ClimatePig: Smart systems approaches for climate resilient livestock production

Professor Lisa Collins from the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds describes a recent study which used smart systems approaches for climate resilient outdoor pig production. 

Who was involved in this study? 

The study of dietary adaptation strategies to alleviate heat in sows brought together a multi- and inter-disciplinary UK climate resilience group, working across climate science, statistics, modelling, soil science, animal science and artificial intelligence and was designed from the outset with end-users. We worked in partnership with the University of Lincoln, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Karro Food Group.  

Why did you conduct this feasibility study? 

Resilient, sustainable livestock production is a major gap in the future food system. In the UK, outdoor pig production represents 40% of the breeding herd, but production efficiency and environmental impact are particularly vulnerable to changing climate and extreme weather events. This feasibility study was undertaken to improve our understanding of adaptation options for extreme weather events, and to enable important first steps to be taken towards ensuring future outdoor pig production is sustainable and resilient to climate variability and change. 

What did the project teach you? 

Our soil sampling and subsequent modelling work produced as part of this project suggest that including pigs as part of an arable rotation has benefits for soil quality but only if the pigs are moved at regular intervals. In discussion with our industry partners, this finding backs up the benefits of a change in practice they were starting to implement in increasing the frequency of transition.  

How easy or difficult was it? 

The study was based in a challenging environment. There are many interacting variables to consider in outdoor pig production, for example, individual pig requirements, the presence/absence of extreme weather during trial periods, and the sampling resolution to enable the full integration of a variety of datasets (in our case, weather data with pig performance data).  

What does this work teach us about how livestock farming can contribute to climate solutions? 

Including pigs as part of an arable rotation can have benefits for soil quality when the pigs are rotated regularly, which proves that livestock farming has a key role to play in regenerative farming practices and can contribute to climate solutions. 

How do outdoor pigs affect Soil Organic Carbon (SOC)? 

Our investigations concluded that Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) decreases when outdoor pigs are introduced into an arable rotation. The optimum scenario is to have a mixed farming rotation, with a more frequent rotation between pigs and arable. This is a positive message for the UK pig industry, as it provides an opportunity for pigs to improve SOC and become part of the solution, rather than the problem.   

How do animal welfare and environmental impacts inter-relate? 

We observed that whilst high protein diet had a protective effect on pigs against some of the effects of heat stress, they also excreted more nitrogen in faecal matter, which has a potential environmental impact. It's important to consider the trade-offs in animal welfare and environmental impacts when exploring climate resilience management. These findings provide an opportunity to explore a range of management options to mitigate these impacts. 

What are the commercial implications? 

From a commercial perspective, our investigations into dietary adaptation strategies to alleviate heat stress in sows revealed that in the summer there may be a beneficial effect of protein supplementation to gilts in terms of improved litter growth and weaning weights.  

What are you doing next? 

We are continuing to gather high resolution pig production and performance data at the University of Leeds National Pig Centre, which we can analyse during periods of extreme weather events to test our hypotheses around the relationship between performance metrics and climate factors. We anticipate that seasonality does have an impact on pig production, and we plan to investigate mitigating factors in ongoing and future trials.  Our findings provide an opportunity to explore a range of management options to mitigate against climatic impacts and provide a key driver for change