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Articles from 2006 In February

Recent Cash Rally Could Well Continue

Much of the news in the pork industry the past few weeks has dealt with Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) lean hogs futures. They took a big hit in January as cash hog prices fell sharply and pulled futures, especially the nearby February contract, down with them.

The stars really lined up against February futures in mid-January. Soft pork demand (largely the result of very low chicken prices), higher-than-expected supplies, and the "roll" of commodity index funds out of the February contract all cast a very bearish influence over this contract. The decline in cash prices and February futures gave the impression the sky was in fact falling.

Some consideration, though, of other futures contracts show that, even though they may have taken on a bit of water, they're far from sinking. Figures 1, 2 and 3 are bar charts for April, July and December CME lean hogs futures. While none of these looked especially rosy prior to last week, it's obvious the summer and fall contracts didn't go down that much. Last week's rally took July and December back to within $2.50 of their contract highs.

FI hog slaughter finally got back near (in fact, below) both last year's and forecast levels last week. If that continues, the recent cash rally could well continue. It's already mid-February; spring and Easter are not far away. In addition, egg sets have finally fallen below year-ago levels and bring some hope chicken supply will decline and support recent anemic prices.

I still urge producers to watch these markets closely and keep tabs on what a rally means for return on equity. Set a realistic and meaningful objective and pull the trigger. The key is "realistic." What was realistic last year may not be this year.

CME Looks To Raise Daily Limit On Lean Hogs
CME announced last week it is contemplating increasing the daily limit on lean hogs contracts from $2 to $3. The move is motivated by some difficulties of hedge and index funds in placing and lifting positions in January when the February contract had two, lock-limit down days. Should that become more commonplace, those funds may not trade lean hogs, which would reduce liquidity and make it more difficult for hedgers to shift risk. Regardless of what you think of speculators and funds, they play an important role in providing liquidity.

It's important to also note the limit on the lean hogs contract is much lower in percentage terms than those of other ag commodities. The limit on corn is 20¢ on a roughly $2 item -- 10%. The limit on soybeans is 50¢ on roughly $6 -- 8% or so.

The purpose of limits is to force traders to slow down, take a deep breath and think about things rather than panicking. Walking a line between slowing down a panic market and allowing trading to continue is a tough call.

Another Record Export Year Is Official
USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service released December export data last week; another record year for U.S. pork exports is official. Of course, it was actually official in November when last year's record was surpassed in only 11 months.

Exports ended the year up 21%, and the value of exports was just slightly higher. That 21% more quantity at roughly the same unit price certainly means higher demand. Again we ask "And what do you plan for an encore?" Another record will be a tough act -- but we've said that before, too.

Click to view graphs.

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

DDGS Boosts Sow Nutrition

High-producing lactating sows can thrive using 15% distiller's dried grains with solubles (DDGS) to help meet their nutritional needs.

Equally important, adding phytase to these DDGS-supplemented sow lactation diets reduced phytate phosphorus excretion levels over sows fed conventional sow rations or a complete DDGS ration without phytase.

Two studies were completed using Yorkshire x Landrace sows nursing 11 or more pigs/litter, weaned at 18 days of age.

The first study compared sows fed 15% DDGS with sows fed 5% beet pulp (BP). The diets contained the same amount of fiber; lysine (1.2%); calcium (0.9%); and phosphorus (0.84%).

Treatment did not influence lactation performance. Sows weaned 10.9 and 10.8 pigs/litter with an average gain of 8.4 and 8.6 lb./pig for the BP- and DDGS-fed sows, respectively. Weight loss during lactation was 13.6 lb. (BP) and 17.9 lb. (DDGS). Fecal phosphorus excretion decreased linearly for DDGS-fed sows.

In the second study, a 15% DDGS sow lactation diet was compared with three other diet formulations. The trial included a control group (typical corn-soy diet); control group plus phytase, control group with 17% of phosphorus supplied by 15% DDGS; and this same DDGS diet plus phytase.

At 110 days of gestation, sows were gradually introduced to their lactation diet. Two days postfarrowing, litters were crossfostered to 11 pigs/litter, and sows and litters were weighed. Fecal grab samples were collected from 48 sows (12/treatment) on Day 7, 14 and 18 of lactation. Litter weight gain (101.2, 101.9, 92.6 and 92.8 lb.) and sow weight loss (17.8, 15.8, 15.4 and 13.9 lb.) were not affected by the respective dietary treatments.

