When pork producers on the grow-finish side call Jeff Morten, the two issues they bring up most often are labor and packer penalties.
“When it comes time to sort and go to market, they have to be sorted by hand — and it’s done typically by the producer just walking in. A lot of it is just by eyeball,” says the Wichita, Kan.-based sales manager for Nedap Livestock Management. “They get very skilled at kind of guessing weight ranges by looking at the size of the animal, but that takes a lot of labor — because one pen may be entirely ready, one pen might only have four animals that are ready.”
However, eyeballing is not always accurate and can result in opportunity losses at the packing plant.
“Inevitably in a grow-finish site, in one turn, you may have a few that get up to 320, even 330 [pounds], and they are way overweight, so there’s penalties for that as well as penalties for being underweight,” Morten says. “They want them at the sweet spot, and those can end up in ranges. Ultimately, it could cost you around $3 to $5 per animal, depending on how far out of range you are.”
Around 10 to 15 years ago, Morten says several producers tried implementing sorting scales in grow-finish sites, but it was a very primitive technology back then.
Now, automated feed management systems have evolved to not only weigh and sort pigs through a 50-50 “food court,” (a software system that takes the highest 50% of the animals and the lowest 50% weight-wise, and sorts them accordingly to the specific diet that the producer selects) but also to provide real-time information that can influence feed strategy, logistics planning and health management.
“They’re able to forecast and plan that movement to the packers, and the packers are even able to tap into the software with the permission of the producer — so the packers could even go to the producers’ software in the cloud and look for themselves, and see how many animals they are going to have coming in the next week, or week after, in that perfect range,” Morten says.
An automated system can also help producers work with their nutritionists to fine-tune feed formulations. Instead of eyeballing — again on the size — and making feed formulation changes, the nutrition team can more accurately make those decisions.
“They can get real data in real time with the weights, and they’ll know they need to switch this feed in three days, or even have the software alert them in three days that you need to switch to this ration on the heavy side and so forth on the light side,” says Morten. “Overall, the whole process is more fine-tuned and more efficient based on real-time data.”
The real-time data can also alert the production team right away if a pig isn’t eating due to heat stress or illness.
“If they look at that and they can see on the graph that a certain number of animals are not making it through, they’re not eating or there’s a big drop in consumption — anything like that — they’re alerted sooner,” Morten says. “That can be huge if a producer can see a problem even a day sooner and catch it; then, they can address it sooner and ultimately save the animal.”
With automated systems using 100% of the room and no alleyways or pens, the producer can walk among the pigs, getting the animals used to human contact and be less likely to be agitated when it is time to load for market.
Labor continues to be an issue on farms, and Morten expects more grow-finish sites will consider implementing the technology. “We have producers who have kids leaving the farm now who have been helping them the last few years, and now they [the kids] are in high school or college,” Morten says. “I have one producer in Nebraska where that is the case, and he doesn’t have the extra hand, the extra labor — which is why he went to our system primarily, and he has indicated that it’s a big labor savings for him.”