Feeding pigs for profit

01 April 2017

As published in PORCUS - March 2016  As producers, we should provide optimal intake of an optimal diet for the correct weight of pigs. Pigs that are moving into the early finishing stage enter an unpredictable phase of rapid lean growth. The art is to find a way to positively influence this stage or try to manipulate it to maximise profit per square metre. The aim should be to limit the amount of variation and have more uniformity. However, variation is an inevitable part of pork production.

An Optimal Diet for the Correct Pig Weight

In short, the diet should complement the weight of the pig keeping in mind that we want to mine its genetic potential of being more efficient by making use of the correct diet. During this unpredictable stage of growth, we need to look at some of the variables that we can use to realise the goal that we are working towards – maximum kg/m². In many cases the exceptional quality of feed will not compensate for poor genetics/slow growth or overstocking. There is a very fine line between biological performance vs. profitability.  It is not profitable to fly a plane on normal unleaded fuel, and the same applies to using jet fuel to run a mini.

The Environment

The environment is most probably the biggest variable. The environment is different for each operation, for e.g. open sided housing vs. environmentally controlled housing vs. semi environmentally controlled housing, fully slatted vs. partially slatted, different feeders, stocking density, the list goes on. If you know what your limitations are, you are able to compensate for them or improve them. If you know that your pens are running slightly cooler than optimal, adjust the feed to compensate for the potential loss of energy spent trying to keep warm. The same applies if you know that on average the temperatures in the pens are too high, it will most definitely be detrimental to feed intake and subsequently growth. By knowing that, compensate with perhaps a slightly denser ration while you ensure that with each mouth full of feed you are offering the pig you create the best chance to succeed. Take note of what your breeding company suggests to be optimal environmental targets, and try to work closer to creating an optimal environment for the animal to perform optimally.

Time and Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR)

We are all aiming to produce the heaviest animal in the shortest possible time.  Together with this come input costs. In general, a faster growth rate will have a positive impact on FCR and feed cost per kg live weight gain. Keep in mind that current genetics are producing a more efficient pig. This translates into improved lean growth together with the ability to make use of higher density rations working towards the common goal of maximising the kilograms produced per square metre. However, for some genotypes a faster growth rate can lead to fatter pigs.

This can have two negative effects:
  • A higher (worse) FCR which increases input costs
  • Penalties in the price per kilogram deadweight if an increased number of pigs fall outside the higher grades of the contract

FCR can be a useful method to assess the performance of the herd. This gives you an indication of how many kilograms of feed are being used to produce each kilogram of live weight gain.

An accurate FCR can be challenging and in most cases, it tends to be more accurate if it is measured over a longer period of time. If you establish a rolling average over 3 months it is a good indicator of how the herd is performing.

You can estimate the FCR for the different stages by using the following equation:

Tonnes of feed delivered over 3 months × 1 000
Number of pigs sold or transferred over 3 months × (weight out kg – weight in kg)

For example:

672 tonnes of feed × 1 000 = 2.70
  3 770 pigs × (101 kg – 35 kg)
Feed intake and water consumption

One should strive to have optimal feed intake and water consumption. This can be achieved with an optimal ration for the specific weight category of animal and if the water is cool and of good quality. It sounds easy enough, but this is a definite challenge in the daily management of the operation. Keep in mind that a pig will eat more or less 3% of its body weight in feed. Challenge yourself to provide good quality feed presented in a clean, dry feeder with good quality clean drinking water at all times. Familiarise yourself with the optimal targets set for the specific genetics you have on the farm and measure where you are, then compare and improve.

Water and feed works hand in hand.  If either one is limited or of poorer quality, it will have a direct impact on the performance of the animal. Take care when using water as the carrier for electrolytes, citric acid, antibiotics or other nutrients and ensure that it does not limit their consumption by the off-flavour of an additive. The same applies for feed additives or in-feed medication.  If pigs do not drink, they will not eat and performance is compromised. To develop the correct ration is dependent on many factors such as genetics, the environment, feed consumption patterns and carcass characteristics. These are all valuable components to help you understand what is required to formulate an optimal nutritional programme.

Heat Increment

Heat increment must be taken into account when you consider the composition of the specific ration. This refers to the energy requirement needed to break down an ingredient. Diets with lower heat increments make pigs feel cooler. High-fibre ingredients have a higher heat increment and thus give off more heat during digestion. Nutrient-dense or High density diets help to decrease the release of heat during digestion. This effectively increases the tolerance of heat in the pig and promotes feed intake.

One aspect of nutrition that is receiving much attention is Gut Health.  If we do not maintain an optimal environment and promote gut health, all of the time and effort spent in optimising performance is wasted. Take care of what additives or antibiotics are used in the feed, as they may influence what we are aiming to achieve negatively. The variation in the sizes of finisher pigs can also be addressed by the use of feed-grade antibiotics.

The use of antibiotics in a therapeutic or growth-promoting capacity is a legitimate way to control variation, but may become unavailable to use as we are awaiting possible changes in legislation. Always consult your Veterinarian about the use of antibiotics and other AGP’s together with the guidelines in your local pork quality assurance programme.

References: The Pig Site, SAPPO Article Archive, Reed Leiting, DVM Worthington Veterinary Clinic, Worthington, Minn. Oct 15, 2006