The phosphorus concentration in the feces was similar between treatments on Day 7, 14 or 18, but was reduced in sows fed all treatments on Day 14 and 18.

Significantly, however, fecal phytate phosphorus (the form of phosphorus in corn and soybeans) was reduced in sows fed the DDGS-phytase diet at Day 14 and 18, vs. sows fed the three other diets.

Researchers: G.M. Hill, D.L. Kirkpatrick, J.E. Link, M.L. Gibson, K. Karges and M.J. Rincker, Michigan State University; and Dakota Gold Research Assn. Contact Hill by phone (517) 355-9676, fax (517) 432-0190 or e-mail [email protected].

Use Oxytocin Wisely to Aid in Birthing

Oxytocin works well to stimulate the farrowing process, when given at the proper time. However, when improperly or overly used, it can exacerbate farrowing problems.

In short, oxytocin use should be limited to older-parity sows and during the last half of the birth order, explains Steve Dritz, DVM, College of Veterinary Medicine, Kansas State University (KSU).

Dritz presented a review of oxytocin use for sows and gilts at last fall's KSU Swine Day in Manhattan, KS.

Oxytocin's Role

The role of oxytocin is to shorten farrowing time and the interval between each pig born. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 1995 National Animal Health Monitoring System survey revealed that 8.2% of pork producers use oxytocin for all sows farrowed.

Oxytoxin works by stimulating uterine contractions, which in turn decrease the interval between piglet births.

When sows were allowed to farrow normally without intervention, 75% of the stillbirths occurred after the eighth pig was born, in one study presented by Dritz. Stillbirths are fully developed pigs that die during birth and never take a breath.

“In contrast, this same study indicated that 88% of stillbirths were recorded before the fifth pig was born, when sows were administered a single dose of oxytocin after the first pig was born,” he says.

An evaluation of risk factors for stillbirths on two commercial swine farms in Brazil found that the use of oxytocin increased the risk for stillbirth. A total of 101 litters were evaluated on the first farm, and 373 litters on the second farm. The percentage of litters with one or more stillbirths increased on each farm when sows received oxytocin during the birthing process.

As a farrowing tool, oxytocin is used on many farms to reduce stillbirths and as an aid in the farrowing process. As shown in the study illustrated in Figure 1, the use of oxytocin can reduce farrowing time by more than half, and lower the time between pigs farrowed by half.

“But administration of oxytocin before the cervix is fully dilated or before the first pig is born can lead to dystocia or difficult birth,” observes Dritz.

“Improper oxytocin use can also cause an increased number of stillbirths by causing ruptured umbilical cords, which lead to decreased oxygen delivery to the piglet during birth” (Figures 2-3).

Also in that study, severe meconium staining was more prevalent in liveborn and stillborn pigs of oxytocin-treated sows. Meconium staining occurs when waste products accumulate in the intestinal tract before the pig is born.

Explains Dritz: “If a pig is oxygen-deprived during the birth process, it will expel the meconium through its mouth because it is trying to breathe. But because it is still in the placenta, the meconium stains the amniotic fluid and the pig.”

Advises Against Oxytocin

Roy Kirkwood, DVM, swine reproductive specialist at Michigan State University, reports that some recent work and several studies from Mexico confirm that oxytocin use increases stillbirths.

“The data is fairly convincing in that the regular use of oxytocin is not a good idea,” he says. Overuse of oxytocin can produce higher incidences of interrupted farrowings that require manual intervention, which is a risk factor for uterine infections and subsequent infertility.

The use of oxytocin also impacts the pattern of stillbirths, occurring more often when the first four pigs are born, rather than when the last four pigs are born, Kirkwood observes.

Use in Older Sows

While oxytocin has potential negative implications, its use can be beneficial to farrowing by stimulating uterine contractions and preventing stillbirths in older sows, comments Dritz.

Use ½ cc (10 IU) to stimulate uterine contractions. The use of larger dosages should be avoided.

Dritz' other recommendations include:

  • Administer oxytocin only after the cervix is fully dilated;

  • Use little or no oxytocin in gilt litters;

  • For a normal farrowing sow, don't use oxytocin until at least six pigs have been born;

  • Use oxytocin when a sow has not had a piglet for more than 40 minutes; and

  • Use a maximum of two doses/sow.

Don't use oxytocin as a substitute for obstetrical assistance when problems are evident, including bloody discharge from the vulva, obvious pain or straining, or a history of stillbirths.

