Prepare a Survival Kit

Here are important tips to reduce feed costs and improve efficiencies.

By David Meisinger


Times are tough for U.S. pork producers: Feed prices are high and likely will stay at some new high level for the foreseeable future. Market hog prices are currently low with a record volume of pork on the market. Demand is good and packer slaughter capacity is not being challenged, which are both blessings. However, in spite of the positives in the market, essentially all producers are seeking ways to economize, cut costs, improve efficiencies and generally work to improve profitability. It was in this vein that the National Pork Board began accumulating a list of tips for addressing high feed costs and high production costs.

These statements were collected from a large list of Pork Checkoff committee members representing many facets of the pork industry: producers with small and large hog operations, extension specialists, veterinarians, allied industry representatives, researchers and government employees. Dr. Ken Stalder of Iowa State University, Dr. Mark Boggess of the Pork Board and I embellished the list of tips by adding content. We developed recommendations in each area with a firm link to some publication where more information could be found to support the assertions made in the tips.

Some of the tips are so easy and commonplace that they almost go unnoticed by many operators.

There were 44 tips in eight categories including feed processing and manufacturing, feed management, feed formulation, management, health, marketing and genetics. Eighteen different sources of information were found to support the recommendations made in the tips document. These included references from most of the Midwest hog states publications which are shown as links in the publication.

Some of the tips are so easy and commonplace that they almost go unnoticed by many operators. Some have small impacts while others can add significantly to the bottom line. The following is a quick review of a few of the tips specific to feed formulation, feed management and feed processing that can help producers optimize their operations and maximize their profits:

Feed Management

Monitor feed ingredients for potential mycotoxin contamination: Scientists have identified several mycotoxins that cause significant, detrimental health and performance problems in swine fed contaminated plant-based feedstuffs. Fungal infestation and subsequent mycotoxin production can occur during plant growth, maturity, harvesting, storage and processing of grains, and is influenced primarily by moisture level, temperature and availability of oxygen. In addition, grain that is damaged, immature, drought stricken or otherwise stressed is more susceptible to mold growth.

Monitor feed allocations or budgeted amounts and utilize least-cost formulations: Follow feed budgets aggressively to ensure accurate compliance for each class of pig. Inaccurate rations or incorrect budgets decrease efficiencies and increase costs. For example, rations that have mistakes due to inaccurate scales or measurement, or rations that are formulated for the incorrect class or pig weight are inefficient and increase costs. Formulating diets with economic costs in the equation, as well as modeling input requirements, will allow the development of diets at optimum performance and least-cost ingredients. There are always trade-offs, so be aware of any detrimental effects of diet formulation on overall cost and/or performance.

Reevaluate phase feeding and options for split sex feeding: Review all protocols for each ration phase. Make sure your weight categories and genetic description fit your current rations for each phase as closely as possible. Consider split-sex feeding to further increase feed efficiency. Both of these techniques can improve the accuracy of your rations and increase your production efficiencies. Consider finishing rations that limit or eliminate excess nutrients just prior to slaughter to lower feed costs on your heaviest hogs.

Target sows’ nutrients: Improve sow productive lifetime by targeting diets for different parity ranges. Diets should have higher protein and energy levels for replacement gilts through parity two to prevent excess mobilization of body reserves during lactation. As sows become older, micronutrients (zinc, copper, iron, etc.) become critical nutrients that need to be maintained at high levels in order to maximize production efficiency. Consider the added costs of additional feed storage and delivery equipment in gestation and lactation, and strategies to sort and feed sows accordingly against the benefits of targeting sow nutrition more accurately and efficiently.

Decrease/eliminate feed outages: Feed outages significantly impact the efficiency of feed utilization in pigs. The frequency and duration of feed outages should be assessed and minimized or eliminated whenever possible.

Make measuring of feed intake/wastage part of the work routine: While difficult to measure feed intake on individual pigs, pen feed intake should be monitored continually to quickly recognize feed wastage, pen health problems, water quality/availability, ventilation challenges and other issues.

