When the Belt comes off.

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Today’s kids have it easy. That’s what the older generation has been saying since the dawn of time. Whether it’s about walking to school in the snow, uphill both ways, or how today’s kids “lack discipline”, each generation reaches the point where they look upon our youth as spoiled. Let’s face it; at some point each of us will kind of become a grumpy old person! I come from the “spanking era” of child raising. Growing up on a farm in the 70’s and early 80’s, Dad was out in the fields, taking care of the livestock, fixing machinery; all the things that kept farmers busy from sunup to sunset. Mom was taking care of the house, helping Dad in the fields and taking care of the kids. My sisters and I weren’t always the best-behaved children. In fact, I’m pretty sure we drove my mom nuts much of the time. Mom could take care of most of the necessary discipline, unless we did something really extra-naughty. Nobody was too scared of Mom’s spankings, but we all knew what it meant when we heard, “Wait until your father gets home!” That simple statement could initiate hours of anxiety. It wasn’t a matter of whether we were going to get spanked, but rather how bad the spanking would be. Nothing, and I mean nothing struck more fear into my sisters and I than when the belt came off. It was the fear that made the discipline effective. In reality, the spanking was never as bad as the anticipation.

 

While methods have evolved since those days, the importance of discipline remains. I will forever be grateful for the manner in which my parents raised me and I only hope I can do as well with my own children. While they will never know the fear of the belt coming off, we try our best to instill the value of discipline in all facets of their lives. Raising livestock can serve as a great tool to teach the value of discipline. It requires discipline to feed and care for your animals daily. It requires discipline to establish and maintain a breeding program. It requires discipline to train animals for a show, and it requires discipline to follow the rules.

 

The purebred swine industry is in a bit of an uproar, particularly over the belted hogs. The National Swine Registry over the past few years has been implementing new DNA testing procedures to verify and protect the purity of each of the four breeds in their registry. The most recent to adopt the new testing is the Hampshire breed. The implementation of the test as well as the start dates and other details were all approved by the Hampshire board of directors and proceeded mostly unnoticed, until a number of Hampshire boars began failing the test and had their pedigrees nullified. This set off a firestorm among Hampshire breeders who were discovering that many of their “Hampshire” pigs as well as unborn litters would no longer be considered purebreds. It appeared that the Hampshire board had taken off the belt in their attempt to protect the belted breed.

 

The DNA breed profile test was developed in collaboration with Michigan State University. The basic concept of the test is that by using groups of pigs from each of the NSR breeds, as well as known crossbreds and hogs that had failed previous DNA testing for color or test matings, scientists can identify gene markers that are specific to each of the four NSR breeds and use them with a reasonable amount of confidence to determine whether or not an animal is “purebred”. Each breed was represented by a reference panel; a set of registered purebred animals as unrelated as possible, and representative of the entire population. These animals were used to determine the gene markers that make them unique to their breed, as compared to the other NSR breeds and crosses used to validate the study. In simple terms, Hampshires have genes that make them different than Yorkshires, Durocs and Landrace. These genes are largely what determine their color, markings, ear-set and other traits that identify them as Hampshires. The test is being used to verify that the animals registered as Hampshire actually possess the genes that make them Hampshires with relatively few indications of genes that would likely come from other breeds (including genes for spotted color which would likely come from the Pietrain breed). The testing is being done on boars and it appears that tested animals must match the breed profile by 90% in order to pass. It’s my understanding that some very popular sires, with many litters in utero, were eliminated from the registry with this test.  

 

This is a very complex issue which impacts many people in the show pig industry; breeders and exhibitors alike. Many are understandably upset as they feel as though they are victims of this new policy and that they were blindsided without enough notice or time to make adjustments to their breeding program to comply with the new policy. In response to the outpouring of complaints, the Hampshire board has made adjustments to the policy, publishing lists of approved sires, adjusting grand-fathering rules, testing of junior show hogs and other details. It seems as though the dialog with breeders continues and that the situation may still be “fluid”. Many have asked my opinion on the subject, and I’ve opted to share my thoughts here in The Pig Pen.

