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Articles from 2009 In January

Negative Market Psychology

The recent selloff in Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) Group Lean Hogs futures has some people wondering if the hog markets are going to follow the meltdown example set by equity and energy markets over the past few months. I can’t rule out that possibility since meat demand in general, and pork demand in particular, is at the top of my list of risk factors for this year.

There are rumors of a huge slowdown in export shipments -- a reversal of a key driver for our business last year. Mix that with domestic pork demand that was soft for all of 2008 and you definitely have trouble for hog demand. November exports were just barely above one year earlier and the trend since July would suggest that December will be below year-ago levels when those data are released in mid-February. Now currency value changes have hurt some key export customers, primarily Mexico, and made U.S. pork relatively more expensive than product from our three largest competitors – Canada, European Union and Brazil.

But markets are also psychological beasts and when negative sentiment hits one – or, worse yet, is allowed to settle into one or more for some period of time – that sentiment will spread to others.

The recent decline of hog futures prices seems overdone to me and I have to believe a large part of the decline is due to negative market psychology. January and February are, historically, always a doldrums period for pork and hog demand. The holidays are, hopefully, just fond memories and even the modest demand kick offered by Easter ham sales is more than a month away. Pork and hog prices just don’t get much support this time of year. Add in a healthy dose of equity market hysteria and a president, Congress and media who have done nothing but tell us how bad things are and, even with supplies very near the levels I expected based on the USDA’s December Hogs and Pigs report, the futures market have dropped sharply. Perhaps the export downturn is that serious, but this decline appears to be a bit much, given the facts as we know them.

If your equity is very short and your banker is very nervous, then perhaps you should price some hogs for this summer. But if you can – wait. Spring is coming and warm weather usually results in more increases than just the temperature.

To see some objective measurements of the seasonal patterns of hog prices, I recommend readers avail themselves of a resource offered by the CME Group. Each year, CME Group sponsors and publishes the Moore Reports, a series of reports prepared by the Moore Research Group that detail historically profitable futures market trades in all of the commodities for which futures and options are offered by CME Group. A free copy can be downloaded at You just need an Adobe Acrobat reader to use the reports.

One warning: These books are prepared primarily as a promotional tool to interest speculators in trading CME Group contracts. Speculating carries many risks, so please make sure you understand and consider those before you follow the recommendations.

The books also contain a series of charts like Figures 1 and 2 that represent the seasonal price patterns of the various CME Group contracts. The scale at the right side of the charts indicate the historical tendency for the respective contracts to reach their seasonal (i.e. 12-month period) high (100) and low (0). Each chart shows this tendency based on 15 years of data and five years of data, allowing users to see how market conditions may have changed in recent years.

The chart for June Lean Hogs in Figure 1 shows an expected seasonal peak anywhere from March through May, based on 15-years of data, with the absolute peak in mid-May. The five-year data agree with that absolute peak, but indicate a clear second-best time to sell in early March, with a decided drop off after that date.

The July chart in Figure 2 isn’t, in my opinion, quite so ambiguous. Both data horizons point to early May as a good time to price hogs in July futures. For hedgers, that contract would cover pigs to be marketed after the expiration of the June contract on June 15 this year through July 15, the date that this year’s July contract expires.

One thing comes through when you study these seasonal charts for Lean Hogs – the futures markets are influenced heavily by cash hog markets. The entire Lean Hogs futures complex tends to rise in the spring as cash hog prices rise and fall as temperatures grow colder in autumn. Cash is still king!

The 2008 Moore Reports, which include dates for all of 2007, are the latest available at present, but check the CME Group site again over the next few weeks for the 2009 edition. It will include all data from 2008.

My comment on "chemical castration" in last week’s North American Preview was an incorrect characterization of Improvac, the product approved recently for use in Switzerland to control boar taint and render surgical castration unnecessary. A better description is "vaccination against board taint" since the product is a true vaccine that depends on antiboides and immune response to reduce the size of the testes and prevent boar taint in carcasses from intact males. I apologize for the confusion.

Click to view graphs.

Steve R. Meyer, Ph.D.
Paragon Economics, Inc.
e-mail: [email protected]

'Saluti' from Italy

While I do a fair amount of travelling in my work, I have never had the opportunity to go “across the pond” until this week. I’m writing today’s column from Parma, Italy, where I had the pleasure of addressing a symposium sponsored by Pfizer Animal Health and the Italian swine veterinarians’ association (SIVAR). The meeting was attended by about 170 veterinarians, most of whom work in northern Italy, where the bulk of the country’s hog population is located.

It did not take me long to put Parma together with Parma ham and Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, perhaps the best-known products of this region. I have availed myself of the opportunity to partake of both products on several occasions and can attest to their quality. A visit this morning to a small Parmegiano-Reggiano plant (where the cheese is “never manufactured, always hand-made” – as the slogan goes), and a small Parma ham processor provided some interesting insights to branding Italian/European Union (EU) style.

Both products are limited to their historical region of origin. Just as you cannot buy champagne that is not from the Champagne region of France, you cannot buy either Parma ham (or Prosciuto de Parma) or Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese that does not come from this relatively small area of northern Italy.

The raw products that go into both products are produced to tight specifications. The milk used in Parmegiano-Reggiano must come from specific dairies that never use silage or other fermented feeds or any source of animal protein. Further, the grass or hay fed the cow must be grown within this region. The pork legs used for Parma ham must come from pigs slaughtered specifically for this purpose that are, again, fed specific diets that include, among other things, whey. The processes for both products are exacting. There are only about 2,000 cheese plants certified to produce Parmegiano-Reggiano and only about 200 Parma ham plants.

Farmers in Italy are dealing with many of the same problems we face in the United States and Canada. Most notable, feed costs here are significantly higher than in the past and it is causing the same kind of problems we see back home. Italian pork producers are wondering just how long they can continue to raise hogs to 160-170 kg (350-380 lb.) to provide the large legs required by Parma ham manufacturers. Milk producers have already raised the price they charge the cheese makers, but the cheese makers have so far had trouble increasing the price of cheese – in no small part because today’s higher-cost cheese will not be sold until two years from now. Talk about time lags!

A stroll through a supermarket near my hotel showed some interesting prices for various meats, too. Pork chops about one-half-inch thick and closely trimmed, center cut, boneless pork loin roasts were priced at €7,90/kg or about $4.90/lb. Pork tenderloin was €11,90/kg or $7.21/lb. Whole chickens, which were decidedly less muscular than the birds found in the United States sold for €3.50/kg or $2.12/lb. But, boneless, skinless chicken breasts sold for €9.80/kg ($5.94/lb.). Ground beef and beef ribeye steaks sold for €8,50 and €13,50/kg, respectively, which converts to $5.21 and $8.18/lb.

Finally, horse steaks were priced at €20,15/kg ($12.21/lb.) and ground horse meat was selling for €10,50/kg ($6.36/lb.). It appears that Europeans are just as enamored with horses as are U.S. Congressmen and Senators, but for a far different reason!

