Northfield Pig Research Unit

Paul Heap

(This article, provided to the Agriculture History Project in May 2007, was edited lightly for the website.)

After much planning and liaison with the agricultural sector, the Northfield Pig Research Unit (NPRU) was opened in 1970. The main Departmental planners were the Chief Inspector of Stock, Dr W.S. Smith and the Senior Veterinary Officer (Pigs), Dr Kevin Dobson. Those involved in the planning made many wise arrangements, including:

  • establishing an Industry Liaison Committee;
  • creating a trust fund to operate the NPRU’s finances;
  • having the NPRU constructed by a private company experienced in building piggeries;
  • stocking the NPRU with Specific Pathogen-Free (SPF) Pigs; and
  • housing the stock under intensive conditions and, where practical, follow normal commercial practices.

Initial finance for the Unit came from two sources, The Swine Compensation Fund ($50 000) and the State Government ($40 000). The Swine Compensation Fund had a healthy surplus to current needs due partly to reduce payouts for tuberculosis, which had been largely controlled. Legislation was passed in 1962 to set aside $5000 annually from the fund to carry out research and investigation into swine diseases. This was later amended to provide a lump sum of $50 000 to establish a pig unit with an annual allocation of $10 000 for research.

The State Government maintained valuable support, and a major source of continued finance was provided through project funding by the Australian Pig Industry Research Committee. In addition some contract research was undertaken.

Fosters Rd and Grand Junction Rd at Northfield bordered the site chosen for the NPRU on the northern boundary of the Northfield Research Centre. Yatala Labour Prison was one of the near ‘neighbours’. This site allowed sharing of resources and provided easy access to research workers and the numerous visiting personnel from allied organisations. However, operating a Pig Research Unit and a piggery in a metropolitan area posed special problems. Approval was given by the Engineering and Water Supply Department to allow effluent to enter the sewage system after passing through sieves and an agitation sump. Frequent cleaning helped to keep odours from the piggery under control. However, local complaints were received each time the Dairy Section of the Northfield Research Centre commenced silage-feeding operations. The porcine population bore the brunt for their bovine counterparts!

The original buildings consisted of a Production Unit and an Isolation Unit. The Production Unit had a breeder shed, a grower shed, two farrowing sheds, a surgery and an office block. These were subsequently added to by the construction of:

  • bulk grain silos and a feed preparation/workshop shed;
  • a second grower shed;
  • a physiology building incorporating well-equipped laboratories, offices and pig accommodation, including temperature-controlled areas and metabolism crates; and
  • an introduction building containing offices, change rooms and a conference room.

The Isolation Unit buildings consisted of two matching pig sheds, a storage shed and an office/change area. Later additions consisted of a third pig shed, a laboratory and free-range pig accommodation. Both units were equipped with feed storage silos and individual feeding stalls.

The NPRU’s early success was due mainly to the magic of the right people getting together at the right time, with cooperation, harmony, hard work and a great team spirit. Although research staff came from both the Animal Health and the Animal Husbandry Branches, they soon welded together to form a well-identified, non-aligned pig research group with strong industry contacts.

The original NPRU committee members were:

  • Liaison – Drs W.S. Smith (Chairman) and K. Dobson (Secretary), and Messrs L. Dawkins, C. Lienert, J. McAuliffe, C. Mulhearn, P. Heap and K. Pryor
    Subsequent members were Drs J. Radcliffe, P. Harvey, J. Holmden, S. Pell, B. Wilson, M. Reid and P. Davies, Messrs R. Lienert, A. Auldenhoven, A. Fyfe, H. Hanna, A. Mosel and A. Cecil, and Mrs C. Sapwell.
  • Research – Drs K. Dobson (Chairman) and M. Pulsford, and Messrs J. Bryson, R. Davies, S. Dolling, P. Heap (Secretary) and D. Hughes.
    Subsequent members were Drs J. Radcliffe, M. Dobson, C. Cargill, B. Stone, P. Whyte, A. Pointon and S. Pell, and Messrs J. Hargreaves, A. Cecil and H. Hanna.

The decision to establish the Unit with SPF stock and a very strict protocol to maintain this status paid off handsomely. The whole staff of the NPRU were proud of the health status. Rank was forgotten in quarantine matters and senior staff accepted and obeyed reminders from any staff member. The farm staff were wonderful in their dedication to and observance of quarantine protocol. They contributed valuable ideas and improvements over the years. Their lot was made more difficult when they had to work under different disease protocols both at the NPRU and also at outside piggeries.

Research carried out by the NPRU staff was wide and varied and included such areas as health, nutrition, physiology, reproduction, effluent disposal, carcass evaluation and industry demonstrations.

