What does a nutritionist look for when walking through your barn?

Nutritionists can be great coaches to work with managers and caretakers in ensuring on-farm execution of the feeding program for your system.

November 17, 2020

11 Min Read
Feed bins outside a hog barn
A nutritionist can design the perfect diet, but if it can't get to the feeder it is worthless. Furthermore, poor feed flow will open the door for more lapses in biosecurity with caretakers needing to hit on bins multiple times per day.National Pork Board

A substantial economic value a production swine nutritionist can provide is ensuring the execution of the feeding program down to the slat level. A good production swine nutritionist is often working with production managers and growers via on-site visits regularly, not just when there are fires to put out.

Furthermore, a swine nutritionist cannot properly evaluate feed flow, presentation, wastage and bin management from his or her desk. However, since there are only a few swine nutritionists in the pork industry and in my case being the first swine nutritionist on-staff for our production system, very few know what a swine nutritionist is looking for and thinking through during an on-farm visit.

Thus, here are the key items a swine nutritionist looks for when walking through your barn.

Key items to evaluate regardless of the farm
1. Caretaker engagement
The most important item to evaluate is if the caretakers are engaged in professionally raising pigs. There is no truer statement in the pork industry than "it's not about the pigs, it's about the people."

Driving into the farm I will look to see if the outside of the barn is well kept? Is the driveway well rocked and clear of obstructions to where there will be no feed delivery issues? Have the bait stations recently been filled? Is the compost pile tidy? Upon entry to the farm I will see if our biosecurity protocols are being followed? Is the entry and office area tidy? Are paperwork and on-farm data easy to find? Are the farm's targets and goals easily visible and clear?

Throughout the visit I will see if the caretakers know the "how" and "why" of our feeding program and protocols. A great tool to evaluate this is by using short, measurable, but open-ended questions. For example, I ask the following questions: explain when and how you mat-fed your newly placed weaned pigs, when is the last time you weighed your gestation feed boxes and how far off were the boxes compared to the actual weight, or who cleans out the lactation feeders and do you think it is being done frequently enough?

There is a high correlation between caretaker engagement and feeding program execution on the slat level. If in the first 10 minutes you see their disengagement, the rest of your visit should be focused on reengaging the caretaker. Without on-farm level engagement, your feed formulations, budgets and protocols are worthless.

2. Feed presentation
It is not breaking news to state that one of the primary items swine nutritionists will evaluate on-farm would be feed. The first feed item we will evaluate is the feed flow from the bin to the feeder. A nutritionist can design the perfect diet, but if it can't get to the feeder it is worthless.

Furthermore, poor feed flow will open the door for more lapses in biosecurity with caretakers needing to hit on bins multiple times per day. The next item we will evaluate is micron size, foreign material, mixing consistency, color and aroma. If the feed is pelleted nutritionists will also evaluate percent fines and durability.

Sure, we can look at feed samples from our desk, but being on the farm allows us the opportunity to look at tons of feed at a time. Additionally, being on the farm allows you to evaluate how the feed is being presented in the feeder. Is the adjustment correct? Is there enough pan coverage? Is the feed wet, rancid or stale? These are all important answers, which cannot be determined from looking at closeout or performance data.

3. Feed bin management
Feed bin management is also best evaluated on-site. Are the tandem bins being rotated and cleaned out often, or is new feed being placed on old feed? Are we following protocol and only having one slide (one bin) open at a time, or do we have both slides open? Having both slides open can cause dilution of feed medications and additives.

Having both slides open can also result in the improper nutrient delivery for that stage of growth and development. Are the feed bins in good shape? Are there cracks or leaks in the boot? Do the bin lids seal tight? These are all questions that are tough to answer without being on the farm regularly. Though bin inventory technology is rapidly improving to provide objective data for nutritionists to utilize in evaluating feed bin management execution.

4. Water access
The forgotten yet most important nutrient is water. Nutritionists will first evaluate if there is enough water access to each pig. Are there enough cups or nipples per pig? In a gestation barn, is the trough full of water for a long enough period daily?

Next, nutritionists ensure that water flow is strong enough to maximize intake, but not too strong to deter water intake either. We will check for any plugged nipples or non-working cups. If using wet/dry feeders, we will ensure that they are turned on at the correct stage of growth, and there is no leaking or overwatering occurring.

Last, we evaluate if there are any bacterial or mineral issues that may impact water quality, water-administered antibiotic effectiveness and overall performance.

5. Environment
Non-optimal temperature, humidity, air access and quality can all inhibit feed intake and subsequent growth or sow performance. Once again, these are metrics that are tough to evaluate from a desk, though data are now more accessible through advanced controllers and digital dashboards. Nutritionists will often use an anemometer and an infrared thermometer to provide objective feedback on-farm.

Key items to evaluate when walking through a sow farm
1. Herd body condition
If evaluating sow body condition subjectively (by sight evaluation), the only way to validate sow body condition is on-farm. Our system implemented using the sow body condition caliper in 2017. We have collected these objective data to evaluate how body condition within and among our farms, to further correlate body condition to key sow production indices. However, without being on-farm, a swine nutritionist cannot evaluate if the caliper is being done at the last rib of the gilt or sow each time or when changes in body condition between caliper scores are occurring.