 

First of all, let’s address the reason for the new testing. It’s really quite simple. It’s to verify that the Hampshire pigs certified as Hampshires by the pedigrees issued by the National Swine Registry are what they claim to be. The test is to catch errors; both honest mistakes and intentional introduction of genetics from outside the Hampshire gene pool, whether introduced recently or in the past. I think we can all agree that many Hampshires in recent times have shown evidence of markings and conformation not typical of the breed (excessive white, black spots, incomplete belts, etc.). This test can be used to help eliminate those contaminants and ensure that the breed remains true to its heritage going forward. The test can also serve to discourage the improper use of Hampshire-marked crossbred females to make Hampshire pigs going forward. Although currently only sires are required to be tested, it’s likely that show winners will be tested in the future. As the current rules stand, even a registered, purebred female testing at 90% bred to a boar who passed the test (90% or above) can produce offspring below the 90% cutoff. Using a Hamp-appearing crossbred sow would seem futile.

 

Complete genomic testing of the entire Hampshire population, both male and female, would seem to me to be the most sure-fire method to “clean-up” the breed, allowing nothing more than simple parentage testing to verify pedigrees afterward. Test every animal, eliminate those that don’t match 90% or higher, then those that remain are all certified “clean” and can be used for breeding purebred Hampshires. Verification of pedigrees would be the only testing necessary on the offspring going forward, in other words, a test to verify that the sire and dam represented on the pedigree are actually the real parents, regardless of the percentage match to the breed profile test. While in my opinion this would be the best approach from a logical and scientific standpoint, I also recognize that it is neither practical nor cost-effective. I believe that the current approach which requires testing of sires and optional testing of females will get us to the same point over time, but at some point the 90% breed profile match has to be replaced by simple parentage testing.

 

Many would argue that pedigrees should not be cancelled because of this test. After all, NSR basically certified those animals as purebred by issuing a pedigree. Some were probably sold at NSR events as Hampshire pigs. Buyers bought those animals and bred with them in good faith, only to learn later that the offspring could not be registered. Many are surely questioning whether the “Hampshire” gilt they have in their barn will ever consistently produce offspring which will pass the DNA profile test. Many will surely spend the money to test their females, which will put extra financial burden upon breeders who already paid good money for a supposed “purebred” gilt. Many are angry that NSR will not stand behind a pig for which they issued a pedigree. How can they “go backward” and start cancelling pedigrees after the fact?

 

Perhaps my opinion is a bit different. In my eyes, NSR issued those pedigrees in good faith, trusting that the Hampshire breeders who submitted those pigs for registration were doing so with the utmost honesty and integrity. Having registered thousands of pigs myself, I know that I have to agree to a statement certifying that the information I’ve provided is true and correct in order for those animals to be registered. While I do feel very sympathetic for those breeders caught in this mess; breeders who simply bought a registered gilt and used semen from registered boars, followed the rules, but fell victim to those who may have cheated several generations back, I cannot put the blame at the feet of the registry. It lies with those breeders who intentionally or unintentionally registered dirty pigs. If anything, NSR has been trying to discourage any cheating with the introduction of DNA testing, first with stress and color testing and now with the DNA profile test.

 

Many are upset with the lack of communication from the Hampshire board of directors and the NSR as well as the lack of transparency in sharing information about the testing and results of the boars. In my opinion, those people have a right to be angry. NSR is generally very good about communication. I get spam emails from them all the time. Yet these changes were not publicized well enough or with enough lead-time given for breeders to make decisions and implement changes. In my opinion, an organization like the NSR and the breeds’ boards of directors absolutely must operate with great communication and complete transparency. Any hint of secrecy or appearance of back-room business will only lead to accusations of conspiracy and favoritism, whether real or imagined. Show the membership what you are doing and why. Don’t try to cover up past mistakes. Own those mistakes and demonstrate that you are taking steps to correct them.

 

Many would like to see the list of animals used to create the reference panel. I’m sure the reason for that is to debate that a certain boar belongs that isn’t listed, or to otherwise justify why the test isn’t valid and that no animal should be losing its pedigree. While I really don’t know the reason to not disclose the list of animals used (perhaps it’s just to avoid the inevitable argument) I hardly think it would make any difference in the results. I’ve read the papers and I trust the science. My geneticist friends can raise some very good points about how the test could’ve been better, but in the end I really think they’ve identified the difference between a Hampshire and other breeds and crosses using genomic testing and they would like to use that test to eliminate crossbreds from the gene pool as much as possible.

