A Minute Per Pig Pays Big Dividends

Bi-weekly trips across the scale land 90% of pigs in the packer's core target weight range.

Bi-weekly trips across the scale land 90% of pigs in the packer's core target weight range.

Taking time to weigh pigs individually is paying big dividends for the Prairie Swine Centre's Research Barn in Elstow, Saskatchewan. Starting at 20 weeks into the finishing period, pigs are weighed every two weeks to increase the odds that they will be marketed in the core target weight range, 240-275 lb. live weight (187-220 lb. dress weight).

An investment of less than a minute of one employee's time per pig, every two weeks, has increased the percentage of hogs that hit the core weight from 60% to over 90%.

After the core weight premiums and improved index scores have been tallied, the barn pockets an extra $5-10 (Canadian $)/pig ($1 Canadian = $0.753 US$). Since the Centre markets 13,000 to 14,000 pigs/year to Maple Leaf Foods in Saskatoon (formerly Schneiders), that adds up to an extra $65,000 to $140,000 annually. That's not a bad payback for a few days' work.

Until February 2003, the Swine Centre, like many hog operations, relied on eyeballing to estimate market weights. Results were less than satisfactory; only 60% fell within the core weight range of the marketing grid in 2002.

“We felt we should be able to do a lot better than 60% in core,” said barn manager Troy Donauer. “We thought that weighing pigs would be a good place to start, and it doesn't take a lot of time to get results.”

How the System Works

The Swine Centre targets two weight ranges during weighing. Animals ready for market the following week, 242 lb. and up, are marked with blue. Pigs ready to be marketed in two weeks, weighing about 231 lb., receive a red mark. The heavier, blue-marked pigs are penned separately for early shipping, while the rest return to their pens for another two weeks before being weighed again.

“We may only get 20 or 30 pigs out of the room on the first week,” Donauer says, “but those are 20 or 30 that aren't going to be shipped out heavy two weeks later. Getting the heavy ones out early benefits the remaining animals. You reduce overcrowding by getting the big guys out of the pen, which improves access to feeder space. The sooner you get the heavy ones out, the more benefits you get throughout your program.”

Roughly 25% of the animals are ready to be shipped after the first weighing, Donauer explains; 65% are ready to go after the second weighing. The remaining 10%, the tail-enders, are weighed three times.

Donauer is thrilled with the results and a bit puzzled why they never implemented such a simple, cost-effective practice years ago. “It's just a matter of weighing pigs; it's not rocket science,” he adds. “Just weigh them, and if they're heavy you market them; if they're not, you don't. It's simple to do, so we just decided to invest the extra time and effort and it has paid off. I wish the results with everything we did were this cut and dried.”

Now that the Swine Centre staff has reached 90% within core, they are now striving for 94%. “There are some dynamics if we can get half of our pigs on the heavy side of core,” Donauer says. “You can make a little extra money by having lean pigs, but having them just that little bit heavier.”

Homemade Weighing System

The Swine Centre utilizes a homemade 4 × 8-ft., in-floor scale, which was built into the main hallway of the barn when it was originally constructed. The system's chutes and gates are simple enough to weigh the pigs with just a one-man operation. The hallways on either side of the scale are used as holding pens during the procedure. A room of 270 pigs can be easily weighed in four hours.

“The gates are 3-4 ft. wide, so there is lots of room to get one animal in,” Donauer says. “The best thing about it, and I think the only way to make it work, is having a system of ropes to open and close the exit gate from the entrance side. Gates are on a hinge with a spring, so if you pull on the rope to unlatch the gate, it swings open. A second rope is used to close the gate and re-latch it. The design makes it possible for one person to put an animal in, weigh it, mark it, pull the rope and let them out, close it and move on to the next one without having to go back and forth. It saves a lot of extra time.

“Our labor costs haven't changed, since we haven't had to hire anybody extra,” says Donauer. “That extra income is basically added to the bottom line. Even if you had to hire an extra person for one day a week, it's worthwhile. At ten bucks a pig, you don't have to sell very many pigs to cover any extra wages.”