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National Hog Farmer

Surviving the Feed Crisis

Surviving the Feed Crisis
  Since 1988, there have been 4-5 major downturns in the swine industry, each time challenging producers to find ways to decrease feed costs and boost feed efficiency, says Bob Thaler, South Dakota State University Extension swine specialist.


Since 1988, there have been 4-5 major downturns in the swine industry, each time challenging producers to find ways to decrease feed costs and boost feed efficiency, says Bob Thaler, South Dakota State University Extension swine

This time is no different. But there are ways to feed pigs cheaper and improve your bottom line, he says.


Feeding Low-Quality Corn

In dealing with the 2012 corn crop, no doubt there will be damaged or low-quality corn harvested and available at a much lower price. Based on trials Thaler conducted in South Dakota after a poor corn harvest in 2009, lower-quality corn can be fed to pigs with virtually no change in performance.

In the first trial (Figure 1), pigs were fed levels of 0 to 45% compromised corn from 100 to 260 lb., with equal feed intake, feed efficiency and gain as pigs that were fed corn with no damage.

In the second trial (Figure 2), pigs were fed 0, 50 and 100% damaged corn from 100 to 200 lb., with nearly identical performance achieved in all three groups.

“The point is, the quality is going to vary a lot in this upcoming corn crop. Some areas will have some really high-quality corn and some will be lower in quality. Just because it is low quality doesn’t mean it is not going to make you money,” Thaler reminds.

In an example comparing diet cost and feed efficiency (Table 1), it took almost 100 more pounds to reach market weight on the cheaper diet with a feed efficiency of 3.0, compared to a 2.6 feed efficiency on the more expensive feed. But because the feed cost was $50/ton lower for the less expensive diet, the total feed cost savings was about $2.30/pig, he points out.


Focus on Grow-Finish

Cheapening early nursery pig diets to save dollars constitutes a big risk as pigs are transitioning from sow milk to dry feed, Thaler warns. But tightening feed budgets in grow-finish can carry a big reward, as that constitutes 75% of the feed your hogs are going to eat.

Thaler recommends waiting until pigs reach 100 lb. before feeding lower- quality corn. Older pigs can more easily overcome deficiencies in poor-quality grain. Keep it out of the breeding herd  and don’t feed it to nursery pigs, he says.

“If you look at the feeding period from 120 to 270 lb., that comprises about 55% of all of the feed that would go through a farrow-to-finish operation. So if you have lower-quality corn and can store it in a separate bin, then you can feed it to your finishing pigs,” he explains.

To access a supply of compromised corn, keep an eye out for neighbors who might harvest damaged corn. Buy it cheaply and you can actually make money with poorer feed efficiency, Thaler says. “Diet cost/ton and feed/gain mean nothing by themselves. What really matters is how many dollars of feed it takes to get to market, which is a combination of the two.”

When feeding damaged corn, test weight must be 45 lb./bu. or higher. Levels of vomitoxin and zearlenone in the final diet need to be below 1 part per million (ppm) and below 0.1 ppm for aflatoxin. Thaler suggests sending samples to a diagnostic lab for mycotoxin testing prior to feeding low-quality corn. Take samples from multiple sites across a field to ensure an accurate analysis of grain quality.

If your operation has high-lean genetics, then it is important to feed high-quality diets. But if your pigs are medium- or low-lean gain animals, then feeding a high-lean-gain diet simply wastes money and puts extra nitrogen and phosphorus in your manure, he explains.

Overall, when evaluating diets, the key factor is determining how many dollars of feed it takes to get that pig to market. As long as there is little effect on gain or carcass quality, feeding lower-quality corn can really cut costs, Thaler stresses.


Evaluating Feeding Programs

“Just as you would sit down with your veterinarian and go through your herd health plan every year to decide if certain vaccines or antibiotics are still needed, you need to do the exact same thing with your nutritionist,” Thaler says. Review feeding programs and determine what should be pulled out or added back into diets. Decide if there is a payback, whether in good times or bad.

When Thaler attended a South Dakota Pork Producer’s executive board meeting a few years ago, he asked attendees to supply samples of grower diets. He had them analyzed for lysine, phosphorus and particle size. He found many of the samples exceeded calculated lysine levels, one by up to 37%. The problem appeared to be a lack of proper mixing of feed ingredients. Make sure on-farm and feedmill mixing thoroughly mixes ingredients and routinely analyzes diets, he suggests.

Review whether feed additives are effective and pay their way. For antibiotics, it really depends on the health status of a herd. If there are challenges, they could work. Leave organic acids and probiotics in nursery diets. Copper sulfate and zinc oxide also should stay. Ractopamine boosts feed efficiency and makes a difference. Flavor enhancers aren’t needed. The value of enzymes depends on which ones are being used and which grains are being fed. Phytase has improved the availability of phosphorus in corn.

“Normally, I would not tell people to add mold inhibitors to swine diets, but this year I would add them because if there is questionable quality corn, it is set up for mold growth,” Thaler explains. Also, producers may want to add mold inhibitors at harvest time to prevent any additional mold growth in the bins, especially when the weather warms up in the spring.

