Profit Robbers

These are mistakes you cannot afford to make.

By Timothy J. Loula

My partners and I at the Swine Vet Center work diligently with clients to maximize efficiency (i.e., produce the most pigs at the lowest cost), and strive to make them "best profit producers." In reality, these things should always be done but with the current financial crisis, producers must continually look for every way possible to achieve efficiency. Following are the areas we feel are most important.

Performance Indicators

Death Loss:
Death loss must get back to pre-1998 levels. The Circovirus vaccine has had a tremendous effect since 2006, leading to reduced death loss, improved average daily gain (ADG), improved immune capability of the pig, and generally some of the best health we've seen. Once again, we are seeing 1% death loss or less in the nursery and 2% death loss or less in the grow-finish phase. We are even seeing some wean-to-finish death loss at 2-3%.

Total Born/Born Alive:
Producers must achieve high total born/born alive numbers to maximize the efficiency of the sow herd. Most genetics are now capable of achieving over 14 total born and over 13 born alive. Herds should be achieving these numbers to produce a cost-competitive weaned pig.

Pigs per Sow per Year (PSY):
We are starting to see herds consistently achieve 30 pigs/sow/year and we feel farms should be in the 27-29 PSY range. Achieving numbers above that benchmark is exceptional and below that number means it's time to figure out why. Achieving high PSY lowers the average cost of the weaned pig.

Gilt Performance:
Over the past 5-6 years, producers have focused on better gilt production. Gilts have tremendous potential and their performance can be very consistent when managed correctly. It is not uncommon to see 13.5 total born and 93-94% farrowing rates on gilts.

Go for Best Biologic Performance

Stocking Density:
Many farms had been double and even triple stocking wean-to-finish barns or early phase nurseries. Pigs have a higher chance of becoming infected because crowding affects biologic performance. In this time of low profit margins, spread your pigs out and give them the proper amount of space so they can achieve their best biological gain.

Weaning Age:
A large percentage of our farms have gone to an older wean age (22- 24 days). With the increased total born/born alive seen on today's farms, weaning at 16-19 days produces too many small pigs that have trouble surviving the grow-finish phase. It is unprofitable to feed these small pigs high-priced corn. An older weaning age gives you bigger pigs that will survive the grow-finish phase, and these are full-value pigs. Most of the research in wean age has been done on the improvement in grow-finish, but we are also seeing tremendous improvement in reproductive efficiency. Sows have increased farrowing rates, increased total born, decreased wean-to-first-service interval, decreased non-productive days, increased pigs weaned/sow and increased weaning weight. All of these are very important to overall profitability of the sow farm.

Single-Filling Wean-to-Finish:
A big savings related to single filling is less transportation to haul feeder pigs. Less transportation also means less labor for loading/handling, washing barns, and washing trucks. This also yields better performance because you have shorter fill times and nutritional needs are often better met in a single-fill vs. a double-fill.

Ranking Operators and Fixing/Removing the Bottom Percentage:
60% or more of pork production costs are feed cost, and 60% of the feed cost is incurred during the grow-finish phase. So, improving the efficiency of the grow-finish phase is paramount to improving the "bottom line." Many systems with multiple finishing sites have some poor operators. These operators may have built barns solely to have access to the manure for fertilizer value with very little interest in caring for the pigs effectively. We are trying to eliminate these operators from our clients' systems. We either train them, change their habits, or remove them from the list.

Producing and Marketing Full-Value Pigs
Most producers sell under some kind of matrix or box-type formula, where they get premiums for pigs in the desired weight and carcass characteristics range. Obviously production practices must allow you to produce a high level of full-value pigs with the goal at 94-95% of all pigs weaned falling into this category. But it's not only production; it also involves marketing. Selecting the right pigs for every load is critical. Proper handling of pigs during loading and trucking to reduce death loss during this process is also critical.

"Right-Sizing" the Farm:
This goes along with weaning age and finishing space requirements, etc. We are running computer models with our clients to make sure we're not pushing the system and thereby hurting biological efficiency.

Health Treatments

Challenge Extra Treatments:
Producers are re-evaluating extra shots, such as premium antibiotics at processing and at weaning. They are also doing the same for water and feed medications. In the past, we routinely put in antibiotics post-weaning or pulse water medication at 2-3 weeks into the nursery, but now we are re-evaluating whether these practices are necessary. We also re-think treatments given to low- or non-viable piglets.

Target Treatments:
Rather than adding feed medication to one entire ration, we are re-diagnosing disease and selecting the right drug (and often the cheaper drug) and are making sure that it's used at the correct time. We want to change antibiotic use from a shotgun approach to that of a guided laser.

Use More Injectable Products:
We constantly remind producers that they will spend less money and will be more effective with early identification and treatment of pigs via injection vs. mass treatment of pigs through the feed or water.

