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COVID-19 lessons learned from a swine nutritionist

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Changes and volatility over first half of 2021 have rivaled first six months of COVID-19 in 2020.

Over the past 16 months, the pork industry was thrown one curveball after the other. The response of our industry to the first logistical complications of COVID-19 was nothing short of heroic. The response in the third quarter of 2020 to get pigs marketed and into the food chain as intended, hold market weights and manage flows was headline worthy. However, while it may not be as intriguing of a headline, the challenges pork producers face coming out of COVID-19—labor shortages, infrastructure and equipment supply shortages, volatility in the ingredient and pork value markets—is nothing to shrug off either. As a production swine nutritionist in June of 2020, I was naïve in thinking that if we could get through a pile of pigs in six to eight weeks, the sudden changes and the stress associated with making those decisions would be over. If anything, the changes and volatility over the first half of 2021 have rivaled the first six months of COVID-19 in 2020. In this column, I outline the biggest lessons learned as a production swine nutritionist coming out of COVID-19.

Lesson 1: How important it is to keep the big picture goals of your feeding program in mind during periods of market volatility

On December 31, 2020, the July futures contract for corn was $4.40/bushel. It reached its contract high on May 7, 2012, at a $7.33/bushel close, and as I currently type this column, it sits at $6.60/bushel. Pigs that are marketed this week at 300 lbs. were placed on feed the second full week of January. Thus, when the feeding program and cost of production was first figured for our feeding program for pigs marketed in June, July, and August back in November, the projected feed cost was somewhere around $80/pig. By the time they were placed on feed it was around $87.50/pig, and in actuality, the pigs marketed this week will finish somewhere around a $115/pig feed cost, a $35/pig difference from when the goals and objectives of the summer feeding program were first outlined.

It would have been easy to have several knee-jerk reactions to the multiple limit up (and fewer limit down) movements; however, with pig value increasing just as much if not more than corn, soybean meal, fat, etc., the goal of our summer feeding program, to get a pig to a 300 lb. or greater target market weight in 168 days on feed as economically as possible, was still the goal and corresponding math. Instead of adjusting our growth target by making major changes to energy and amino acid strategies, we re-focused our efforts on corn micron size, proper feeder adjustments, feed delivery, and bin management to avoid feed wastage at all costs. We also tried to strategize ingredient purchasing and do as best we could to keep feed costs as low as possible. Now, do not get me wrong, we have used more alternative ingredients in the past three months than in the first four years of my career, and we evaluated our summer feed program goals nearly every day, but no matter how variable the market has been in 2020, so far the objective of our feeding program remained the same and simple: feed pigs to your target weight with the space available, and as economically as possible to maximize return over costs. 

Edit: As I do my last review of this column, cutout value has decreased over $20 dollars this week and futures markets continue their corrective march downwards. The constant changes thrown the pork industry’s way continue, and the constant need to do math to decide how best to maximize return over feed costs persists.

Lesson 2: Keep searching for ways to improve your feed program and maximize return over costs

When things are volatile and ever changing, it is easy to prioritize your time to only urgent items on your list and to forget about improving by crossing off important items on your list. It is human nature when there is chaos occurring externally to keep things exactly how they are internally. Further complicating finding ways to improve feeding programs during COVID-19 was that academic, supplier and pork producer collaboration and innovation were placed on the back burner.

I learned it was crucial to block off time during the week (no matter how hectic it was) to see if there were any stones that needed to be turned over in terms of new research findings or ways to improve our feeding protocols to reduce costs across the system. One success story to share on this lesson was taking time in January to evaluate how, where, when, and why feed wastage was occurring across the system. Due to blocking off time to evaluate how feed was ending up in the pit, having to be transferred to another bin, or discarded, we made significant strides in reducing feed usage by nearly a pound of gestation feed per sow on sow farms. This was done by eliminating water running through troughs too quickly, calipering sows correctly, not overfeeding in the breeding area, correctly weighing feed boxes, feed line maintenance, etc.  Even when the period seems chaotic, it is important to keep your avenues of innovation flowing. With feed costs this high, one should continue to prioritize their time on research, literature reviews and studying how feed wastage can be decreased throughout the system.

Lesson 3: There is no great replacement for in-person coaching

While I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to farms to help coach production practices and feed protocols, in-person coaching was limited over the past 16 months. Over this period, employee turnover and regression of feed protocol execution occurred. While I used every mode of communication (e-mail, zoom, television, report summaries, etc.), there was truly no replacement from in-person evaluation, coaching, and discussion of how best to improve a feeding program’s performance and execution. It is a great reminder that regardless of how long your feeding program and protocols have been in place, consistent on-farm coaching is one of the important services a nutritionist can provide to a pork producer.

To conclude, there were lessons to be learned at every period of the pork industry’s response to the complications of COVID-19, not just the first five months of the global pandemic. Those systems, teams, and individuals that will be most successful going forward are those who did the initial and continual math, maintained and fostered a culture of innovation, and continue to learn and apply lessons.

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