Chemical Castration to Come
One important technical issue was discussed at the conference. The “chemical castration” vaccine called Improvac has been approved for use in Switzerland. Yes, Switzerland is part of the EU, where the mantra of the people operates on the precautionary principle that if something could ever, ever possibly, in the most remote way hurt anyone, then don’t do it!

An official with the Swiss national veterinarian office made the presentation and made a compelling case as to why Improvac is a vaccine, not a pharmaceutical or hormonal treatment. Perhaps the most important facet of this product, though, is that you can tell by looking at the pigs whether they have been treated or not.

So, soon we may not be able to castrate pigs, yet still gain the production efficiencies of feeding intact males and still allow packers the assurance of being able to sort out pigs that may cause boar taint in their plants. This may come in handy when U.S. animal rights groups get more heavily involved in the castration debate. And notice I said “when”, not “if”. That campaign is coming!

Sorting Through Market Numbers
A quick perusal of this week’s Production and Price Summary tables indicate a nice increase in U.S. market hog prices last week. The only problem with that increase is that it occurred without support from product and cutout values, indicating that packer margins were squeezed. It is almost impossible to maintain rallies of that nature unless product prices rise quickly.

U.S. hog slaughter was 4% lower than one year ago. That compares to my estimate of -2.4%, based on the December Hogs and Pigs Report and expected changes in the flow of Canadian market hogs. Those imports were over 59,000 head or 71% lower than last year. I had expected the reduction of Canadian market hogs to be 2% of U.S. weekly slaughter or about 46,000 head. The extra 13,000 head do not explain all of the difference in the year-on-year slaughter change, so U.S.-fed hog numbers were a bit lower than I expected last week as well.

The cutbacks in the broiler business continued last week with egg sets falling 6.4% behind last year’s levels and chick placements falling 5.8% short of last year. Chicken slaughter and production were still close to last year’s levels, but I expect those to begin running a consistent 2-4% below last year as we get into February.

Click to view graphs.

Steve R. Meyer, Ph.D.
Paragon Economics, Inc.
e-mail: [email protected]

Senate Confirms Vilsack As Agriculture Secretary

The U.S. Senate has confirmed former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, 57, as U.S. secretary of agriculture.

Vilsack has said he plans to use the position to promote renewable energy and put healthier food in school meals in America.

Vilsack’s unanimous confirmation came just a couple of hours after President Barack Obama took office.

The new agriculture secretary faces two immediate tasks: working with Congress on whether to tighten eligibility rules for farm subsidies and child nutrition programs.

Vilsack is a lawyer who has no agricultural background, but in two terms as Iowa’s governor, was active on agricultural issues.

The last farmer to serve as agriculture secretary was John Block of Illinois, during the Reagan era in the early 1980s.

NPPC Sues EPA Over Emissions Reporting Rule

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to require livestock farms to file reports under the Environmental Protection and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA).

NPPC is also charging that EPA violated the due process rights of farmers by failing to develop an adequate system to accept the reports, making it impossible to comply with the law.

In a rulemaking issued Dec. 18, EPA announced that large livestock farms would be required to file mandatory reports on air emissions by first making phone calls to their local and state emergency response authorities, then by filing a written notification of emissions estimates.

Farms that fail to file will face penalties of $25,000 per day. The ruling becomes effective today, Jan. 20, 2009, the first day of the Obama administration.

“In sticking the agricultural community with this unworkable rule, EPA not only failed to provide any guidance to farmers on compliance with the new regulation or develop an adequate system to handle the volume of reports that would be filed, it also actively engaged in efforts that undermined the ability of farmers to comply with this new, stringent rule,” says NPPC President Bryan Black.

Among those efforts, EPA told state officials not to accept reports and provided false and out-of-date information on filing reports on its Web site.

Also, the agency didn’t issue guidance for complying with the rule until 4:30 p.m. Jan. 16 – the last business day before the filing deadline – giving America’s 67,000 pork producers and hundreds of thousands of other livestock farmers only 30 minutes to receive, read and interpret the guidance and to develop and file the appropriate emissions report.

In its lawsuit filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, NPPC challenges EPA’s decision to exclude livestock operations from the EPCRA agriculture exemption and asks the court to enjoin EPA from enforcement until the agency develops a system that will allow producers to comply.

Top of Mind Trade Issues

It appears that Mexico will not prohibit imports of beef, pork and poultry in combo bins. Some intense discussions between U.S. and Mexican producers, processors and government officials has apparently smoothed the rift and assured Mexican officials of the consistency and safety of product in combo bins.

One big reason for Mexico’s opposition was allegations that product from different species were mixed together in some bins. I suppose that could happen in some processing plants, but the almost complete segregation of species in U.S. slaughter plants makes such mixing virtually impossible. Whatever the reasons or talking points, this is a welcome resolution to what could have been a very serious problem.

COOL’s Final Rule
Speaking of mandatory country-of-origin labeling, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service released on Monday and published in the Federal Register on Thursday its Final Rule for Mandatory Country-of-origin labeling. Copies of the final rule and additional information are on display on line at

The final rule summarizes the comments that USDA received in response to the Interim Final Rule published last summer and includes some changes to how USDA will administer the system.

The final rule includes some major changes that provide packers, processors and retailers a great deal of flexibility for labeling product from imported animals. The final rule becomes effective on March 16. Here are the rules in as small of a nutshell as I can devise:

“Product of the U.S.” (i.e. Label A) is still reserved only for product from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. The label is not “required” on that product, though. No change there.

  • “Product of the U.S. and Canada” (i.e. Label B) can be used for:
    1. Product from pigs born in Canada and then raised and slaughtered in the United States (i.e. imported Canadian weaner or feeder pigs);
    2. Product from pigs born, raised and slaughtered in the United States, if they are processed during the same shift or day as pigs born in Canada and raised in the United States;.
    3. Product from pigs born and raised in Canada (i.e. pigs imported for immediate slaughter) if they are processed during the same shift or day as pigs born in Canada and raised in the United States;
  • “Product of Canada and the U.S.” (i.e. Label C) can be used for:
    1. Product from pigs born and raised in Canada and slaughtered in the United States (i.e. pigs imported for immediate slaughter);
    2. Product from pigs born, raised and slaughtered in the United States, if they are processed during the same shift or day in which pigs born and raised in Canada are processed;
    3. Product from any pigs described in 1, 2 or 3 above since the countries on the label may be placed in any order for pigs in those categories.
Sound flexible? You bet. Sound confusing? Certainly. Sound like a red flag to some congressmen and senators? Very likely. And some have already said they are not happy with the degree of flexibility offered here. Their words were more along the lines of “not happy with the ability to taint U.S. product with foreign country labels.” Politicians are good at hyperbole.