Adding odor control products to feed depends on the concern for the density of hog production in your area.


Alternative Ingredients

South Dakotans are fortunate in that they have easy access to field peas, barley, wheat and milo to use as alternative feedstuffs in swine diets, Thaler says. Wheat especially provides a viable option as it is higher in lysine, equal in energy value to corn and requires only minor grinding for proper particle size.

When evaluating alternative feedstuffs, be sure to do the following:

• Decide if you have adequate bin space for a new ingredient or if you will have to eliminate a current ingredient;

• Determine the length of time the product will be available at a lower price;

• Identify any special handling, grinding and storage issues;

• Assess product variability;

• Establish trucking costs; and

• Determine the impact of the alternative ingredient on growth performance, carcass characteristics and feed processing.

Distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS) has become the go-to alternative feedstuff to replace high-priced corn, Thaler says. “People need to realize when they are feeding DDGS that in a lot of cases it is not the same DDGS they had two years ago. Most of the ethanol plants are removing 3-5% of the oil, which means that nutritionists have to adjust accordingly when they formulate swine diets.”

Bakery products are viable options with good nutritional profiles, but watch for high salt, sugar and fat levels. These products are typically priced off of the corn market, so prices are volatile, he says. But some products can be obtained virtually free.

Before feeding animal byproducts, assess whether there are toxic substances, salmonella, mycotoxins or anti-growth factors to consider. The byproducts must have nutrient availability, density and palatability.



“There is a lot of interest in pelleting, as well there should be,” Thaler says. “It costs about $8-10/ton to pellet feed and, historically, you are going to get about a 5-8% improvement in feed efficiency and a 3-6% improvement in gain.” If producers live close to a toll mill, now would be the time to have feed pelleted. Pellet quality is essential.


Particle Size

Figure 3 shows the results of feed samples from 19 swine farms in South Dakota that ranged in particle size from 532 microns up to almost 1,000 microns. The standard calculation is that for every 100-micron drop in particle size, there is a 1.2% improvement in feed efficiency, worth about $1.28/pig. The graph depicts a loss of $5.75/pig in reduced feed efficiency when feed is ground to around 1,000 microns vs. a gain of $2.15/pig for feed ground to 532 microns.

“Despite the temptation to grind feed as fine as possible to get the best feed efficiency, it’s not right to say the best particle size for swine feed is 400 microns,” Thaler observes. At that fineness of grind, feed will usually bridge in bulk bins and feeders, causing reduced performance, out-of-feed events, ulcers and even mortalities.

To set micron size, keep dropping particle size until feed starts to bridge, then move back to the last micron size before bridging occurred, he suggests.

Work from Kansas State University (KSU) shows energy use is another concern in setting particle size. Data from KSU’s Bob Goodband shows that when particle size drops from 600 microns to 400 microns, the cost of electricity to run the hammermill to grind that feed more than doubles.

“I recommend starting at 650 microns and working down from there to find out what works in your operation,” Thaler says. Proper particle size will vary by farm due to different bulk bin and feeder designs and ingredients that are being used, which alter feed flow. De-oiled DDGS may affect flowability as well.


Management Adjustments

Producers think they do a good job of feeder adjustment, but it is an easy thing to ignore, in Thaler’s estimation. It should become part of the routine walk-through of barns. Target feed pan coverage to 40-50% of the feeder without feed accumulating in the corners.

He recalls a telling quote from John Patience, Extension swine nutritionist at Iowa State University, who said: “Feeder adjustment is only slightly more popular than power washing, but proper feeder adjustment will maximize growth rate and reduce feed wastage.”

 Likewise, nipple waterers should be closely monitored to ensure proper water pressure and flow rate, Thaler says.

Another efficiency issue, he says, is crowded finishing barns. “What’s happened in some of these systems, for instance, is that the finishing barns built eight years ago provided 7 to 7½ sq. ft./pig. Sows were producing 22 pigs/sow/year (P/S/Y). But now those sow farms are probably closer to averaging 26 P/S/Y, yet finishing space hasn’t changed at all. So we are putting 2-3 more pigs/pen, and all of a sudden you are down to about 6.9 to 6.5 sq. ft./pig by the time they get to market weight,” Thaler points out.

A few years ago, a producer called Thaler to report his pigs were growing great until they hit 200 lb., when their growth flatlined. Calculations showed the barn simply ran out of square footage and growth rate suffered.

Obviously, in these times of declining hog revenues, no one wants to build another finishing barn to expand pig space, Thaler acknowledges. Instead, consider backing off market weights (now averaging 277 lb.) by topping off those pens a bit earlier. Feed efficiency also suffers at heavier weights.

Keeping sows in condition (body scores of 3 or slightly less on a scale of 1-5) means sows will waste less feed in gestation, eat more feed in lactation and wean more pigs. Sows in gestation should have no more than 0.70-0.78 in. backfat.

Reducing nocturnal temperatures in nursery rooms four days after arrival can save $1.71/pig in energy costs.

These management adjustments can help offset higher production costs brought on by sharply higher feed costs, Thaler says.  

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