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Tailor Feeding To Fit Your Pigs, Budget

Focus on feeding sows more efficiently and not overfeeding certain diets and special ingredients. There are two critical points to address when trying to shave feeding costs in the breeding herd, according to John Patience, Extension swine nutritionist at Iowa State University. First, nutritional changes in one area of the operation can have major consequences further downstream. If I make a mistake

There are two critical points to address when trying to shave feeding costs in the breeding herd, according to John Patience, Extension swine nutritionist at Iowa State University.

First, nutritional changes in one area of the operation can have major consequences further downstream. “If I make a mistake in the nursery feeding program, it only affects those pigs as they go to market. But if I make a mistake in the breeding barn, it may affect the pigs for their full lifecycle. So we need to be a lot more cautious in that respect,” Patience says.

Second, feeding nursery pigs based on their average growth rate ignores the fact that about 92% of these pigs grow at different rates of gain than that average. “Our data shows that lightweight pigs don't reach the average group weight at weaning for 3 to 21 days postweaning, and these lightweight pigs don't reach the weaning weights of the heavier pigs until four weeks after weaning,” he says (Figure 1).

When market prices are high and feed costs are low, the tendency is to feed for the better-than-average pigs because the goal is to take advantage of their potential to get to market as soon as possible.

But when market prices are low and feed costs are high, producers can't afford to follow this strategy. They need to closely monitor their costs and records for six key areas:

  1. Average revenue per sow and total herd revenue per time period;

  2. Average (total and variable) costs per sow and total and variable herd costs per time period;

  3. Pigs weaned/sow/year;

  4. Non-productive sow days;

  5. Average cost (total and variable) per piglet sold; and

  6. Weekly sales relative to the target.

Other measures are important, but the above items are good starting points to identify problems and/or determine success, he says.

Three of the six items relate to financial issues, not productivity. “Unfortunately, as an industry, we have gotten the mindset that productivity is equal to profitability — and that is not true at all,” Patience observes. “There are many farms that are highly productive that are not as profitable as other farms that are less productive.”

Feed for Success

Four feed items should be measured in striving for financial success in the farrow-to-feeder pig model that Patience discussed in his talk at the Swine Transition Options Seminar Aug. 5 in Sheldon, IA.

  1. Quantity and cost of gestation and lactation feed/sow/year. “I like to look at the quantity of sow feed because if I am feeding more than 1.1 to 1.2 tons of feed/sow/year, I want to know why. It probably means I am overfeeding,” he says.

  2. Total nursery feed and cost per pig sold.

  3. Quantity and cost of feed per pound of piglet sold or transferred. If this number isn't reasonable, it may be time to find out if you are overfeeding sows or are not following the feed budget for the nursery pigs, he says.

  4. Feed budget — formulated and actual. “By using a feed budget, I have got a target to compare my feed usage to see if I am on track or not,” he says.

With that feed information in hand, Patience suggests producers try to find expenses on the farm that are the biggest, easiest and least costly to achieve. It may be that some of the largest expenses, such as labor, are basically treated as a fixed cost that is very difficult to change.

Unintended Consequences

When considering cost reductions in the breeding herd feeding program, avoid making changes that could affect herd productivity and impair the herd's ability to take advantage of future market recovery.

Keep cost-cutting in perspective. “Because feed from weaning to 30 lb. accounts for only 5-6% of the total finishing budget, you would need to achieve an $18/ton savings in feed cost to equal a $1/ton savings in the late finisher,” Patience states.

Similarly, the cost of late nursery diets can be stretched by including up to 5-10% distiller's dried grains with solubles (DDGS). But the benefits aren't nearly as great as when DDGS is added to grow-finish diets, which represents 85-90% of total diets. Plus, DDGS inclusion rates can be 15-25% of grow-finish diets, he reminds.

Also, sow gestation diets can include up to 50% DDGS, but make sure the byproduct isn't contaminated with mycotoxins.

Next Page: Cutting Gestation Feed Costs

Special ingredients, additives or booster packs are added to boost productivity. If the pack more than pays for itself, keep it in the sow ration. Otherwise, take it out, he urges.

“We have heard for decades that certain things are added to the sow diet whether they work or not. They are added ‘just in case,'” Patience explains. “When market conditions are favorable, we might be able to add special ingredients ‘just in case,' but when they aren't favorable, we can't afford to do it.”

Exclude extra calcium, phosphorus, trace minerals and vitamins. In today's market, it is hard to justify nonessential nutrients, let alone expensive overformulation of nutrients.

Cutting Gestation Feed Costs

Feed according to body condition, and again, avoid overfeeding nutrients.

Sow herds of 5,000 head or more may be able to feed two or three gestation diets. Feeding a separate diet including extra lysine for first-parity sows helps these young females build protein mass and weight, a level of lysine that a higher-parity animal doesn't require, he points out.

Generally, gestating sows are fed low levels of trace minerals. Older parities need slightly higher levels of trace minerals. “If you just feed the whole herd as one group, you will never see a benefit of providing higher levels of trace minerals, because you would be overfeeding the bulk of your herd for the benefit of a small portion of your herd, which does not pay,” Patience asserts.

Reducing Lactation Feed Costs

The best way to trim feed costs in lactation is to simply provide nursing sows with as much feed as they will eat. If you increase feeding levels by 10% and maintain daily nutrient intake, you can lower concentrations of amino acids, vitamins and minerals in the diet by 10%, thus saving on feed costs.

Feeding two sow lactation diets — one for first-parity sows and another for the rest of the herd — allows you to feed higher lysine levels to gilts that need it and less lysine to older sows that don't. But few farms are set up to do this.

Trimming Nursery Feed Costs

Patience says minor changes can have a big impact in the nursery diet. Reduce levels of plasma protein, whey, amino acids, trace minerals and vitamins, etc.

Also, consider altering feed budgets to reduce the quantity of starter diets fed and increase the use of cost-effective ingredients in late nursery diets when diet costs are somewhat lower.

Table 1 illustrates a feed budget taken some years ago for a 1,200-sow, farrow-to-finish operation. The projected budget shows a total feed production cost of $63.64/hog sold. The producer in this example tracked the amount of feed that was actually being fed to the sows and pigs through finishing and learned that the real cost was $69.87/hog, including substantial differences between the projected and actual amounts of gestation and grower feeds.

When mistakes were corrected (Table 2), the producer was able to lower the total feed cost/hog sold to $64.83, nearly within a dollar of the projected feed budget. “For this operation, correcting the feed budget increased net income by $140,000 per year,” Patience says.

In another example depicted in Table 3 , 12 herds were budgeted to receive set amounts in a three-phase diet to achieve a nursery exit weight (eight-week nursery) of 77 lb. When actual amounts fed were tracked, pigs only achieved an average nursery exit weight of 67.1 lb. Following correction, 75 lb. average exit weight was achieved.


  • “Optimizing feed costs in the breeding herd requires records on the right information to identify areas of greatest benefit,” Patience says.

  • Don't overfeed ingredients and don't use feed ingredients “just in case.”

  • Use feed ingredients that can save you money with little risk.

  • Use and track nursery feed budgets.

Some of these suggestions are extreme. But the market today demands urgent action to minimize feed costs,” Patience says. “The rules of feeding pigs change when market prices are so low. The trick is to ensure that the dollars saved in cost cutting are greater than the dollars lost in income resulting from the change.

The most important message is that feeding programs must change as market conditions change. Feeding programs are a dynamic part of pork production, and should not be considered fixed and independent of market conditions,” he says.