These rules indeed provide a great deal of flexibility and they really provide relief for Canadians selling market hogs to the United States and the U.S. packers who buy them. That category of animals was required to carry the “Product of Canada and the U.S.” label in the interim final rule and, perhaps more important, was the only group that could carry that label. The “forced uniqueness” would have, in my opinion, driven market hog imports to virtually zero. And it still might – at least until these rules take effect in March.

Readers know that I have always opposed mandatory COOL because of its proponents’ food safety and consumer right-to-know arguments when the real reason for COOL, in my opinion, was always to block imports of Canadian and Mexican livestock and meat from those countries plus some. So, any reduction of the onerousness (probably not a word but you know what I mean) of the law is good in my book.

The risk, though, is that legislators will view the rules as an end run on their intent and will either force USDA to tighten the rules or reopen the law and rewrite it in a manner that ties USDA’s hands. The first is a definite possibility with a new administration, Secretary of Agriculture and so far unknown deputy- and under-secretaries. The second is a definite possibility because House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson and Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin both cried foul last summer when packers’ plans to use the flexibility provided by the interim final rule exceeded what Peterson and Harkin said was Congress’ intent.

Sorting Out the Stats
Finally, a short explanation regarding the data in this week’s North American Pork Industry Data table (below). The most recent data that you see is for the week that ended Dec. 27, one week older than normal for this table. In addition, data for sow slaughter for that week has not been posted to the Statistics Canada website. Stats Canada is changing its web-based reports and is encountering some difficulties in that process. I think we all know how that goes, especially in a year like 2008 in which one has to put 53 weeks’ worth of data. It’s one of those calendar quirks that, perhaps, only market analysts understand. But believe me, it wreaks havoc with spreadsheets and data systems.

In addition, the year-to-date comparisons to last year are greatly skewed because last year’s data represented almost a full two weeks while this year’s data represents only six weekdays. The year-over-year change figures will become more representative as we add more data and thus reduce the impact of this difference in the number of days. Another lesson to be careful about when considering those percentage change numbers.

Click to view graphs.

Steve R. Meyer, Ph.D.
Paragon Economics, Inc.
e-mail: [email protected]

Pork Exports Continue Their Strong Pace

U.S. pork exports continue to outshine 2007 performance with shipments through November 2008 at 20% above year-ago levels.

For the first 11 months of 2008, pork and pork variety meat exports were 61% larger than 2007 at 4.18 billion pounds, worth $4.5 billion, an increase of 59%.

“Global protein supplies remain tight, with the exception of a few situations in key countries where stocks of imported meats are weighing on the market, specifically in South Korea and China,” reports Erin Daley, U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) economist. “As currencies and prices stabilize, inventories will decline and demand for U.S. meat will likely continue at a relatively strong level. Although pork exports are not expected to maintain the stunning pace of 2008, they are forecast to exceed 2007 volumes,” Daley says.

“The bottom line is that, regardless of the global economic situation, people have to eat,” she remarks. “U.S. beef and pork prices are lower than they were during the summer, which helps offset the increased strength of the U.S. dollar.”

Shipments of U.S. pork products accounted for nearly 25% of production, with export value equal to $43/head slaughtered, compared to less than $30/head during the same period in 2007, according to Daley.

“Pork remains a very affordable protein, and our exports continue to defy projections,” she says.

Mexico led the way in purchases of U.S. pork in November, setting another new record at 91.3 million pounds, up 50% from November 2007. January through November exports to Mexico increased 40% to 768.2 million pounds, valued at $614.2 million.

Japan came in second in November buying 88.9 million pounds of U.S. pork, up 22%. Japan remains the largest destination for U.S. pork in 2008 at 921.5 million pounds for January through November, valued at $1.43 billion.

The China/Hong Kong region was the third-largest market for U.S. pork in November, buying 42.9 million pounds, primarily to Hong Kong. November purchases were the smallest to the region since December 2007. But January-November exports still were up 148% to 832.1 million pounds, valued at $652.6 million.

Pork exports to Russia in November were down 8% to 32.2 million pounds, but January-November sales were up 141% at 473.9 million pounds worth $469.3 million.

The trade quota to Russia for 2009 was negotiated at 220 million pounds, beneficial considering oil priced at about $40/barrel and the global economic situation, USMEF reports.

U.S. pork exports to Canada set a new monthly record in November at 38.5 million pounds, up 8% from November 2007. January through November exports climbed 17% to 346.4 million pounds, worth $514.3 million.

“Exports were surprisingly strong considering the weakening of the Canadian dollar and the slowing of live hog exports to the United States (Canadian hog imports dropped 38% during 2008).” Daley says.

Making 30 pigs per sow per year dream come true

There is a quiet revolution taking place in today's pork industry. Litter sizes are climbing with each uptick in the number of total born and born alive, providing tremendous potential to change farm throughput, according to Minnesota swine veterinarian Tim Loula.

“What we once thought was a big litter will become the herd average,” as operations reach 30 pigs per sow per year — and turn a dream into a reality, he reported at the 18th Annual Carthage Veterinary Service Swine Conference last fall in Macomb, Ill.

Loula, senior partner of the Swine Vet Center at St. Peter, Minn., says when producers hear about the trend to 30 pigs per sow per year, they raise two questions:

  • What if I'm losing $20-30 per pig?
  • What if I get a lot of small pigs that I have to sell light?

His answer comes with a review of pig history. Thirty years ago, the late Al Leman, DVM, returned from England saying the United States needed to get to 20 pigs per sow per year to compete with the Europeans, Loula recalls. At the time, U.S. herds were at 14 pigs per sow per year.

By the 1990s, almost all breeding herds were achieving 20 pigs per sow per year. Today, many systems are hitting 25 pigs per sow per year, and some are on the threshold of 30 pigs per sow per year, reaching that level for weeks, and individual sows are achieving 40 pigs per sow per year, he observes.

Sure, weaned pig, sow feed and liquid propane fuel costs have risen significantly. “But weaning more pigs/sow significantly decreases these costs/pig weaned,” Loula says.

For example, when sow feed costs $0.13 per lb., 1 ton of feed per sow per year = $260 per sow per year. Based on those prices, he calculates increased sow production lowers pig costs as follows:

22 pigs per sow per year = $11.82 per pig;

25 pigs per sow per year = $10.40 per pig; and

30 pigs per sow per year = $8.67 per pig.

Big drivers

Two years ago, sow feed costs were half of that, reducing the cost/pig proportionately, he adds.

Higher pigs per sow per year obviously drives costs lower on many other related inputs including buildings, insurance, taxes, labor, sow replacements, sow medication, vaccine and semen.

Loula has compiled a list of “big drivers” that will enhance efforts to raise pigs per sow per year.

First is total born/born alive. “The industry is making tremendous improvement in total born and born alive. This will be the key driver in more farms achieving 30 pigs per sow per year,” he emphasizes. “Fourteen total born is happening regularly. The carrot has moved. The old goal used to be 11 born alive; now it is 13.”

