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Sorting for the Perfect Weight

Minnesota producer Bob Baarsch believes carcass uniformity is the next potential "pot of gold" in pig production. And there are two ways to get it: eliminate variation in the system and sort for he product packers prefer.

Baarsch, CEO of Next Generation Pork, Spring Valley, MN, ships over 75,000 pigs to Hormel Foods, a packer that pays according to weight and last rib backfat. Carcasses within a certain range, or in the “red box” on the Hormel matrix, can earn bonus dollars beyond base price. It is Baarsch's goal to market the heaviest carcass possible within that red box to make the highest net margin per pig sold.

Specifically, he's aiming for two cells on the packer grid, commonly referred to as the “sweet spot” — a carcass weighing 209 to 215 lb. and a backfat measurement between 0.51 and 0.90 in. That's the heaviest carcass with the highest premium — 108% over base.

To hit that target weight on a consistent basis, Baarsch has installed what he calls the most exciting technology for finishing barns since slotted floors: a mechanical sorting system called FAST, an acronym for Farmweld's Automatic Sorting Technology.

“Automatic sorting not only reduces variation in sort, it allows us to go back to loose housing. It's good for the pigs, for the worker, for the processor and the customer. We seldom get technology that has a cascade of benefits all the way down the pork chain,” says Baarsch.

Actually, the concept of weighing pigs in pens with automatic readers is not new, notes Bob Morrison, a veterinarian with the University of Minnesota's swine group. “It's 10-year-old technology with a new and interesting application. What's interesting is the ability to sort pigs into feeding or marketing groups,” he points out. “A new twist is the large pen size. Combining large pens with in-place weighing and attaching it to a gating mechanism gives us an economically important application.”

The biggest economic benefit to automatic sorting is not necessarily a reduction in sort loss, says Baarsch. “It's in marketing more pounds of pork without incurring sort loss.”

Results of the barn's first closeout are shown in Table 1. Note the increase in carcass weight of 6.77 lb. with no significant change in percentage of base premiums. Percentage of culls and lights increased because they did a better job sorting the lights; and backfat followed a predicted trend for that farm, notes Baarsch. Yield was less for the sorted barn, but he's not certain of the significance at this point.

First to Retrofit Finisher

First in the Midwest to install the system, Baarsch retrofitted a 41×120 ft., 600-head, double-curtain sided finisher into a FAST barn last April. The new layout placed all feeders in the last third of the barn, leaving the other two-thirds as a large loafing area.

A scale is situated at the entrance to the feeding area, or food court. Pigs are trained to use it in three phases. Early on, pigs have the option of bypassing the scale. In the second phase, pigs must cross the scale to enter the feeding area only for part of a day. In the third phase, the scale is fully functional, with pre-programmed sorting.

Baarsch used four settings during the marketing of the first closeout group — 278, 273, 263 and 235 lb. The 235-lb. setting was in accordance with Hormel's policy of refusing contract pigs under that weight.

Tracking the Weights

The FAST system tracks total and average weight for the sorted group and the number of pigs. It also tracks the number of pigs going through the scale in six pre-selected weight ranges at intervals throughout the feeding period.

Weights cannot be downloaded from the scale at this point, so a form is completed manually to monitor the figures. Weights are put into a spreadsheet and analyzed on a weekly basis.

A pneumatic exit gate on the scale directs pigs left or right into a lightweight or heavyweight pen. As they reach the target market weight, the scale sorts pigs into a sale pen.

Entry gates are equipped with a magnetic sensor to signal when a pig is in place to be weighed. A reading is not taken until the door is closed. A time-out mechanism activates after three minutes if a pig is loitering in the scale. Both doors open, allowing the next interested party to push his penmate through. Loiterers are defaulted to the light side. A bar running lengthwise on the stainless steel floor also discourages pigs from lying down in the scale.

Cost of a retrofit system is roughly $15/pig space, according to Baarsch, but it depends on whether new gating is needed.

Additional Benefits

Baarsch, who works closely with Farmweld owner and president Frank Brummer in fine-tuning the automatic sorting system, lists other attributes:

  • Pigs move better. They get exercise, which shouldn't be underestimated, and they are much less apprehensive about their environment.

  • Fewer gates and alleys mean better space utilization.

  • Split-weight feeding may have more value than split-sex feeding.

  • There is no pecking order in a large pen design.

  • Logistically, it's easier to feed Paylean. Paylean is added no less than two weeks and no more than three weeks before the last pigs are marketed. Baarsch knows within three to four days of when the last load will begin the three-week advance period.

  • Pigs load easier. One person can load 58 head in 10 minutes.

  • 24-hour feed withdrawal is easy. Pigs sorted for selling are kept in a holding area so feed can be withheld without interrupting feeding in the main area. This saves feed costs, plus packers like this feature since they have to deal with less gut waste.

“Feed withdrawal also improves meat quality by raising pH levels, creating a more desirable pork color and enhanced water retention,” adds Jerry Cannon, a meat scientist at Hormel.

Hormel Food's manager of pork procurement, Brian Stevens, feels animal handling is a large benefit of a FAST system. “It trains pigs to go single file, so they're easier to move through the system, on the farm and through the plant.”

From a packer standpoint, though, uniformity is by far the biggest advantage, he says. “The red box has a carcass weight range of 174 to 222 lb. Some producers have a hard time hitting those targets. FAST makes it easier to accomplish that task and provide a uniform raw material. The more consistent a product, the more desirable it is to the consumer.”

Table 1. Finishing Performance Closeout
Production Breakdown 2001 Summary Trial
Total animals 73,888 574
Live weight, lb. 264.48 276.67
Yield, % 76.10% 75.10
Carcass weight, lb. 201.01 207.78
Average grade 2.43 2.55
Average last rib backfat, in. 0.88 0.92
Red box 76% 75%
Top four weight brackets 54% 71%
Too light 5% 1%
Too heavy 10% 10%
Too fat 10% 11%
Percentage of base 102.8% 103%
Culls, lights, etc. 2.25% 3.96%