Close liaison with and strong input from industry assisted the Unit in carrying out many projects of direct application, which were promptly taken up and implemented by producers. A few examples were projects on mange, leptospirosis, parvovirus, reproduction, evaluation of local grains and proteins, vetch feeding problems, housing and environment, farrowing accommodation, flushing systems and flooring materials.

The first stock for the NPRU were introduced on 20 November 1970 from the New South Wales Wonga SPF herd and consisted of 20 LW gilts and three boars. Two weeks later, mating began ahead of schedule when some gilts escaped from their stalls and undid the catch on the outside of a boar pen releasing the boar. This resulted in two matings. It was decided the best policy was ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ and full-scale mating was commenced. Also, gates replaced the chains behind the sow stalls.

From the beginning an electronic backfat tester was used and replacement breeding stocks were selected on performance, foot soundness, teating, general conformation and family temperament. An inbreeding coefficient was added later.

The introduction of new genetic material was tailored to preserve the SPF status. The methods used were purchasing boars from SPF units, hysterectomy, ovum transfer and introduced semen. In addition, one litter was segregated at birth and immediately isolated from a sow held in quarantine. A. and S. Auldenhoven loaned the pregnant sow; the litter was donated to the NPRU in 1972. Arrangements were made with A. and N. Fyfe to have one of their cull-for-age sows super-ovulated, mated and four days later sent to slaughter. About 30 minutes after the sow was killed, the uterus was removed on the slaughter chain and conveyed to the NPRU, where 12 embryos were recovered and surgically implanted to the NPRU gilt. This dead sow procedure was thought to be a world first and resulted in the birth of 10 piglets on 12 April 1983.

The first successful ‘within Unit’ artificial insemination was carried out in 1971; and the first introduced semen was brought in during 1982. The first of numerous hysterectomies from outside sows was carried out in 1974. The early artificial insemination work was carried out using treated milk to mix with the semen. Both the lunchroom milk and the semen mixture were stored in the same refrigerator: when certain visitors attended the Unit, staff delighted in pretending that they had got the containers mixed up making white tea or coffee a doubtful option!

In 1979 the first ‘within Unit’ ovum transfer was carried out resulting in the birth of five piglets. A team led by Dr Peter Whyte carried out the highly successful ovum transfer work.

Following the ovum transfer work, genetic manipulation was used to establish a line of transgenic pigs, with less fat and an increased growth rate.

The first attempt to introduce a live boar in 1972 ended in failure. The boar, air freighted from a SPF stud in Queensland, was dead on arrival. When the Officer-in-Charge (OIC) met the plane to pick up the boar a Monty Pythonesque situation arose, a la the ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch. A much-abbreviated version went something like:
OIC: ‘That pig is dead’.
Airline representative: ‘No it isn’t’.
OIC: ‘Of course it is’.
Airline rep.: ‘It’s not dead, it’s sleeping’.
OIC: ‘Look, I know a … dead pig when I see one, and I’m not signing for a dead pig’.
Senior airline official arrives and agrees that the pig is dead.

Dr Kevin Dobson led the early research work in health, followed by Drs Colin Cargill, Peter Whyte, Andrew Pointon and Peter Davies, while R.L. (Dick) Davies and Doug Hughes led the work on nutrition.

A very important step of direct benefit to pig producers was the development by Andrew Pointon of the Pig Health Monitoring Scheme. The scheme operated from the NPRU: the staff were heavily involved, especially in setting up the operation.

Providing quarantine requirements were met, the Unit welcomed visitors. The NPRU staff played a significant educational and training role, with lectures and practical demonstrations to pig producers and staff from the Department of Agriculture, universities, TAFE colleges, agricultural colleges and schools.

Despite the great successes achieved by the Unit’s research staff there were sad times. The first was the departure of Bronte Stone to go to work in America. This was a severe blow as Bronte Stone, in his brilliant style, was mainly responsible for the huge successes in reproductive physiology and piggery environment. The next loss was the death of Dick Davies. He was associated with the Unit from its beginning: along with Hughes, he had set up the nutrition side of the NPRU. Davies had continued the very successful pig nutrition work, giving great benefits to the industry. He was mainly responsible for the planning and equipping of the new physiology building, which he operated until his death in 1991. Other losses to the Unit’s research staff occurred when Drs Cargill, Pointon, Whyte and Davies left to perform other duties. Fortunately, both Cargill and Pointon returned to the NPRU to continue their excellent work.

Plans to relocate the research facility to Monarto in the mid 1970s caused considerable disruption for a long period. Development and forward plans were put on hold and plans were prepared for a new Research Unit. While that relocation did not eventuate, the Northfield Pig Research team is being relocated to a new facility at Roseworthy College.