He adds: “We've seen the greatest increase in the last several years since the European white line hybrids replaced the U.S. genetic base of three-way cross (Duroc x Hampshire x Yorkshire) breeding programs in the late '70s and '80s.” The European white breeds essentially took over and replaced most U.S. female genetics, he says.

Loula insists that producers will need to achieve 12-13 pigs born alive to stay competitive, and he envisions 13-15 being achievable in the not-too-distant future with genetics leading the way.

Again, the Europeans led efforts to increase litter size, dating back 15 years, and it is really paying off. The top French farms are averaging 28.1 pigs per sow per year, with 14.1 total born, 13.1 born alive and 11.4 weaned per litter.

Increased U.S. reproductive efficiency will result in 90%-plus farrowing rates, increased total born, decreased wean-to-first service interval (5.5 days or less) and decreased non-productive sow days, he predicts.

The pig industry is moving to a later weaning age to improve nursery performance. Loula says there is linear evidence that shows longer lactation length (18-21 days) also plays a role in improved subsequent farrowing rate, total born and born alive. Some systems are actually moving to 21-23 days wean age.

Avoid overbreeding, he cautions, because it can result in early weaning, an increase in litters of less than seven pigs born alive and more fall-out pigs. Early weaning also has other effects on reproductive performance:

  • Decreased total born;
  • Prolonged wean-to-first service interval;
  • Shortened estrous cycle; and
  • Lowered farrowing rate.

Don't try to compensate for a short breeding group by early weaning some animals, because those females will breed at the same time they would have if they were allowed to lactate three to four more days,” he emphasizes.

To achieve high total born to reach 30 pigs per sow per year, producers must pay closer attention to their gilt development programs.

Manage gilt supply

Balance parity distribution to provide for adequate gilt supply. Too few gilts results in retaining old, less-productive sows, which will reduce farrowing rate, decrease total born, increase preweaning mortality and exacerbate sow death loss.

However, avoid adding marginal gilts to the breeding herd. “More herds have gotten into trouble because of inadequate gilt supply rather than the high cost associated with high replacement rates,” the Minnesota swine veterinarian suggests.

Adjust gilt matings based on actual results, seasonal estimates or by farm historical data. Summer breedings are important because they make the most profitable pigs (next summer's market hogs when the market is traditionally at its highest).

Gilt management

For years, producers have failed to manage gilts correctly, according to Loula. Gilt performance can be great. But if gilts are bred too young, too small or on the first heat, housed in pens and moved at the wrong times, then the results will be poor and gilt retention will often be low. Instead, breed gilts at 240 days of age, at 300 lb. or heavier, and on the second or third heat cycle.

Heat induction and heat checking while gilts are in isolation should be done seven days a week. Put a boar in each gilt pen for 10 minutes. Synchronize gilts with hormones (PG600 from Intervet). The goal should be 80%-plus of the gilts in recorded heat within four weeks in isolation.

Once gilts are identified in heat, they should be tagged by color and day of the week. Record if they are in standing heat; swollen, wet vulvas should be recorded as “swell.” The gilt may not stand while she's in the gilt development unit, but she's still going through a heat cycle, he says.

Breeding barn flow

To Loula, there is too much use of pens in breeding barns. Don't breed gilts in pens. If you have to use pens, relegate them to sow use after Day 30 of gestation, following a pregnancy check.

Use pens to house thin sows so they can exercise to gain back condition.

Breeding pens cause labor inefficiencies from jumping pens to check open animals, to moving open females to pens to check for heat.

“Breeding barn movement is a very big deal. Less is better,” Loula affirms. Develop a flow with the least moves that allows you to properly observe animals, provide boar exposure, check for heat and breed sows.

Prepare for breeding

“Crate break” or house all breeding-age gilts in crates for a minimum of 10 days (21 days is preferred), before breeding, says Loula.

To prepare gilts for breeding, full feed two to three times per day for at least two to three weeks.

Again, don't breed gilts in pens, and don't move gilts from breeding stalls from Day 5-30 postbreeding.

“Remember the gilt is the future of the herd. Have a plan for success and stick to it to achieve your targets,” Loula states.

Signs your gilt development program may need improvements include high replacement rates and high sow death loss.

Watch for low gilt reproductive performance, particularly a low percentage of gilts making Parity 3, Loula says.

Lactation feeding

When it comes to feeding lactating sows, Loula's simple philosophy is “the more they eat, the better they reproduce.”

Lactation intake drives reproduction. Females must be fed at least three times per day from Day 3, post-farrowing, to maximize feed intake. With automatic sow feeders, sows can be fed up to five times per day: 5:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

A big trend in recent years is the move to automatic lactation feeders, either the INTAK (ad-lib lactation feeding system from Automated Production Systems) or the straight tube feeder.

Feed all open females from weaning to breeding at least twice a day and preferably three times/day to achieve “full feed,” he says.

Provide sows maximum amounts of feed from weaning to breeding, and feed above maintenance levels from breeding to 30 days of gestation.

Don't allow animals to get fat.

Treat thin sows as an emergency. Lean genetics require much more feed to get back into normal weight ranges.

Observing sows

Provide sows with the same level of care that you would pigs in intensive nursery management.

Devote time to the job. Walk slowly. Look at each sow carefully. Be prepared to stop and check individuals. Focus on your task.


Establish a consistent daily schedule that makes breeding simple and uses a team breeding lineup to drop feed, walk the barn, provide feedback, clean, check semen, heat check and breed groups.

Semen quality

The old way of thinking is that “semen is semen,” and that there is no difference in quality between companies or studs, he comments.

In fact, bacterial contamination, acrosome integrity problems, different concentrations and poor standard deviation in counts can all lead to lower farrowing rates and total born.

Boar studs and farms that collect semen should monitor for these issues every collection day. Among the most common bacterial contaminations are pseudomonas, eptococcus and Cornebacterium staphylococcus.

To minimize bacterial contamination, sanitize lab floors and equipment daily.

Curbing stillborns

Reducing stillborns is essential to the goal of achieving 7-8% preweaning mortality. Identify your problem areas, find out when pigs die and what can be done to make a difference.

“Stillborns are a big deal because they're usually big pigs,” Loula relates. This problem can be reduced through induced farrowings, attended farrowings, proper sow condition and parity management. Watch especially for sows with a history of stillborns.

Reduce constipation and provide adequate fresh air to farrowing sows.

Mark farrowing cards when the room is loaded as an easy visual check for sows with a history of stillborn problems.

Recognize early on when a sow is having farrowing difficulty to ease stillborn problems. Possible signs include:

  • One or two dry pigs;
  • Sows' eyes are red and bloodshot and may appear to bulge;
  • Obvious straining and contractions with no results;
  • No new pigs farrowed for 30 minutes; and
  • Bloody discharge behind the sow with no pigs.