Fine-Tuning Lactation

Sow studies evaluate the validity of National Research Council amino acid recommendations.

Sows are different enough in feed intake and milk production to make it unrealistic to expect the same diets to be appropriate for all of them.

So nutritionists have developed systems for estimating the amino acid requirements for sows, taking into account:

  • Body weight (maintenance requirement);

  • Litter growth rate (milk production); and

  • Body protein loss (contributes amino acids).

There is general agreement on the approach, but big differences in the relative needs (or supply) of the different amino acids.

Consider a situation that specifies a high level of milk production, a low level of protein intake, and a high rate of body protein loss. The National Research Council (NRC) estimates order of limitation of amino acids to be lysine, then valine, then threonine.

But numbers proposed by Sungwoo Kim (then at the University of Illinois, now at Texas Tech University) suggest the order of limitation to be first threonine, then lysine, then valine.

Other estimates based on uptake of amino acids by the mammary gland suggest even higher requirements for threonine and valine relative to lysine.

Research Farm Experiments

We conducted a series of experiments to guide nutritionists in the selection of the most appropriate set of numbers for estimating amino acid requirements in practice.

First, we conducted two intensive experiments with a few sows in our research farm. The first experiment used a basal diet with a strategically-selected ratio of threonine-to-lysine, using either or both of those amino acids added. The second experiment was similar, except we focused on threonine and valine.

Each experiment was divided into four periods of four days each, and the diets were rotated so each sow consumed all four diets. The critical measurement was plasma urea nitrogen (PUN) concentration, a measure that declines with improved amino acid balance.

The results clearly showed that under these circumstances, lysine was the first-limiting amino acid, and threonine was second.

Although these results were clear, we considered it important to determine whether feeding each individual diet throughout lactation would produce the same results.

Commercial Farm Experiments

Full-lactation studies require a lot of sows, so we collaborated with a team of swine nutrition researchers in Mexico, headed by Jose Cuaron, for an experiment in a 1,200-sow farm. This experiment was designed to determine whether threonine or valine is more limiting. We collected usable data on 351 sows.

The results (Table 1) showed that for first-litter sows, threonine was more limiting, in agreement with the short-term PUN experiment. Older sows (about 72 per treatment) did not respond to amino acid supplementation.

Collaborative Trial

A collaborative experiment with United Feeds was conducted with 378 sows on two farms in Indiana. In this trial, we tested the amount of crystalline lysine that could be used to replace soybean meal in a specially-formulated control diet. All three experimental diets contained the same amount of digestible lysine, but lysine HCl provided 0%, 0.1% or 0.3% lysine. As lysine HCl was added, the levels of threonine and valine declined; all other amino acids were added to ensure they would not be limiting.

As predicted by NRC and Kim, the results indicated that threonine and/or valine requirements, estimated by the mammary gland uptake studies, are too high.

In this experiment, litter growth rate was reduced by the higher level of lysine HCl and not by the lower level, but we urge caution in extending this observation to other diets.

The control diet used in this experiment was different than usually fed, because our purpose was to evaluate systems for calculating requirements. Our purpose was not to measure specifically the amount of lysine HCl that can be used, because that can vary.


These results provide confidence in the NRC estimates of amino acid requirements for lactating sows, except that the NRC estimate of the valine requirement is too high.

*K.T. Soltwedel is employed at SCA Nutrition as technical sales manager for Illinois and eastern Iowa.

Table 1. Effect of Amino Acid Supplementation on Growth Rate of Litters of First-Parity Sows
Control + Threonine + Valine + Both
Number of sows 16 16 14 15
Litter growth rate during first 8 days, lb./day 4.37 4.70 4.10 4.85
Threonine effect, P=0.09; threonine by parity interaction, P=0.07.

Loader Upgrade Introduced

The 300 loader series is a good fit for today's front-wheel-assist tractors.

