Transforming Research into Reality

From theory to practice: How can pork producers apply research in their own farm operations?

by Dr. Hyatt Frobose

I recall during my graduate studies, that there was a somewhat heated exchange between my professors who were debating the economic value and practicality of my primary research project.

One dismissed the proposal due to his suspicion that it could never be reasonably applied in commercial systems, but another stopped him and reminded all of us that in basic animal research, it is not the responsibility of the researcher to determine feasibility, but to first determine if the pigs are able to respond to the experimental objectives from a physiological standpoint.

He stated, “Once we understand what the pigs are capable of, commercial pork producers will determine whether the results are interesting enough to apply in their own operations.”

This debate during my formative years still resonates with me, but I find myself looking at things from a very different angle today.

As USA Commercial Director for JYGA Technologies, one of my responsibilities is to determine how producers can best utilize the precision feeding technologies we offer and configure them for success, which typically centers on a delivering a rapid return on investment. Although many researchers continue to pursue creative ideas at the university level, I’ve found that workers in the barn are often some of the best innovators, as they can easily pinpoint where the ‘need’ is greatest.

While many approach applied research differently, at JYGA our goal is to first determine an environment where the product/strategy has an opportunity to produce a significant response.

For example, several years ago we decided to mimic published ruminant research by developing a pre-farrow feeding program where strategic night feeding could induce a higher percentage of sows to farrow during daytime hours. If successful, this strategy was proposed to reduce the number of stillborn piglets, decrease the reliance on synthetic induction drugs, and possibly reduce the need for night shift workers.

To accomplish this, we first found two commercial farms willing to test different night feeding times to see if there was a meaningful response. We quickly received anecdotal reports from the farms that the evening feeding times used in cattle/sheep research were causing most of the sows to farrow in the middle of the night!

While concerning, these initial reports indicated to us that time of feeding was impacting the onset of farrowing. Therefore, the next step was to revise the pre-farrow feeding time to later at night.

Meanwhile, we found a willing commercial farm that had been experiencing around 10 percent stillborn per litter due to disease pressure, making them a perfect site to properly test this approach. With the help of some outstanding interns on site, we conducted a properly designed trial where we were able to significantly reduce the farm’s stillbirth rate and shorten farrowing duration in sows fed during the night pre-farrow.

Why is this example relevant? As is so often the case for many things in life, the details matter and understanding how to apply a product or a strategy can make it financially worthwhile or a complete waste of time.

The latter held true when a producer asked us to modify our electronic feeding system in pen gestation to deliver a daily dose of altrenogest to gilts to synchronize estrus in gilts. While the feeding system delivered the appropriate dose of altrenogest, since entry into the feeding station was voluntary, gilts received their daily meal at inconsistent times and the response to the estrus synchronization agent was variable. The product delivering altrenogest worked, but the implementation of the product made it largely ineffective at the original goal.

These small examples may illustrate the challenges faced by companies like JYGA who work to take good ideas and apply them in farms where they have to perform on a day in, day out basis with minimal issues.

One of the biggest areas of research interest we have today is in the application of diet blending in farms.

Developed to give nutritionists and farm personnel the ability to feed an individualized diet to each animal on each day of their production cycle, diet blending technology truly fits the description of precision feeding.

Graph showing diet blend matching pig requirements
Figure 3 Illustration of the ability of diet blending to match growing pig requirements.

Many readers can envision animals that might benefit from this approach such as feeding a low intake lactating gilt a higher nutrient diet while giving a fifth parity sow a cheaper diet because her appetite may be twice that of her neighbor.

But where is the opportunity greatest? How can we anticipate an animals’ needs to minimize human intervention and make the application of the technology user-friendly and drive value?

Sometimes the best value of the product may not even be part of the original goal. Case in point, our feed blending technology has been picked up by several farms using it to simplify feed delivery needs for varying ages of growing pigs, such as gilts in an on-site gilt development unit. Figure 2.

Gestal Evo Opti Feeders
Figure 2 Gilts fed with Gestal Evo Opti feeders to deliver different diets to varying age groups.

While being able to match requirements of gilts more closely at different ages does have intrinsic value (Figure 2), producers often report the most obvious benefit is the simplicity of managing feed delivery logistics by the mill and minimizing the risk of bin delivery mistakes.

While these prior examples illustrate how different existing technologies are being used in varying ways to apply known opportunities, companies like JYGA also need to develop new products and find ways to capture additional value.

Today, precision feeding techniques have been most researched and implemented in high value animals like gestating and lactating sows as well as growing boars and gilts. However, there is increased interest in applications for growing nursery and finishing pigs due to recent increases in diet cost and opportunities to reduce animal variation.

Justifying the cost of technology to feed each pig individually may seem far-fetched at present, but just consider some of the potential applications for this technology.

Producers needing to take the first load of market-weight pigs out of the farm could use the feed system to identify animals within each pen that had consumed sufficient feed and should be marketed–without the need for a scale or individual body cameras.

Within the same pen, pigs with lower feed intake could be given a more nutrient dense blend of diets, while high intake pigs could be given a cheaper diet to optimize cost and minimize unnecessary nutrient excretion.

Moreover, recent research has shown that feeding different diets at different times of day per pig can also yield performance benefits, something presently impossible without individual feeding capabilities.

Additional applications abound - for health-challenged pigs the feed system could deliver within-feed (or water) medications to individuals, or simply to make on-farm real-time adjustments to lysine to energy ratios using feed blending, since sick pigs are known to have higher requirements.

For skeptics who may not see sufficient value in individually feeding the entire barn, a sentinel pen within each barn could deliver real-time data to decision makers such as a sample of animal feed intakes as well as indication (and physical record) of feed outage events. Figure 1.

sentinel pen for pig feeding
Figure 1 Use of a sentinel pen with individualized feeding as an indicator of barn performance.

These prior examples are a great way to show how known, published research can be applied in commercial production and deliver value to the slat-level producer. The value proposition of each of these potential applications may vary wildly depending on local conditions.

The farm in Hawaii feeding high-cost grain from mainland USA may see greater returns from precision feeding than an Iowa land-based producer with low ingredient costs, but it is important for these options to be adequately vetted by experts, fully functional and ready-to-use when the situation is favorable.

We must also remember that farmers are the ultimate innovators, and they will identify other applications where costs can be reduced, performance can be enhanced, or labor can be optimized.

With the right tools placed at their disposal, pork producers are and will continue to be the experts in transforming research into reality.

Dr. Hyatt Frobose

Dr. Hyatt Frobose serves as the USA Commercial Director and Nutritionist for JYGA Technologies, Inc., a Quebec-based company producing GESTAL brand precision feeding systems for the swine industry. Dr. Frobose specializes in assisting swine producers with group-housing solutions and nutritional programs to optimize performance and welfare of sows and growing pigs in commercial environments. Since completing his Ph.D. in swine nutrition and management at Kansas State University in 2015, Dr. Frobose has been a featured speaker and specialist working with producers around the world in adopting new technologies and adapting to increased animal welfare standards. In his role with JYGA, he has assisted with the design or renovation of over 200 sow farms representing over 400,000 sows. Dr. Frobose and his family are based in Greeley, KS, and are actively involved in their church, local 4-H programs and seedstock Gelbvieh cow/calf operation.