Old sows noticeably increase stillborn rates (Figure 1).

Most preweaning mortality occurs within the first 48 to 72 hours of farrowing, so the more attention paid to the 1- to 4-day-old pig, the less work needed later, Loula states.

From 75-90% of stillborns are caused by three factors: traumatic injuries including laid-ons and crushing deaths, low-viability pigs and starveouts.

Colostrum is critical

Energy management is a solution to saving challenged piglets. “The idea is to get more energy (colostrum) into the pig than what goes out by increasing the colostrum intake and decreasing chilling and other stresses,” he points out.

Along with split suckling and hot boxes to warm and dry off piglets, Loula advises the following colostrum management steps:

  • Observe all pigs for colostrum intake;
  • Make sure each piglet has found and suckled a teat; and
  • Mark each pig once it has nursed.

Colostrum is made up of two components: antibodies and cells. Antibodies primarily protect against bacterial diseases such as E. coli, Clostridium Type A, Streptococcus suis and Haemophilus parasuis. Specialized white blood cells primarily protect against porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, swine influenza virus, porcine circovirus type 2 and other viruses.

Protective antibodies can be obtained from any sow; however, the cellular portion of colostrum only comes from the newborn's mother. That's why it is vital for pigs to suckle their mother before crossfostering, Loula reminds.

Piglets need to fill up with colostrum as soon as possible to overpower the germs in the environment.

Check pigs' bellies. If full, don't crossfoster pigs at all because it upsets the sows and the pigs. Every litter has a smallest pig. Recognize and treat fall-behinds quickly.

“Thirty pigs per sow per year is the new goal. It's in our sights — it's no longer a dream,” Loula concludes.

Trait Interactions Offer Clues to Sow Lifetime Performance

A 10-year snapshot of PigChamp data shows the average culling frequency of breeding females in U.S. commercial herds is 45%, while mortality rates stand at nearly 8%.

Reproductive failure and leg problems are the leading reasons young sows are culled. Genetic improvement in traits associated with feet and leg soundness could improve sow lifetime productivity and, in turn, producer profits.

The objective of this study was to estimate the genetic parameters — the degree to which a trait is controlled by the genetics of the animal and the genetic relationships between traits — of structural soundness traits. The long-term goal of this project has been to follow breeding females through at least five parities to help identify which body composition and structural soundness traits have the greatest impact on sow longevity and, therefore, would serve as the most relevant traits to emphasize in a replacement gilt selection program.

The study was conducted at a new, commercial sow farm with 3,790 sow spaces, which is representative of a “typical” farm in the U.S. pork industry today.

At start-up, this farm produced its own replacement females. Currently, 20-25% of the breeding herd is devoted to a grandparent line and 75-80% to a parent line. This allowed researchers to track records on both the pure line and crossbred replacement gilt candidates.

The study includes 1,449 females — roughly one-third belonging to a pure (grandparent) line and the balance to a parent line. The parent line is a cross of the farm's grandparent line with another grandparent line. All gilts studied were produced by a genetic supplier explicitly for the purposes of this study by using single-sire matings.

Most of the parent females in U.S. pork production units are produced in multiplication systems where pooled semen is used to help maintain conception rates. This study is very unique because the exact parentage of the commercial females is known.

The first research gilts arrived at the farm in October 2005, and the last cohort was delivered in July 2006. Gilts averaged 180 days of age at delivery. After a short acclimation period, gilts were weighed, ultrasonically measured for backfat thickness and loin muscle area and evaluated, independently, for structural soundness on a nine-point scale by two scorers. Their average weight was 274 lb. at an average age of 190 days.

Soundness trait evaluation consisted of six body structure traits (body length, depth and width, rib shape, top line and hip structure), five leg structure traits per leg pair (front legs: legs turned, buck knees, pastern posture, foot size, uneven toes; rear legs: legs turned, weak/upright legs, pastern posture, foot size, uneven toes) and overall leg action (Table 1). Top line, turned legs and weak/upright rear legs were each divided into two traits prior to analyses.

The degree in which a trait is controlled by genetics (heritability; Table 1) and the genetic relationship between traits (genetic correlation; Table 2) were estimated simultaneously for multiple traits using a genetic software program.

The model used to obtain the genetic parameter estimates for structural soundness traits included genetic line of the gilt (developed from two genetic lines), evaluation day (to account for differences in the 14 evaluation groups) and “scorer” (to account for differences between the two scorers) as fixed effects. All values were adjusted to a constant weight of 274 lb.

“Animal” was treated as a random effect, since each animal has inherited a random sample of genes from its parents. Also, as some of the gilts were evaluated by both scorers, the permanent environmental effect of the gilt was plugged into the model.

The genetic line had a significant effect on less than half of the structural traits (Table 1). However, when the difference was significant, the parent line, on average, had better structural scores in most cases compared to the grandparent line.

Most of the heritabilities obtained for body structure traits were considered “moderate,” ranging from 0.10 to 0.29 (Table 1). On the other hand, leg structure heritability estimates were primarily relatively low — ranging from 0.02 to 0.17. Pastern postures of both leg pairs, front and rear, were moderately heritable at 0.29 and 0.31, respectively.

Overall leg action, which reflects both structural soundness and freedom of other defects affecting movement — such as disease or injury — had a heritability of 0.10. Across all evaluated structural soundness traits, only the heritability estimates for turned front legs did not differ significantly from zero.

Body structure traits had high genetic correlations among each other, indicating that changes in one body structure trait will affect the others. The associations were such that body structure traits have a tendency to improve consistently. As the heritabilities of the leg structure traits were relatively low, the genetic correlations among them were also relatively low. A weak trend of feet and leg structure defects being related to poorer overall leg action was observed from the results.

The genetic correlations between body and leg structure traits were often favorable, indicating that improvements in body structure were associated with improvements in leg structure (Table 2). Long and shallow body, high top line and steep hip structure were significantly associated with inferior leg action.

Among the gilts that failed to farrow (237/1449 gilts = 16%), reproductive failures (93/237 gilts = 39%) and lameness or leg problems (54/237 gilts = 23%) were the primary culling reasons reported.

Furthermore, 125 young sows were not bred after their first farrowing. These sow losses were primarily caused by mortalities (45/125 sows = 36%) or culling for reproductive problems/poor performance (39/125 sows = 31%) or lameness (19/125 sows = 15%).

When looking at the removal rates of these young females, it becomes obvious that genetic improvements in reproductive traits, leg structure traits and overall leg action are needed in order to increase the productive lifetime of sows.

The relatively low heritabilities of some leg traits indicate that the proportion of additive genetic variance is small and the expected genetic improvement through selection would likely be slower than could be expected for body structure traits. However, genetic improvement can be achieved for traits with lower heritability estimates if sufficient genetic variation exists for the traits under selection.

As body and leg soundness trait groups are to some extent genetically correlated, utilizing information across the trait groups to guide selection could enhance the otherwise relatively slow genetic progress in feet and leg structure and overall leg action.