Westendorf Manufacturing has expanded its 300 loader series with the introduction of the 360 Custom Contour loader. Designed for today's wider-framed, front-wheel-assist tractors, the new loader is a good choice for six-cylinder models and those with a side-mount exhaust system. It features excellent maneuverability and turning radius, has a lift capacity of 3,900 lb. and a lift height of 11 ft. 4 in. Newly patented features include internal hydraulic lines on the arms and bucket cylinders, rotational height and level indicators and Hydra-Snap, one-step coupling manifold. Call (877) 695-6237 or visit

Fast Fever Reducer

Banamine-S Anti-inflammatory treatment from Schering-Plough Animal Health Corp. has been shown in clinical trials to reduce fever by as much as two degrees within four hours. Disease typically triggers a fever, often reducing appetite and diminishing performance. Banamine-S can reverse that process, so pigs start eating again, says the company. The recommended dose is 2 ml/100 lb., intramuscularly in the neck. The product has a 12-day withdrawal period. The prescription-only product comes in 100-ml. bottles. Banamine-S is the only form of flunixin meglumine approved by the Food and Drug Administration for reduction of fever in swine; use of generic formulations is no longer permissible for this purpose. The product is not cleared for use in breeding swine. Visit

Ultrasound Selection Technology

Biotronics, Inc. introduces the BioSoft Toolbox for Swine, an ultrasound image capturing and interpretation system, which the company says is the first program to accurately predict the percentage of intramuscular fat in the loin muscle of live hogs. Research indicates that greater percentages of intramuscular fat in the loineye area are linked with improved taste. BioSoft ultrasound technology provides easy and efficient testing for backfat levels and intramuscular fat percentages in potential breeding stock. The company also offers training and continuing education to capture and interpret meat traits using real-time ultrasound technologies. Call (515) 296-4010 or visit

Drying Powder

Regular application of drySTART powder from Eu-Tec Nutrition, Inc. helps discourage the production of bacteria and ammonia by keeping floors clean and dry. Sprinkle in the farrowing crate to help keep piglets dry and warm. Spread behind sows to lower the chance of uterine and bladder infections. Apply to slats in front of feeders and drinkers to help keep the area dry and clean. The ready-to-use drying powder may also reduce ammonia levels in livestock bedding. Call (563) 652-2977.

Auto-Sort Hog Scale

The Gen II Hog Sorting System is designed and manufactured by Sierens. Standard features include remote monitoring and configuration software, MatrixSort II, reliable scale system, two-level alarm system, identification of five weight ranges, maximum-sort feature, locking gates, PC-compatible electronics, fail-safe system default and nylon bushings at all wear points. Optional features include two- or three-pen destination, safety release system, and radio frequency identification capability, available in stainless steel or powder-coated steel. Call (204) 836-2243 or visit

Hands-Free Insemination

Swine Robotics, Inc. introduces the Super Saddle, a hands-free stimulation and insemination machine. It is easy to use, battery-operated and will run for hours. The Super Saddle will improve conception rates and labor efficiency, notes the company. Call (605) 439-3227 or visit

Send product submissions to Dale Miller, Editor (952) 851-4661; [email protected]

Antibiotics Scrutinized

Editor's Note: The Animal Health Institute (AHI) represents most major animal pharmaceutical firms. In this report, AHI's leader explains how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has tightened rules on antibiotics.

Antibiotics used to keep food animals healthy have been the subject of headlines recently, as food-service companies have announced limits on types of antibiotics that can be used in their supply chains, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed from the market a drug used to treat sick chickens.

However, the most important development in determining future approval and use decisions was FDA's announcement of a new food safety hurdle in the approval process.

Product Safety Review

Fueled by concerns about the potential transfer of antibiotic-resistant pathogens from animals to humans, FDA is requesting sponsors or drug manufacturers perform a microbial safety review, or qualitative risk assessment, referred to as Guidance to Industry 152, for each new and currently-approved antibiotic.

Under this document, each drug will be evaluated for its potential to cause antimicrobial-resistant pathogens to emerge, and the risk of their transference to humans via meat consumption.

Depending on the assessment outcome for each antibiotic, sponsors could receive the green light of approval, face certain limitations on their product's use or be denied approval altogether.

For pork producers, it is important to understand that Guidance 152 also contains provisions that make it likely antibiotics given to whole herds or flocks through feed and water will receive extra scrutiny. Producers could see additional restrictions placed on some antibiotics, or product withdrawals.

Under Guidance 152, each drug is reviewed using three separate risk assessments:

  1. A release assessment, estimating the likelihood that antibiotic use will produce antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the animal;

  2. An exposure assessment, estimating the probability of people ingesting antibiotic-resistant bacteria derived from the meat; and

  3. A consequence assessment, assessing the chances human exposure to resistant bacteria would adversely affect human health. However, FDA already conducted this assessment for sponsors, and categorized each drug class as “critically important,” “highly important” or “important” in treating human diseases.

For instance, all fluoroquinolones, third-generation cephalosporins, macrolides, and trimeth/sulfa drugs used in animals automatically receive a “critically important” consequence assessment.

