The path to achieving full-value market hogs starts early.
A group of uniform pigs is easier to manage, more efficiently utilizes inputs and broadens the opportunity to achieve full value at market. However, it’s no small achievement.
From the moment a piglet is born through the time it goes to market, the goals are to keep it healthy and growing. There’s no denying that the sow and genetics play a significant role in the pig’s development, but management strategies and people greatly influence the final outcome.
“Maximizing pig value is a central focus of our system,” says Justin Fix, PhD, director of genetics at The Maschhoffs. “It’s a metric that we measure every week throughout our system. From a genetics standpoint, it’s something we think about a lot.”
The bottom line is that production systems still leave a lot on the table due to pig variation. “In our data, we found that a producer, on average, gives up about $10 per pig due to not hitting the packer’s box,” says Valerie Duttlinger, data and production analyst with Swine Management Services. While some of that is determined by when and how hogs are marketed, there are opportunities to address uniformity along the way.
More Robust Piglets
Pigs per litter and mortality rates drive so many decisions, but piglet quality and robustness deserve more attention. Not all pigs are created equal,” Fix says. “As a geneticist, my focus is not on just having more pigs but having more quality pigs at birth.”
He contends that people don’t give enough consideration to how an extra pig or two in a large litter impacts the whole litter. “They will reduce their littermates’ weight, consume some milk and take up space — all of which have a cost,” he adds. “Not to mention the impact on the morale of employees who have to remove dead pigs from the crate.”
Birth weight carries a long-term impact. In his past research, Fix found that only 18 percent of light-birth-weight pigs survived to enter the finisher. As a general rule, he’s found that a piglet below 2.2 pounds has significantly less chance of reaching full value. “Pigs with low birth weights begin life smaller, gain less during all phases of production and, as a result, are lighter at any given point,” he says. Research has shown that light-birth-weight pigs also have fewer muscle fibers and less longissimus muscle area.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and some light-weight pigs will catch up if given special attention. However, the vast majority will not, Fix says.
On the sow farm, within the litter, is the first opportunity to address pig uniformity. It starts by ensuring that every piglet gets an adequate dose of colostrum, which may require split suckling. Success depends on implementation, and that means monitoring, marking and rotating piglets in a timed pattern. There’s about a 24-hour window for colostrum, after which it turns to milk.
Cross-fostering piglets can be an option to even out a litter and provide all piglets access to milk and functional teats. But again, success depends on the details. “Workers try to do it right, but often they’re fostering more than they need to,” Fix says. It’s important to track cross-fostering, as well as the piglets’ outcome to know for sure. Also, it’s best to cross-foster sooner, once piglets get colostrum, versus later.
Weaning Is Key
Moving pigs into the nursery or wean-to- finish barn is where management can have the greatest impact on uniformity and, ultimately, full-value pigs. Overall, weaning age is skewing older to provide more durable pigs.
Emphasis is often placed on weight, but it’s more important to place the right pigs into the barn. “A small but healthy-looking pig, with some extra care, could become a full-value pig,” Duttlinger says. “But a big pig that’s gaunt and rough haired — it may be too late.”
Assess weaned pigs from nose to tail as you load them into the barn. Look for unthrifty pigs, rough hair, prominent backbones, flat bellies, coughing, labored breathing, eyes that aren’t clear or shiny.
A simple scoring or grading system can help classify pigs. But do not sort pigs into groups by size. In fact, research shows that unsorted pigs have better average daily gain and feed intake, and finish 3.9 pounds heavier than their sorted counterparts. Rather, the objective is to pull off the bottom 10 percent and give them extra care.
According to Caleb Shull, PhD, director of research and development for The Maschhoffs, one time when it makes sense to segregate groups of pigs is if the sow farm had to wean litters early. “If the pigs are of a young weaning age, it’s good to pull them out right away and give them a supplemental diet and extra care,” he adds. Move them to a pen (or pens) where you can gruel feed, add brooders or other heat source and check them often.
It’s also important to identify pigs that will simply not recover. “As caretakers, we don’t want to euthanize pigs,” Duttlinger says. “But for the ones that won’t improve, recover or are suffering, the humane thing to do is to euthanize them.”
That consideration applies throughout all production phases. “We tend to think the pigs will get better and some just won’t,” she adds.