The goal of following surviving females through five parities was achieved in December 2008 and the associations of sow longevity with body composition and structural soundness traits will be reported in spring 2009.

Researchers: Marja Nikkilä, Kenneth Stalder, Timo Serenius, Benny Mote, Max Rothschild, Anna Johnson, and Locke Karriker, DVM, Iowa State University, Ames, IA; and Bridget Thorn, Newsham Choice Genetics, West Des Moines, IA. Contact Stalder by phone at 515-294-4683 or by e-mail: [email protected].

Editor's note: Following is a series of five research reports focusing on genetic, physiological and performance traits that subsequently impact the reproductive performance of replacement gilts in the breeding herd.

Building Better Gilt Management Systems

Successful placement of gilts into the breeding herd and their ability to remain there through at least three parities has three basic, but very important components, according to James Lowe, DVM, from Carthage Veterinary Service, Carthage, IL.

First, focus on the reproductive traits — particularly early cycling, he says.

Next, treat isolation, acclimation and estrus stimulation as separate and distinct processes and develop a routine for each.

Finally, there are many ways to stimulate estrus, but none are more important than providing good contact with mature, active boars and providing at least 15 sq. ft. of clean, dry floor space.

“Gilts represent the future production of the herd, and optimizing their performance requires proper introduction that includes phenotypic selection, proper isolation, immune management and introduction into the (breeding) herd,” he told those attending a reproduction workshop held during the mid-September Leman Swine Conference in St. Paul, MN.

Lowe focused on farm management strategies to help producers achieve above-average production of the sow herd, including better sow retention through at least three parities.

Replacement gilts are often selected for their body type, feet and leg structure and underline quality, with less emphasis placed on reproductive traits.

“While those phenotypic traits are important, we also know that gilts that come into estrus soon after we begin estrus stimulation have a higher lifetime performance than those that cycle later,” he says. This relationship can only be judged within a genetic line, he cautions, and cannot be used as a benchmark to compare one line to another.

And, he adds, this information is only valuable if it is used to cull late-responders and non-responders, regardless of where the gilts come from or what you paid for them.

Do the Math

Outlining a few assumptions, Lowe says we know that gilts that come into heat within 30 days of boar exposure have more pigs in their first litter and are more likely to stay in the herd.

“Second, we expect about 70% of the gilts to be in heat within 23 days, and 85% within 30 days. If we give PG600 (Intervet, Inc.) to gilts without a recorded estrus at 23 days, post entry, we can get 95% to cycle within 30 days.

“Finally, it costs about $1/day to feed and house a gilt,” he says.

Citing Table 1, Lowe outlines three management options for handling a group of gilts.

All gilts that do not have a recorded estrus within 30 days of entry/boar stimulation (Option 1) or within 70 days of entry/boar stimulation (Option 2)are culled. All gilts that do not have a recorded estrus within 23 days of entry/boar stimulation (Option 3) are given one dose of PG600, and those that do not have a recorded estrus within 30 days post entry/boar stimulation are culled.

Table 1 shows that of the gilts we breed, we can achieve the highest pigs/sow lifetime by culling the non-cyclers at 30 days post entry — 42.3%, 40.8% and 42.2% for Options 1, 2 and 3, respectively,” he says.

“When we increase the percentage of gilts that come into heat by 30 days post entry with PG600 and still cull at 30 days, we achieve the highest economic returns,” he adds.

Eight Steps to a Better System

Lowe offers a specific set of guidelines for success, regardless of the barn layout or the skills of the people responsible for breeding gilts and sows.

  1. Start by approaching gilt management and estrus stimulation in a systematic manner. The entire management team must buy into the program. Assign your best people to breed gilts. “This is hard work and only the best will be successful,” he reminds. “There is as much art as science to successful gilt breeding, so make sure you are on track all of the time.”

  2. Separate physical (phenotypic) selection from reproductive selection. Physical selection comes first. Gilts must meet your standards for soundness and underline quality.

    “Gilts are not finishing pigs, but they are not money pits either,” Lowe advises. “Adding $10 to the cost of a gilt adds 30 cents to the cost of each pig she produces over her lifetime. Do not put gilts into the system that will not hold up. They need to go to slaughter at the proper weight and not as breeding herd culls (from the gilt pool),” he stresses.

  1. Isolate incoming stock. “Gilt health equals herd health. It is critical to the success of the herd to lower the risk of new disease introduction,” he says.

  2. Allow ample time for gilts to get acclimated to the sow herd before starting boar exposure/estrus stimulation.

    “Even in porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) naïve herds, make sure you allow enough time for vaccines and proper herd exposure (feedback and culls) prior to herd entry,” Lowe warns. “And don't forget about porcine parvovirus and the other things that can wreck a sow farm.” Lowe recommends 45-60 days for acclimation before starting estrus stimulation.

  3. Allow 15 sq. ft./gilt for proper estrus stimulation.

  4. Make sure your boars have a “stench.” Boar pheromones are critical for gilts to reach puberty and display their first estrus. The more the boars “slobber,” the higher the amount of pheromones the boar is secreting. Older, active boars are best for stimulation, but Lowe recommends keeping a mix of smaller, younger boars and older, stinkier boars around all of the time.

  5. Don't give boars too many gilts to choose from. Small groups of 12 or less at a time are best.

  6. Compile detailed records on gilt management activities and keep them on the farm so managers can track success over time. “Most commercial software systems are very poor at tracking and managing gilt information,” he says.

Boar Contact is Critical

There are many ways to design a breeding barn to achieve good contact between boars and maiden gilts. Some are easier to manage than others, but all can work, Lowe says.

He has narrowed the alternatives to two systems — the boar exposure area (BEAR) design and the continuous stimulation (CS) method, used with and without Matrix, an estrus control product from Intervet, Inc.

The BEAR system, developed by George Foxcroft at the University of Alberta, is a series of boar stalls with a gilt pen on each side (Figure 1). Gilts are moved from their home pen (10 sq. ft./gilt) to the BEAR system once a day, where they are exposed to boars for about 20 minutes. The BEAR gilt pen typically allows 15 sq. ft./gilt and holds 12-14 gilts. Face the boars both directions so nose-to-nose contact is possible with gilts in both pens.

Gilts showing signs of estrus upon entering the pen are removed as soon as possible. After 2-5 minutes of observation, release a boar into each pen to commingle with gilts. Gilts found in estrus are moved to a separate breeding area in the barn and the date of estrus is recorded. After 20 minutes of direct boar exposure, non-cycling gilts are returned to their home pen. Cycling gilts are bred on their second or third estrus, according to the farm's needs.

Advantages of the BEAR system include:

  • Optimal boar-gilt contact;

  • All estrus events recorded;

  • Ability to breed gilts on known second or third estrus;

  • Greater control of the number of gilts bred;

  • Efficient use of labor;

  • Less total floor space needed to house gilts; and

  • Minimized risk of gilt injuries during estrus stimulation.