 

Some would argue that all current Hampshires should keep their pedigrees and be allowed to be used for breeding registered animals going forward, regardless of whether they’ve been identified as crossbreds using the DNA profile test. The argument is about the need to expand the gene pool rather than limit it. The gene pool argument is actually a very good point, however I have one major concern with this argument. There is an honest way to introduce new genetics into a registered breed and there is a dishonest way. The honest way is hard. You have to identify new lines either here or abroad that you are willing to work with, then begin discussions with the breed registry about what you would like to do and convince them to issue pedigrees for the new stock. This has been done several times in all major breeds. The registry could also agree to open the herd book for a period of time to allow in outside lines before reclosing, as the Spotted breed did with Pietrains. The dishonest way is to simply use an animal that does not have a pedigree and register their offspring claiming that the parent was someone else who does have a pedigree. There is no integrity there. If we need to expand the genetic base, then let’s initiate an open discussion with the registry about how we can do that the honest way.

 

While I am in favor of utilizing the DNA profile test and cleaning up all the breeds, there are a couple of issues of vital importance which I feel still must be addressed. The first issue is finding a compromise for litters which are in utero which are no longer considered Hampshires. I understand the desire to eliminate crossbreds from the gene pool, but most of these were considered purebreds at the time the breeding decision was made. Perhaps there can be some compromise reached so that these animals can be registered and shown at least as market animals so that they don’t lose all their value by having to be marketed as crossbreds. I understand that the gilts wouldn’t have the same value if they cannot be used for breeding, but this might be a way to help recapture some of the value of those litters.

 

The other issue is which needs to be corrected is the fact that a pedigreed female who has passed the DNA profile test bred with a pedigreed male who has passed the DNA profile test can quite easily produce offspring which may pass all the breed requirements in terms of color, markings, stress and color genes, yet still fail the DNA profile test and not be eligible to be pedigreed. Consider that for a moment. Two parents who have passed all the necessary testing can still produce offspring that cannot be registered. Who in their right mind will want to invest heavily in Hampshire breeding stock knowing that perhaps their best pig in a litter will be non-pedigreed? I am on-board with this for a short period of time as it will discourage breeders from using low-percentage females for breeding, as well as discourage the use of crossbreds (cheating), however the registry is going to need to arrive at a point when every pedigreed animal is considered “pure” and perform simple parentage testing to verify the pedigree. If we want to encourage breeders to invest in Hampshires, then let’s give them confidence that their offspring will be marketable as Hampshires. Use the DNA profile test to clean things up in the short-term, then use parentage testing for the long-term.

 

I know that many breeders are upset and discouraged and facing financial loss because of the new testing rules. I certainly do sympathize, as my daughters and I endured the pedigree cancellation of a high-profile boar at a national show a few years ago over an underline discrepancy. My advice to those breeders? Don’t be discouraged. Don’t lash out at others who are just trying to do their jobs as well as they can. Don’t lose your passion for breeding Hampshire hogs. If you rose to the top under the previous testing protocol, you can rise to the top under the new rules as well. Others will see this as an opportunity more than a setback. Test your females. Put together a program. Have the discipline required to work within the rules; don’t try to find a way to get around them. Hold your head high and make great Hampshire hogs with honesty and integrity. Continue to voice your concerns to the Hampshire board and encourage them to find as much compromise as possible to lessen the pain during this transition.

 

My advice to the Hampshire board of directors and the National Swine Registry; let’s eliminate the distrust and rumor mill. The era of transparency is upon us. Conduct business openly, honestly and with the utmost integrity for the whole world to see. I applaud your efforts to clean up the breed. Let’s give breeders enough time to make the transition and minimize the pain and financial loss as much as possible. Understand that some breeders may quit, but others will see the opportunity before them and jump into the breed. Those breeders however are going to need assurance that the offspring they produce will be pedigreed when they begin with animals which have passed all the testing. You’re on the right path to protect the integrity of the belted breed, but you need to improve communication and transparency in the process.

 

Long-term success in anything is rarely achieved without some short-term pain. The pain of getting disciplined with the belt was short-term, but the result of learning manners, respect and general good behavior was long-term. It’s just difficult to realize that at the time you’re getting spanked. Hampshire breeders are getting spanked with the belt now, but the pain will be short-term while the results will ensure the belt stays on those Hampshire hogs for generations to come.

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