Help Make the Transition
For all weaned pigs, the critical step is to help them transition from a liquid diet to solid feed. For Duttlinger, the priority is to mimic the nursing cycle. “These pigs are used to being called to eat; so, we need to do that until they learn to have meals on their own,” she says. “Feed pigs every couple of hours, six to eight times a day for the first 7 to 10 days.”
Providing feed on mats can help get pigs started. “This practice also lets you view them easily to identify which pigs may be falling behind,” Shull notes. Adding lactose products or spray-dried plasma in the early-starter diet can entice pigs to eat and help meet their nutrient needs.
Open up water lines for the first couple of days to make it easy for pigs to find the source. Liquid supplements such as electrolytes can help prevent dehydration in newly weaned pigs.
“You need a team that can identify pigs that aren’t eating and are falling behind,” Shull emphasizes. “After multiple days of not eating, pigs get to a stage where it’s difficult to turn them around.”
Check pigs at least twice a day, more often during the first week, and be sure to get them up. “I have producers who have 24-hour care for the first week in nurseries,” Duttlinger notes. That’s not practical for everyone, but increasing labor may be worth considering, particularly in double-stocked barns.
Having extra eyes on the pigs will pay off in terms of meeting their environmental needs as well. Chilling is the big concern and much too common. Drafts can easily occur when ceiling air is pulled down through the slats. In wean-to-finish barns, Shull advises providing brooders or heaters for the first few weeks after weaning.
Of course, always clean, inspect and repair the building and equipment before loading in pigs. “The little things can make a big impact,” Shull says. “Things like making sure all the fans and heaters are working properly will help ensure all pigs have the right environment.” Check temperatures, drafts, air quality, humidity and controllers daily.
Other priorities for weaned pigs include monitoring for enteric disease; look for loose stools and scouring pigs. “Producers need to get ahead of that,” Shull adds, “especially if a population typically struggles with an enteric pathogen.”
If starting weaned pigs is a constant struggle, look at the sow farm first, as that’s where problems start. Determine if there’s a wide variation in weaning age and whether fall-behind pigs are being identified and receiving extra care.
The Last Opportunity
Once pigs enter the grow/finish stage, there is less opportunity to correct problems, Fix says. But management continues to make the difference. Now the feed issue is to make sure that pigs never run out. Monitor water use; if you see a significant change (i.e., 20 percent) in a day, there’s a leak or a health problem.
As pigs get older, individual versus group treatment is the priority. Walk the pens, not just down the alley, every day. Spend 2 seconds looking at each pig and get them up, Duttlinger says. Move sick and fallbehind pigs into a hospital pen. Early treatment for the right issue with the right medication is the surest road to possible recovery.
Sending uniform pigs to market and achieving full value largely depends on people and their ability to assess pig weights. Pull the largest pigs from all of the pens to make up a load.
The first load is challenging because you don’t have a reference point, and some pigs grow faster than expected. Also, it’s easy to lose track of a market-ready pig in a large group. Weighing a sub-set or measuring their girth can provide perspective. “It’s important to get that first load out at the right weight,” Shull says. “If your first load is heavy, it can be difficult to get caught up on the remaining loads.”
Sorting into tight groups consistently is the path to receiving full value. “Every packer has a different box outlining the criteria for their top market hog,” Duttlinger says. “Packers focus on standard deviations — they want cookie-cutter hogs.” Any pigs that fall on either side of the box will be docked.
Uniformity improves with the second and third cuts, largely because the biggest pigs are gone. The last cut often is the least uniform because you have to empty the barn. But actively monitoring the population, anticipating weights and sending pigs at the right time makes a difference.
Finally, you have to keep a score card so you know where you stand compared to past performance and to others. “Producers don’t use closeout information enough, and individual carcass information is being ignored,” Duttlinger says.
Making changes or improvements is best achieved through documentation. “When you know what’s happening, you are much more powerful in your decision making,” Fix says. The packer knows how your hogs performed for them, but there’s equal value in monitoring that data for yourself.
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Originally from Cedar Falls, Iowa, Brent grew up with an agricultural background and graduated from Iowa State University. Most recently, he helped ethanol, biodiesel, fertilizer and power-generation plants in the Midwest design and construct their thermal heating and control systems.
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