Disadvantages of the BEAR system include the need for more skilled staff and the need for a specialized facility.

In some circumstances, Lowe prefers the continuous stimulation (CS) system, which provides passive but constant stimulation. The CS system works best when long gilt isolation periods are required, such as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS)-positive farms or when labor or gilt access may be limited.

In the CS system, one vasectomized boar is housed with 12-14 gilts, providing 15 sq. ft./animal. Boars are rotated between pens daily and cycling gilts are recorded. After a specified period of time, usually 5-7 weeks, gilts weighing 300 lb. or more are moved to the breeding area whether they have a recorded estrus or not.

Lowe says the advantages of this system include low labor costs, ability to start estrus stimulation during isolation to optimize gilt weight at breeding and less demanding labor requirements.

Disadvantages of the CS system include:

  • No control/knowledge of the number of cycling gilts at a given time;

  • Many gilts possibly bred on first estrus;

  • More boars needed;

  • High risk of gilt injuries;

  • Difficult to control number of gilts bred/group; and

  • More floor space required than the BEAR unit.

Lowe admits that it is very difficult to meet breeding goals with the CS system, although the use of Matrix can help synchronize groups of gilts for breeding.

“Regardless of the gilt management system used, it is important to implement a disciplined process that allows the farm to capture all of the benefits of early cycling animals, while minimizing the number of select gilts culled prior to breeding,” Lowe summarizes.

Gilt Multiplier Closes In On 30 Pigs/Sow/Year

Increasing pigs/sow/year (p/s/y) is a worthwhile goal as it translates to more pigs out the door, lowers cost of production and drives profits.

For Jon Hoek, director of production strategy for DeMotte, IN-based Belstra Milling's swine division known as the Belstra Group, increasing p/s/y also means increasing the potential for gilt sales.

The Belstra Group is comprised of 11,500 sows, producing gilts at five multiplication farms in Indiana and Illinois. About 65% of total available gilts produced are available for sale to PIC as Camborough gilts to clients in North Carolina and throughout the Midwest. The “non-select” gilts and barrows are shipped to the IPC packing plant in Delphi, IN.

30 P/S/Y Goal, Challenges

As the first decade of the 21st Century nears an end, the Belstra Group closes in on its goal of producing 30 p/s/y. The poster child for achieving this goal has been Max-L Farms near DeMotte, a 1,950-sow, breed-to-wean farm built in 2002 that produces the PIC Camborough-22 gilt line.

“Max-L Farms has been at 29.1 p/s/y for the last three years and averaged 30 p/s/y for about 45 of the 52 weeks between June '06-May '07,” Hoek reports (See Figure 1).

But he emphasizes Belstra's 30-p/s/y goal doesn't come easily.

“That goal comes with challenges that means it may not be right for everybody to pursue,” cautions Kurt Nagel, former manager of the 1,150-sow unit known as Iroquois Valley Breeders, a Belstra gilt multiplier. He now serves as finances/production and environment director for the Belstra Group.

“Some of the challenges stem from the fact that when you start to build a farm, you don't normally build the nursery-finishing flow for 30 p/s/y,” Hoek explains. “Therefore, once you've got the p/s/y higher than you ever dreamed — it can cause an issue downstream in finishing with crowding and growth challenges if you do not react quickly enough,” he adds.

Belstra has avoided increasing finishing space for the additional pigs produced as they continue their drive to reach the 30 p/s/y goal.

“We have negotiated long-term relationships for weaned gilt and feeder pigs to avoid major off-site finishing building projects,” Hoek remarks. “You have to remember with multiplication you can't just throw a finisher down anywhere. There are strict requirements for biosecurity and health when planning a new building site.”

“You have to have the confidence that you can maintain that level of production because you surely don't want production to slip after paying for additional facilities,” Nagel warns.

Producers need to think about the health and the quality of pigs they are weaning, too. “You can get to 30 p/s/y by weaning marginal pigs,” Hoek points out.

“But why pay for survival of non-Grade A pigs that won't make you any money just to play the p/s/y numbers game?” Nagel asks.

Some have questioned whether having a 30 p/s/y target is practical or sustainable. Litters with 15-18 total born will often have some non-viable runts that are intentionally euthanized to prevent suffering. This increases preweaning mortality by 3-4%, but allows the rest of the viable pigs to express their genetic growth potential.

Nagel says PIC genetics are doing their job, with some of the farms averaging near 14.5 total born and 13 born alive, meaning efforts to consistently hit 30 p/s/y are within reach.

However, to date the Belstra farms are more focused on maintaining 29 high-quality, healthy pigs per sow per year than including marginal pigs just to hit the 30 p/s/y target, Hoek explains.

With continual genetic improvement over the years, Belstra leaders believe it is reasonable they can reach 30 viable weaned pigs per sow consistently in the coming years.

Health Concerns

“We are in a continual process to improve the health of our farms for our customers' sake,” Hoek says. Circovirus has challenged most U.S. farms, and Belstra has responded by instituting a preventative vaccination program on the farms producing replacement gilts.

Proactive strategies for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) are being met with implementation of Boehringer Ingelheim's PRRS Risk Assessment Program, coordinated by consulting swine veterinarian Tom Gillespie of Rensselaer, IN.

“It is a program that measures our internal and external risks for attracting PRRS based on various production and management techniques,” Hoek explains. External risks include things like neighboring pigs, highways and transport to packing plants. Internal risks cover how pigs and supplies are brought onto the farm.

“We have been monitoring our PRRS risk with this program for 4-5 years now. We have successfully quantified through statistical analysis that our farms have reduced our risk of PRRS infection significantly,” Hoek remarks. “It is our desire as a breeding stock supplier to deliver healthy gilts to the customers' farms so they can properly customize the acclimation of that animal to the health of the receiving farm,” he observes.

“PRRS is a problem in the industry, and we sell a lot of gilts to both PRRS-positive and mycoplasma-positive farms, providing the customer flexibility by varying the times of isolation and acclimation, and size and age of the animal any way these customers would like to receive them,” Hoek continues.

To farrow and raise large numbers of viable piglets also requires that many other reproductive parameters must be running on all cylinders, including farrowing rate, lactation length, preweaning mortality, non-productive sow days, parity distribution and sow mortality. Management and facilities must also be fine-tuned.

In order to provide better tracking of p/s/y, Belstra switched to MetaFarms' recordkeeping programs. Hoek and Nagel believe the Minnesota-based service does a better job of tracking 20- and 40-week production periods and in annualizing the data.

MetaFarms also is a leader in data mining technology that allows the Belstra Group to customize data analysis of particular farms or barns. This information system has played a key role in strategic decision-making processes that allow Belstra to throttle these farms forward to maximum sustainable levels of production, according to company officials.

