Precision Feeding is The Future of Swine Production

Kyra Lightburn

What’s the future of swine production in Ontario? One thought is precision feeding gestating sows for increased economic efficiency and decreased environmental impact, say researchers at the University of Guelph.

A new study underway by graduate student Quincy Buis and Prof. Kees de Lange will investigate how precision feeding technology will impact grouphoused sows over the course of three gestation periods at the University’s Arkell Swine Research Facility.

Their vision is to integrate precision agriculture technology developed at Arkell, with the current Nutrient Requirements of Swine model from the USA’s National Research Council to improve existing feeding methodologies. “By continuing to improve production efficiencies through individual sow management, we can economically benefit farmers and, at the same time, reduce the environmental emissions associated with swine production,” says Buis.

A driving force behind the project is the impending requirement for farmers to switch to group housing for mated sows and gilts, as outlined in the 2014 version of the Codes of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs. The regulation change, which will do away with housing gestating sows individually in gestation stalls, has been very controversial and has left many producers concerned about the costs these housing changes will incur.

Simply put, says Buis, many of today’s consumers are demanding open housing, and these demands are being formalized through regulation changes. Buis’ project seeks to cushion the economic burden on farmers, who are required to alter their infrastructure through balancing the costs of transitioning to individual sow feeding technology with producer savings as a result of increased feed efficiency.

In particular, Buis and de Lange estimate that by more closely meeting changing nutrient requirements of gestating sows, they can improve nutrient utilization efficiency, reducing feeding costs $10 per sow per gestation, while reducing nutrient losses into the environment.

Currently, a common practice for ensuring that gestation sows are getting the necessary nutrition is to simply use one common diet for all sows and feed so as to meet the highest dietary requirements of the gestation period. This overfeeds most sows for most of the gestation period, despite that it is well known that nutrient requirements increase rapidly towards the end of gestation and are higher in younger than older sows. As well, it is despite the fact that within groups of sows nutrient requirements of some sows can be double that of others.

By contrast, the computer controlled precision electronic feeding system developed for the project will adjust feeding levels and blends of diets to meet the nutrient and energy requirements of each sow individually. To recognize the sows upon entry to the feeding system, each will be provided with a unique electronic ear tag. Individual diets will then be determined based on factors such as body weight, stage of gestation, desired body condition, number of previous litters, activity level and anticipated litter size.

SowChoice Systems Electronic Sow Feeder

The precision feeding program’s success will be measured in part by comparing sow welfare and production variables - such as, sow health, litter size and quality of piglets at birth, sow lactation performance, subsequent conception rates, and sow behavior - with a control group of sows that are all fed the same standard gestation diet.

“We have a behaviorist, Dr. Stephaney Torrey, on the research team to address stereotypic sow behavior,” says Buis. “Our goal is to have very relaxed sows, as a result of having their nutritional needs met. If they are not relaxed, we expect they will return for feed more regularly.”

To fully assess the benefits of precision feeding gestating sows, Buis’ research will include a comparative evaluation of nutrient emissions and an economic costbenefit analysis.

The feeding system has been developed in partnership with Canarm AgSystems. It is a research specific system, which allows for a very high level of precision when blending feed and will have a working scale within the feeder. The Canarm electronic sow feeder is powered by PigCHAMP Software.

For the Arkell Research Station, the precision feeding technology developed for Buis’ study might be the tip of the iceberg for new research projects. “The project fits well with the theme of precision agriculture, which is becoming an important theme in University of Guelph research,” says supervisor de Lange. “The innovations in software and robotics regarding precision feeding will provide a useful tool to explore other nutritional strategies for gestating sows. This includes exploring the effect of sow feeding on genetic imprinting of the fetus that can improve performance of the sows’ offspring,” he says.

For now, Buis is focused on his current project, estimating that the data collection phase will take him over the course of the next year and a half. “The sow gestation period is 114 days, and we are very interested in the carry over data from gestation to gestation period,” he says. “New questions always arise, but we hope to publish our findings within the next two years.”

Buis and de Lange both highlight the importance of disseminating their findings to local Ontario swine farmers. Consequently, they plan to share their information at swine industry extension events and feed industry conferences with pork producers and swine nutritionists. As well, says de Lange, the software will be integrated with the electronic sow feeders that will be marketed by Canarm AgSystems.

Buis and de Lange ultimately view their project as an opportunity to help continue improving the competitive edge of the Ontario pork industry. “Individual animal management through integrating knowledge of swine nutrition with technology will ensure welfare and production efficiencies are optimized, while decreasing environmental impact and, hopefully, continuing to grow this sector of the agricultural economy,” says Buis.

“The innovations in software and robotics regarding precision feeding will provide a useful tool to explore other nutritional strategies for gestating sows.”

Buis has been awarded a U of G – OMAFRA Highly Qualified Personnel scholarship to pursue his research.

Other collaborators on the project include Canarm Ag Systems for the manufacture of electronic sow feeders, Ontario Pork and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) for financial support, PigCHAMP for software development and the University of Guelph’s Swine Research Group and Arkell Research Station staff.

- Kyra Lightburn
Kyra Lightburn grew up on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. She is in her third year of pursuing a Bachelor of Science, majoring in agriculture at the University of Guelph. She is the first Ontario Agricultural College Alumni Foundation sponsored writer at the University of Guelph’s Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge program. When she is not studying or writing agricultural articles, you’ll find her knee deep in the spruce swamps of northern Alberta with her trusty red husky, working hard in reforestation to fund her education.