Check water flow and quality often: Water is an often-overlooked essential nutrient. Inadequate flow or availability of water or poor water quality can seriously impact performance or even cause death. Waterers should be easily accessible and checked regularly. Be sure they are delivering the designed volume at the proper rate. Check waterers furthest from the well head as this is the point at which pressure is likely to be the weakest. Excessive water use is also inefficient because it has to be hauled or pumped as manure.

Practice proper feed withdrawal prior to marketing hogs: Consider withdrawing feed from pigs to be marketed for up to 12 hours prior to harvest to save on feed consumed, lighten the actual live weight of the hogs marketed and enhance average carcass quality. For medicated feed, follow recommended withdrawal times for feed additives to prevent costly carcass condemnations, disruption of market channels, bad publicity for the pork industry or costly rejections of pork in foreign markets. Inadvertently including an ingredient that requires a withdrawal period may force a producer to feed a group of hogs longer than desired, which adversely impacts feed efficiency.

Feed Formulation

Use DDGS when available at cost effective prices: Distillers dried grains with soluble (DDGS) are readily available in most areas where pigs are fed and corn is grown. Where transport distance is feasible and product quality and variability can be verified, these byproducts are usually available at competitive prices. Be careful with feed formulation. Typical DDGS have only about 90% of the nutrient value of corn with a poor amino acid balance. Follow guidelines for inclusion rates closely.

Sows and older market hogs can utilize higher percentages of DDGS in their ration. However, high levels of DDGS in market hogs may negatively impact carcass quality. In proceedings from the 2007 Al Leman Conference, J.E. Pettigrew suggests the following:

  • Buy DDGS from one or a few plants with which you have developed a relationship
  • Buy only light-colored DDGS
  • Buy only DDGS in which lysine is at least 2.8 percent of crude protein
  • Avoid DDGS with a high level of “syrup balls”

Look for alternative feed ingredients: Alternative feedstuffs and byproducts are available in many areas. Some of these have become competitive with high grain prices. However, determine the nutritional profile of an alternative feedstuff and its feeding value at the price quoted before you decide to use it. Also, make sure you know the form in which it will be delivered so extra labor or machinery is not required to make it practical. Examples of alternative feedstuffs include bakery products, glycerin (byproduct of biodiesel manufacturing), poultry fat, etc.

Use crystalline amino acids to replace protein ingredients: The cost of many crystalline amino acids such as lysine, methionine, tryptophan and threonine have decreased to the extent that replacement of soybean meal in the diet can result in a very palatable, semi-synthetic diet for the pigs with real cost savings. Producers should aggressively monitor ingredient prices and reformulate rations accordingly.

Reduce traditional animal protein sources in starter diets for pigs: Animal protein sources should be strictly budgeted in starter diets. Research from North Dakota State University suggests that lower cost, nutrient-dense, high performance, transition pig starter diets can be effectively prepared using reduced levels of spray-dried animal plasma, soy protein concentrate, spray-dried blood meal and dried whey when high energy hull-less oats and hard red spring (HRS) wheat are selected as basal grains. The nutrient-dense ingredients to use in pig starter formulations will depend largely on availability and current economics.

Recommended levels of DDGS in swine diets

Reformulate rations based on energy: Review animal requirements for both energy and amino acid levels. Historically, protein has been the most expensive component of a swine ration. Energy costs are currently higher in many rations than protein. Consequently, producers should pay close attention to both energy and protein costs to meet their pigs’ nutritional requirements. Rations should be reformulated as often as ingredient prices change. Currently for most producers, energy is the single most critical nutrient because it is the most expensive to provide in the diet. All other nutrients, including protein, are now less expensive and can always be included in amounts that meet or exceed the pig’s requirement for optimum growth.