Review Vaccination Protocols:
Look for opportunities to save costs in this area. We are reducing PLE (Parvo-Lepto-Erysipelas) vaccination on older sows. Pre-farrowing vaccine usage for scours has also been reduced where there is a good feedback program in place. Many pre-farrowing shots will also occasionally abort animals, so we're taking less of that risk.

Euthanize Pigs with No Chance of Making Full-Value Pigs:
This practice can start and be implemented in all stages of production. The sooner these pigs are recognized and dealt with, the less costly they are. Consider this management practice for pigs that are small and weak at birth (less than 1.5 lbs.); substandard or small at weaning (less than 6 lbs.) or feeder pigs that are less than 20 to 25 lbs. We end up spending too much time, medication and labor in the grow-finish phase, only to euthanize these poor-doing pigs at a big loss.

Problem Diseases:
There are some diseases that we just should not have anymore. They should be eliminated while we have the opportunity in a down market. Examples include swine dysentery, APP (Actinobacillus pleuropneumoniae), atrophic rhinitis, and possibly Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) and Mycoplasma in low-density pig areas.

Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) Management:
You must have a very manageable PRRS program. In our practice, we see PRRS-free sow herds located out of the southern Minnesota - northern Iowa hog-dense areas. It's amazing that in the last 5-10 years, producers have learned how easy it is to eliminate PRRS from a herd and with normal biosecurity measures, they are able to keep PRRS out of the herd if they are not located in a hog-dense area. In hog-dense areas, you must have a dedicated GDU (gilt development unit) where you can expose the gilts to your strain of PRRS to get them PRRS-positive and immune. We normally use some type of vaccine in the sow herd to try to keep ongoing immunity at an elevated level.

Grow-Finish PRRS Control:
The goal of sow farm programs is to produce a negative pig, either from a positive stable herd or from a negative herd. These pigs that are put on feed in southern Minnesota, northern Iowa or any hog-dense area have tremendous risk of lateral PRRS exposure, so we commonly vaccinate them with a modified live vaccine to reduce any high death loss. This protocol has been used for 2-3 years on millions of pigs and I believe it has been quite successful.

Barn Filtration:
With the knowledge gained about filtration, it appears the cost of filtration can be recaptured by eliminating just one PRRS event. This becomes a significant return on investment if implemented in high-density problem areas. PRRS is the most expensive disease we deal with in the swine industry and it has been for quite some time. I am disappointed that we haven't taken better advantage of the present financial crisis to have a North American PRRS Eradication Program.

Feeds and Feeding

Automatic Lactation Feeders:
The majority of our clients use these feeders now. Very little feed wastage occurs with the automatic lactation feeders and we've been able to increase feed intake by approximately 2 lbs. (.91 kg) per sow per day with automatic lactation feeders.

Feed Particle Size:
We are again checking particle size lows, going to 500-600 microns on most feed to try to get the maximum value out of the feed. I was hesitant in the past to do this, especially on sows because we previously saw so many ulcer events that lead to either dead pigs or pale/poor doing pigs. It seems that with the Circovirus vaccine we don't see those outbreaks anymore, so once again we have to push particle size down to maximize feed efficiency.

Holding Pigs off Feed:
Pigs will eat 4 to 5 lbs. of feed per day. Pigs held off feed from 12 to 18 hours prior to slaughter will suffer less transportation losses and will provide a better carcass, so not only do you save that feed cost, but you have better meat quality as well. This can be a significant savings for farms.

On-Farm Management

Fall and Spring Issues:
During harvest and planting seasons, many producers don't do a good job of pig management. They don't identify sick pigs quickly enough, don't give enough shots, and don't euthanize/remove pigs in a timely manner. Ventilation mistakes are also more common. When we're pumping manure in deep-pitted facilities, we often have mistakes that can result in gassing and death of pigs. We go into planting and harvest seasons now with a "pre-game strategy" to make sure that these mistakes do not happen.

Energy Costs:
Energy is a major cost in North America. We conduct energy audits on farms to find heat leaks and we check controllers to make sure they are being used cost effectively. We put extra insulation in curtain openings and unused fans in the winter, and are considering more hovers.

Records Systems:
Detailed system records can pinpoint where death losses occur and help you do the proper diagnostics to determine how best to reduce death loss. Historical records are also important to help us find out if there are seasonal issues that can be prevented in the future.

Properly train farm staff so they understand prevention measures and daily management to help maximize production, which will help lower costs. Also, doing a better job of managing health and production leads to more satisfied workers. Managers and owners often underestimate how depressing poor health and bad production are to farm staff and, in turn, how these factors influence labor retention.

These are difficult times for the swine industry but we must still implement best management practices to run our farms as efficiently as possible. Those who "right-size" and "best cost" their units will be among the survivors.

Editor's Note: Dr. Loula is with the Swine Vet Center in Saint Peter, Minnesota. (www.swinevetcenter.com)