2. Feed box/system settings
In tandem with sow body condition, the next items a sow nutritionist will evaluate are the feed box or system allotments corresponding to each sow's body condition. Often during farm walk throughs, a nutritionist will see that effort of scoring each sow's body condition has been done, but the feed allotment was never changed to the new score. Moreover, sometimes the caliper and the feed box were done initially correct, but then the snake was tightened, or the sow was moved to another pen and the correct feed allotment setting was taken with her to her new location in the gestation barn.

The greatest controllable expense of a sow farm is feed. One of the most correlated metrics to ideal sow performance is body condition. If a sow is too heavy, she has a higher stillborn rate, poorer lactation feed intake, higher preweaning mortality and lower weaning weights. If a sow is too thin, she has a higher stillborn rate, lower weaning weights and reproductive difficulty during the wean-to-estrus period. Getting sow body condition and farm feed usage correct is one of the most valuable items a swine nutritionist can provide to a pork production system.

3. Lactation intake and output
Lactation intake is not only important for the current suckling litter's wean weight, but it is also important for the subsequent litters' total born and non-productive days of the sow. Ensuring that lactating sows post-farrowing have around the clock access to fresh feed is vital. Validation if the automated lactation feed system is running at the correct time and frequency of the day, and if hand feeding in lactation is being done every time (even when short staffed) is important. It is important to ensure that feeders, boxes, lines and bins are cleaned routinely.

Swine nutritionists will also evaluate sow underline soundness and health and corresponding lactation output. Another practice that is important to coach on-farm is split suckling or first-day colostrum management.

4. Piglet quality and growth
Usually the only metrics that are stored and analyzed are total born, live born, still born rate, pre-weaning mortality and weaning weight. Thus, today the best way to validate birthweight average and variation, and piglet growth throughout the lactation period is on-farm. It is important to understand how a farm is managing piglet selection at various stages of lactation and how the litter is being managed in terms of size and fostering. How growth and wean weight is being restricted via a scour, a large quantity of pigs lactating per sow, or inconsistent lactation feed intake, is important to know, so a swine nutritionist correctly formulates the lactation diet to find the ideal balance between maximizing wean weight and diet cost.

5. Foot and structural soundness
Another metric that can truly only be evaluated on-farm is foot and structural soundness of the sows and gilts. Sure, some systems record reasons for sow mortalities and culls, but the accuracy of the reasons for herd exit is mediocre at best.

Thus, nutritionists will thoroughly evaluate foot hardness, cracking, breakdown and overall locomotion to determine if the maternal feeding program from the gilt development to lactation diets is providing the ideal support to maximize sow lifetime performance.

6. Gilt quality
Unlike in terminal stock where closeout data are available constantly, gilt development data are not as readily available or reliable. Sometimes gilt development performance data skewed by having continuously open groups or two different subsets of ages as one group. Therefore, one of the best ways to evaluate gilt growth performance, structural soundness, maturity, age at first estrus and breed, etc., is once again on-farm.

Another item to evaluate is the correct gilt development unit diet being deployed on the correct group and age of gilts. Often, groups of gilts will be combined on the same feed line, thus it is important to validate the correct diet is being ordered and fed for the developing gilts across your system.

Key items to evaluate when walking through a wean-to-finish barn
1. Feed intake hurdles
Regardless of the stage of growth, nutritionists will look for ways to improve feed intake and subsequent growth. Ensuring that feed is in front of growing pigs at all time is key. Nutritionists will evaluate feed flow and feed delivery settings to ensure feed outages are minimal. He or she will also go over feeder settings and mat and gruel feeding to ensure feed intake is optimized and feed wastage is minimized.

Additionally, nutritionists will determine how much feed intake is being limited when pigs are overstocked and feeder access is limited. All these observations help refine our prediction models to determine what marketing cut strategy should be used and what the final closeout metrics will be.

2.Sorting accuracy
Our starter feeding program is set up based on wean age and weight. Thus, we segregate any pigs weaned under 17 days of age. We also sort any pigs below 9 pounds of body weight. It is important to validate if this initial sort on placement is correct and then if we are using the correct feed on these segregated pigs.

During the growing phase, it is important to validate if pigs are being sorted into and graduated out of the pull pens correctly. At the end of the turn, it is important that the correct pigs are being pre-sorted for either culls or grade 1 market animals.

3. Composition and growth
Feed budgets are set up on a per-pound per-pig basis, but diets formulated to an expected weight and projected lean gain accretion. Thus, nutritionists will often validate that the dietary phase and the current weight of the animals in the barn match. Moreover, nutritionists will analyze growth variation and body weight distribution as pigs are at various stages of growth.

Once again, most of the time nutritionists get weights and associated variation when pigs enter and leave the barn, but have no data points in between. Some pigs are marketed on a percent lean basis. Thus, nutritionists will observe fat and protein deposition at different stages of growth.

4. Timeliness of pulls and treatments
The last item to mention that swine nutritionists look for while walking through your barn, is are fallback pigs and vices being identified, pulled and treated soon enough to where the action can have the greatest impact? The feeding program and corresponding closeouts will look better if pigs that are falling back are treated and moved to an environment they can compete in sooner rather than too late.

Tying back to the first item swine nutritionists look for when walking through your barn. If the caretakers are engaged and professionally raising pigs, the feeding program execution is likely to be high and successful. Swine nutritionists can evaluate several parameters well from their office by analyzing quality assurance data of ingredients and finished feed samples and key performance metrics.

However, there are several items that a swine nutritionist needs to be on the farm to properly evaluate. Just as important, what a great coach to have work with managers and caretakers in ensuring on-farm execution of the feeding program for your system.

Source: Trey A. Kellner, who is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.

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