Leeds pig research facilities to be centre of excellence and innovation

The University of Leeds is nearing the mid-way point in its multi-million-pound development of world-class pig research facilities at Spen, its farm near Tadcaster in Yorkshire.

Once completed next summer, the farm will be one of the best places in Europe for pig nutrition, behaviour, welfare and production system research; all themes identified by the UK industry as central to improving quality, productivity and future competitiveness. The project will provide a new 220 sow outdoor research facility, already in place, and will also grow the University’s established indoor unit to 440 sows plus their offspring through to slaughter, all housed in brand new accommodation. “This combination of indoor and outdoor herds at the same research station is unique in the UK and will enable us to play a full and versatile role in providing research to support UK pig production,” said Professor Helen Miller, Director of the University Farm.

“The larger herds will enable much needed adequately replicated sow research and the state-of-the-art equipment to be installed in the new facility will increase the overall scope of research that can be conducted across all stages of production. This presents a major opportunity both for the University and for the UK pig industry. Leeds has worked in close collaboration with agribusinesses over many years, but this significant expansion of our capabilities will increase our in-depth relationships with firms and farms, so together we can continue to drive up the quality of British pigs and the success of the businesses which are built around them.”

“The new facility will have a visitor centre where we will be talking to producers, finding out their key questions and then using our new facilities as a centre of excellence to drive innovation and answer their needs”, she said.

“We are ready to apply our own expertise in working with businesses as well as collaborating with other researchers in multi-disciplinary research. 

“The new facilities will enable us to challenge and measure management techniques and equipment, compare genetics, reproductive strategies and develop welfare recommendations. We will be able to monitor both feed and water intake for pigs of all ages as well as their daily weight; this detailed insight is imperative in developing targeted precision feeding and making a real difference to commercial pig farming.”

Spen farm image

An artist's impression of what the site will look like when it's finished

One of Professor Miller’s most important and long-standing collaborations has been with Primary Diets, a relationship now entering its 21st year, and which has heralded several significant discoveries, in piglet nutrition particularly. 

“Back in the early days we had a very basic pig facility and we were asked to run a comparison trial on flavours. I phoned Primary Diets to ask whether it could supply the feed and it cost me just an hour of my time to meet with Paul Toplis, the then Technical Director of Primary Diets. He visited and described his ideas for an ongoing collaborative research programme, what the business goals were and how the University could help – that has remained constant and we’ve worked together ever since”, she explained.

The partnership has now seen 279 piglet trials completed with results being used to enhance existing starter feed products and develop several new ranges over the years, all with the aim of improving profitability for pig producers. 

At the last review in 2016, the extent of the improvements achieved in the previous 6 years equated to a 12% improvement in weight at day 20 – from 14.39kg to 15.31kg – based on measuring the 2010 formulation of a standard piglet starter feed versus the 2016 formulation. In monetary terms, this is a 14% improvement in Margin over Feed, based on a liveweight cost of £1.20 out of the nursery and diet costs at the time of the trial.

More recent projects have been firmly focused on feeding piglets without high levels of zinc oxide with the impending ban in mind, and significant progress is being made in this area, resulting in the introduction of Primary Diets’ new XP range of feeds. 

The company’s support at the University goes further with its sponsorship of two PhD researchers who have both chosen to investigate topical subjects that will undoubtedly add further to performance improvements.

Primary Diets’ ongoing research programme and its effective working relationship with Professor Miller is one of the University’s most long-standing partnerships. Both sides have benefited from the support the University of Leeds is receiving from the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL), to fund the new indoor facility at the farm.

CIEL is a consortium of over 45 business partners and 12 research institutions which excel in Animal Science within which Leeds is the main centre for pig research. 

“Research through university trials is hugely important to us”, explains Dr Kayleigh Almond, Technical Manager at Primary Diets. “To do statistical analysis properly, we need to design and execute well-replicated and highly-controlled trials which is more accessible at universities, with the results giving us greater confidence that they are real and repeatable in different circumstances.”

“Having these new facilities available to us thanks to our collaboration with Leeds is very exciting and we have a unique opportunity to broaden the scope of our research once the new unit is operational.” Kayleigh added.

Ultimately Professor Miller’s goals are to provide a centre for pig research which has excellent facilities to attract the best scientists to carry out developmental work. “That, and to have a facility that the British pig industry refers to with affection and pride”, she concludes.

This article was first published in Pig World magazine.