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Pork production: How to choose a breed and select sows

The success of a pig production business depends on selecting the correct breed. Simon Streicher, former CEO of the South African Pork Producers Association, tells us what to look out for.

Producers starting out with a new pork production unit have to buy breeding stock. And this has to be obtained from a healthy herd. So, ensure that you only purchase pigs from a single reputable source. “If you source pigs from multiple breeders, the likelihood of bringing disease into the herd is much higher,” Streicher says.

He cautions that buying pigs at auctions is asking for trouble; pigs from many farms will have been exposed to each other and this can cause the spread of diseases.

“Piglets are only as good as your sow. If you buy a poor-quality animal, the product you get will also be poor. It’s important to have a herd displaying good genetics if you want to produce good-quality meat, with little fat, that the market will find acceptable,” he says.

Pigs are prone to stress and, through gene selection, breeders have, over the years, significantly reduced this tendency. “Pigs can die of stress and cause serious financial losses. This is reduced through good gene selection, and producers are less exposed to losses,” Streicher says.


Choosing the right kind of pig for your level of management is very important.

Pig breeds can be divided into two major groups: indigenous and improved breeds.

  • Indigenous breeds are common in villages in developing countries and improved breeds are used in modern, intensive, commercial production systems.
  • Indigenous breeds are not suitable for meat production in the formal market as the meat is too fatty.
  • Although local breeds are hardy, they produce much smaller litters; only about 5 piglets at a time.

The 2 most popular breeds in South Africa are the Landrace and Large White.

  • Both are outstanding for commercial production purposes and have the right genetic traits.
  • Such modern breeds are usually large, white-skinned pigs with fine, sparse white hair.
  • They’re not as resistant to disease as the more rustic breeds and require good management.

“The pig has been bred for intensive conditions and will need good feed, housing and disease control,” he says.

  • Modern breeds don’t cope well with high temperatures and need adequate housing.
  • They’re known for their high productivity and will give birth to litters of 10 or more piglets.
  • They sometimes need help to raise their piglets.

Also read: Pork production: Getting the basics right for housing

Good quality pigs are costly, but they’re a good investment.


Streicher says that, although producers can use a modern boar for reproduction, increasingly, the trend is towards artificial insemination (AI) of sows.

“Get into this practice as soon as possible,” he says.

  • Boars are expensive to feed and keep and the conception success rate isn’t as high as that of AI.
  • Currently, AI is used in about 80% of pigs in the commercial industry.
  • Done correctly, the conception rate is around 90%.
  • Streicher encourages producers to attend courses and receive training in how to do AI correctly.
  • “Without training, farmers will not be able to achieve success with AI,” he says.
  • You also need the right facilities and infrastructure to carry out AI procedures.


  • Females for breeding should be selected at about 5 to 6 months of age and should be the daughters of a sow that produced large, healthy litters.
  • They should be lively and have strong legs, large feet, a straight back and a deep body with room for a big litter.
  • Check that the female has enough well-shaped teats – at least 10 in an unimproved pig and 14 in modern breeds.


Streicher recommends that farmers first set up a grower unit to raise weaners. “This is a good way to get your pig unit going and it will help you to learn the ropes before bringing in sows,” he says.

Also read: Useful guidelines for pig farming

Once producers are more familiar with pig production, they can purchase sows. Start out with 3 to 5 sows, and manage them well. “Initially you will make mistakes; but you can expand later. Don’t overstock your unit because, regardless of breed, you need to build up experience,” he advises.

Mistakes are usually related to poor management and through experience farmers will learn the tricks of the trade. It is, however, important to ensure that pig mortalities are kept as low as possible. Live pigs are the foundation of your business and with 40% to 50% mortality your business won’t survive.

Reasons for high mortality include poor housing, feed and water supply.

Another way to gain experience is to set up a satellite piggery in conjunction with an established commercial pig producer. Streicher says the benefit of starting out like this is that you will have a mentor. The farmer will supply you with pigs and inputs and you can gain experience in running a piggery.

At the end of the season, the production costs are subtracted from the final price and a farmer will get his share of the profit. Over time, the new producer will become independent. “This is a good way to get into the business and farmers should consider the option,” Streicher says.

  • This article was written by Wilma den Hartigh and first appeared in Farming SA.

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