiency.

With those successes, the research community is starting to look to genetics to address another important industry priority: animal welfare. One initiative, led by the University of Alberta’s Dr. Graham Plastow, aims to determine traits that influence negative pig behaviours, such as tail biting and aggressiveness.

One of the world’s largest pig breeding companies, Topigs Norsvin, is a collaborator on this project, as the company provides unique infrastructure for research and export. According to Topigs Norsvin’s Dr. Egbert Knol, the company is keenly interested in leveraging its genetic expertise in Canada to improve animal welfare.

“Behavior is a normally distributed trait. It does not only have negative aspects, but also positive ones, like social support from one animal to the next. Initial efforts to understand these pig behaviours were initiated at Wageningen University in a project ‘Seeking Sociable Swine,’ whose objective was to assess the genetic architecture of pig behavior. These preliminary results resulted in the need to further investigate the genetics and physiology underlying behavior,” said Dr. Knol.

By studying genomic and metabolomic markers, Dr. Plastow believes his team can help map out the biological processes that are associated with these behaviour traits. The team will evaluate this data to develop approaches that help producers adjust their management practices. Dr. Plastow anticipates that this project could catalyze future research, including the creation of tools that can measure and select animals for improved behaviour.

Those benefits helped this research gain support from Mitacs and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA). Clinton Dobson, ALMA Senior Manager, Research and Policy, believes this initiative could provide important knowledge for Alberta’s pig industry.

“As food requirements steadily increase, industry continues to adapt to meet that demand and maintain optimal animal welfare,” said Dobson. “Gaining animal genetic information will help our pig industry sustain momentum on both fronts.”

Furthermore, this research should help the pig industry address consumer expectations for livestock production and increase consumer confidence in Alberta pork products.

“Tailoring practices towards better animal welfare is not only the right thing to do, but it also provides benefits to producers and shows industry is listening to what consumers want,” said Dr. Plastow. “That leads to new opportunities and a more sustainable industry.”

To learn more about this research, please contact Dr. Graham Plastow directly.