Evaluate the use of antimicrobials, enzymes, acidifiers and other non-nutritive additives: Feed grade antimicrobials have been used for many years in numerous production systems to improve growth and efficiency in nursery and grow-finish hogs. Always follow the label requirements and monitor withdrawals closely. Certain enzymes, when added to the ration, may enhance efficiency. Acid blends and feed medications fall in this category as well. These opportunities should be evaluated for value in each operation. Understand the biological activity to best match the enzyme to your production system and watch for consistency and nutritive value issues with any enzyme or additive. Consider that these compounds may produce the largest return on your feed dollars invested if they produce even a small improvement in growth and/or efficiency in your rations. Now is the time to use all reasonably priced products that have a proven positive effect on feed efficiency.

Explore possible alternative sources of fat: The advantages to added fat in the diet are well established. However, there may be lower-cost alternatives with similar performance or functional values. Examples include choice white grease, tallow, poultry fat, vegetable oils, restaurant grease, etc. Diets based on metabolizable energy added fat may be more expensive than those featuring lower fat inclusion levels or alternatives to typical fat sources.

Ensure correct evaluation of ingredients: Assays of ingredients should be done routinely for nutrient levels and digestibility values so that diet formulation is accurate. In addition, purchasing some ingredients from a single source can help ensure consistency, and routine evaluation will help provide more uniform diets for efficient production. Standard operating procedures for product handling will result in a more consistent feed product. Check with your local swine Extension educator for a list of laboratories capable of performing feed analyses.

Feed Processing and Manufacturing

Decrease feed particle size: For every 100 micron change in particle size, feed efficiency is impacted by 1.2%. Decreasing particle size from 750 microns to 600 microns will result in substantial savings per pig. In most cases, this particle size is not fine enough to worry about ulcer problems, but feed dust will be increased.

Improve pellet quality: Fines cause feed wastage but feed utilization and efficiency can be improved by implementing a quality pelleting process that ensures less than 20% fines at the feeder. Research at Kansas State University (KSU) shows that pelleted diets result in more highly available nutrients, less dust, less feed wastage, better feed conversion and lower incidence of ulcer problems. Always check the cost of pelleting against expected efficiency gains to determine if pelleting is economically beneficial.

Maintain equipment for optimal efficiency: Rotate or replace hammers in the hammer mill to ensure consistent particle size. Also, make sure rolls on the roller mill are properly maintained for the desired particle size. Make sure that mixing equipment is maintained so that distribution of nutrients is ensured throughout the entire volume of feed. Also, calibrate and maintain the scales for weighing pigs and feed at least twice per year.

Consider use of wet-dry feeders: Wet-dry feeders may reduce feed wastage and dust because pigs can wet the feed to the consistency they desire. Palatability also is improved over dry diets, thereby increasing consumption and performance in some cases.

Repair or replace broken feeders: Broken or damaged feeders can result in excess cost due to feed wastage or inadequate feed provisions for the pigs, resulting in poor performance. Consider replacing older or inefficient feeders with well designed, efficient feeders that minimize feed wastage and promote maximum performance. Adjust feeders to reduce waste: Adjusting feeders

Adjust feeders to reduce waste: Adjusting feeders to reduce feed wastage should be a routine practice. Minor adjustments of feed bins and transport systems can also result in big savings.

KSU recommends the following steps for proper feeder adjustment:

  • Close feeder completely after cleaning before putting any feed in the feeder
  • Open feeder just enough to start small feed flow.
  • Shake feeder to increase amount of pellets or meal in pan (to cover 1/3 of pan).
  • Clean corners daily instead of increasing feeder adjustment to increase feed flow.
  • Prevent moisture damage and spoilage in feed systems and storage.
  • Eliminate all rodents, birds and other pests.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Meisinger is Executive Director of the U.S. Pork Center of Excellence. The entire list of tips, which provides suggestions for additional savings and efficiencies can be seen on the Pork Information Gateway by clicking the hot button on the home page at www.porkgateway.org and additional information can be found at www.farms.com. Also, all the references for more information showing extension publications, fact sheets, and brochures are linked on the site as well.