It All Starts with Gilts

Strict standards are used for gilt development. No gilts are bred until they reach 210 days of age, weigh a minimum of 300 lb. and are provided regular boar exposure.

Gilts receive periodic boar exposure in isolation to ensure they are coming into heat and to speed up maturity. The goal is to breed gilts on the third or fourth heat cycle.

“I think gilt development starts with isolation, making sure those gilts are first isolated for a minimum of eight weeks in a separate facility to assure that we are not going to bring something into the herd, healthwise, that we don't want. And we can use that time for the gilts to get acclimated to whatever is in our herd,” Nagel says. This also allows time for gilt vaccination and titer stabilization before entry into the breeding herd.

During acclimation, sow fecal material is used to expose the gilts to the gestation barn health challenges.

One area of concern for the Belstra Group is “tabletop parity distribution,” which is how Hoek describes Max-L Farms' leveled-out 3rd to 5th parities. To develop a more traditional parity curve and retain sows longer, Belstra has begun looking at management techniques with PIC researchers to further enhance sow longevity and minimize any negative production parameters on parity zero through parity two. (See Figure 2 to review 2008 parity performance.)

Even so, Hoek proudly points to Belstra Group's sow mortality figures at less than 4% for the last three years.

Breeding Efficiency

An average farrowing interval of 142 days is achieved through farrowing rate improvements and deliberate management decisions at the multiplier farms, Hoek stresses. It's monitored closely and breaks down averaging 115 days of gestation, 18 days of lactation, six days wean-to-first service interval and 3.2 non-productive days. The interval includes some intentional sow skips as well. The golden rule at Belstra is that no thin or out-of-condition sow will be bred.

To maintain those intervals means getting sows bred by Day 4-5, postweaning, because research has shown that sows bred sooner will have larger litters than sows bred on Day 6-7. Belstra's goal is to have 90% of sows bred by seven days postweaning. Hoek says 95% of sows have been bred by then unless intentionally skipped because of poor body condition. “Most of our farms are breeding at the onset of standing heat,” he adds.

Good boar contact and sow stimulation are essential for quality matings. “This is something that I think a lot of people are trying to rush right now,” Hoek explains. “I see a lot of people using AI (artificial insemination) buddies or saddles. We don't use them. We believe in individual attention — one person and one mating.”

The industry appears to be moving away from individual attention as they try to cut labor costs. But Hoek thinks that's a big mistake. “I think that alone hurts 30 p/s/y as much as anything because you don't get those top farrowing rates and you don't get high total borns,” he stresses.

Spending 2-5 minutes/sow on proper stimulation of underline and flank with good boar exposure will be rewarded with more total born piglets, says Hoek. Gilts require more time than mature sows.

It is very critical that the number of open sows be kept to a minimum, he continues. Heat checking sows should start at 18 days postbreeding and continue throughout the next five weeks. Sows should be pregnancy-checked at least once; most pregnancy-checking machines are accurate at 28-35 days post-breeding.

“Remember, open sows are a drain on profits. One sow that goes all the way and is not bred during the gestation period is equivalent to 5.5 sows returning to estrus at 21 days,” Hoek emphasizes.

Farrowing Strategies

Farrowing rates for Belstra's Max-L Farms was 94.9% in 2008. The average for the entire Belstra system was 92.10% (Figure 3). Overall, preweaning mortality for nearly the last three years is just above 10%.

Hoek says larger, faster computer systems as well as large sow production databases have allowed PIC and other genetic companies to improve preweaning mortality, farrowing rate and other lowly heritable traits faster.

In order to maximize genetic potential, Belstra farms have fine-tuned their farrowing strategies with the following protocols:

  • Adopting the McRebel approach to crossfostering developed by Monte McCaw, DVM, North Carolina State University. Crossfostering is limited to the first 24 hours of life. Leaving piglets on their original mothers has helped reduce labor and the spread of viruses or other pathogens.

  • Moving away from bump weaning used since 2004 has improved weaning performance. With bump weaning, you wean the sow off her original litter and place another litter on the sow in order to make the maximum use of the most productive sows in the farm, Nagel explains.

    But bump weaning depressed feed consumption in lactation and lowered weaning weights, he says.

    “The end result was this problem dragged on into the nursery and finisher phases, and we ended up with a big stratification of ages within litters (10-12 days age spread) due to constantly moving pigs forward in farrowing,” Hoek notes. When bump weaning ceased, Belstra found they started weaning far more pigs than ever — and they didn't work nearly as hard doing it. Weaning averages improved from 10.9 to nearly 11.4 pigs/litter. Preweaning mortality dropped by almost 2%.

    Weaning age has ranged from 18 to 21 days old across the farms. Max-L Farms, with the highest p/s/y, was reduced to 18 days lactation length in order to accommodate the high farrowing rate and the subsequent productivity, he notes.

  • Installing a Rescue Deck (S&R Resources) system in all of the farms in 2005 and 2006 helped boost average weaning weights from 12.6 to 15.2 lb. Pounds weaned/sow/year climbed dramatically from 329 to 400 lb. Average daily gain of nursing piglets also improved by almost 0.15 lb./day, Nagel says.

Hoek says the Rescue Deck should serve as a tool, not a crutch. It should help maximize crate utilization and increase labor efficiency.

Employee Factor

Nagel, who served as farm manager for Iroquois Valley for 10 years, stresses that employee “ownership” plays a crucial role in the reproductive success of the gilt farms.

“Our employees are our greatest asset, and we have many long-term staff members on the farms who have bought into the success of the farms. For me, there is a tremendous support staff here at the mill as well,” he comments.

Farm staff has access to all production data and are consulted on production changes. Much of the staff has worked for a decade or longer at the Belstra Group's gilt farms.

Employees are treated with respect, and receive a generous wage and benefits package. There is often a waiting list to work at Belstra.

One prime example of how an ownership culture can evolve is Troy Goodman, farm manager at Hopkins Ridge Farm, a 1,250-sow farm constructed in 1996. Goodman served as an assistant manager at several other Belstra gilt farms in the early 1990s.

He and his wife were given the opportunity to transfer to Hopkins Ridge to manage and become part-owners of the farm in 1996.

Goodman declares: “We love it. Belstra provides great incentives and this opportunity has given my family a chance to work in a modern hog unit that we couldn't afford on our own. We own part of it, so that is added incentive to do the best darned job that we can.”

Part of Belstra's draw is that it is a family-oriented business. From the ownership to the 80-plus employees working on the farms, plus the dozen or so staff who work at the feedmill's offices, there are numerous family members working at different locations.

Quarterly Analysis

To closely monitor changing costs and conditions on a quarterly basis, Hoek and Nagel review financial and production data and look for changes that impact the bottom line.

Even though their niche business is producing replacement gilts, the non-select gilts and barrows that are sold to slaughter have to be raised right and sold right.

“Our whole goal here is to sell the best pigs regardless of the customer,” Hoek says.