A final comprehensive risk ranking is derived by combining all three risk estimations into low, medium or high risk. Depending on risk, FDA must consider imposing specific risk management measures based on:

  • Limits on how the product can be marketed, whether with a prescription, over-the-counter or subject to veterinary feed directive;

  • Bans on extra-label drug use;

  • Extent of use limits, duration of use or route of administration;

  • Post-approval monitoring; and

  • Review by FDA's veterinary advisory committee, comprised of physicians and veterinarians.

Risk Calculation

The new policy allows sponsors to use available data to more precisely calculate risk. Quantitative risk assessment, which relies on data for risk measurements, results in a more precise risk calculation. Qualitative risk assessment provides only estimations in the absence of real data, and as a result, typically overestimates risk.

For example, Guidance 152 requires an exposure assessment rating of “high” when a hog is the target animal, because per-capita consumption of pork is “high” vs. other, less-eaten meats like fish and veal. While “high” is a relative term, only in comparison to consumption levels of other commodities, it overstates actual risk by ignoring data showing the chance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria transferring to humans via pork consumption is very low. Data exist on bacterial levels at slaughter and in retail meats, and resistant bacteria at slaughter and in retail meats. Using actual data reduces uncertainties and usually reduces the risk estimation.

The ability of companies to plug data into this safety review is one important factor in the continued approval and use of antibiotics as a tool in animal health management. Results so far are encouraging. Quantitative risk assessments done by industry and FDA show potential risks are exceedingly low.

A second factor is the antibiotic-by-antibiotic review of products to account for the differences in compounds.

These two factors — the use of data in risk assessment and individual drug review — give sponsors the opportunity to demonstrate the safety of their products to FDA.

At the end of the process, it is essential that producers provide proper and careful use of antibiotics.

Partners Resurrect Bankrupt Operation

A sprawling Nebraska hog enterprise thrives in the first 18 months of business with new owners, new ideas and a new attitude.

Scott Burroughs readily admits that when he was hired in August 2003 as a consultant to help prepare Furnas County Farms to be sold, he wasn't really sure what to expect. The farms had a reputation of being outdated and worn out.

Burroughs, a former staffer with the National Pork Board, and Danbred North America, the Seward, NE-based genetics firm, admits he once felt the reputation was probably warranted.

But upon closer observation, he concluded the system was indeed outdated and inefficient, but was not worn out by any means. There was a solid production team in place that just needed focus and the tools to do their jobs.

In August 2004, Nebraska Pork Partners (NPP) purchased the 52,000-sow, farrow-to-finish system started by Chuck Sand in the late '70s. The name symbolizes a new team approach, that, coupled with a resurgence of the hog market, led to a very successful first 18 months in operation, adds Burroughs.

Furnas County Farms Purchase

NPP acquired the offices in Columbus, NE, and the buildings and livestock assets of Furnas County Farms. Sand Systems served as the management company managing the assets of the operation.

The system includes 21 Nebraska farrowing sites ranging in size from 1,000 to 4,500 sows, 14 nursery sites ranging in size from 5,000 to 13,500 head, and 21 finishing sites ranging in size from 4,000 to 32,000 head. NPP also has 60,000 finishing spaces in Iowa on 11 farms.

The two main production pods are located near Columbus, NE, and Arapahoe, NE, in the southwest part of the state.

Focus on the Basics

From the outset, the company mantra has been to focus on the basics and take immediate steps to improve production efficiency, while forging solid lines of communication and respect for the operation's 400 employees.

Burroughs declares: “We are here to produce a high quantity of good-quality pigs in a teamwork environment, and we are going to focus on the basics of production. If we get production right, the company will be successful.”

Major production changes included:

  • Established a new management hierarchy designed to empower NPP production staff and employees. The senior production team consists of two breeding farm directors, three nursery-finish directors, a director of veterinary services, a director of human resources and the chief operating officer (Burroughs).

    Reporting to them is a team of production supervisors responsible for four to six farms. They perform weekly farm inspections to keep units on track. The production supervisors rate sites on everything from buildings, pigs and feed and water to employee morale.

    Each farm also employs a farm manager who must submit weekly reports to their production supervisor, detailing production throughout, including pig deaths and pigs treated.

    This new management hierarchy didn't catch on with everyone right away, says Burroughs. A third of the employees immediately bought into the new approach, a third were skeptical and a third were undecided. All were offered jobs in the new company, and eventually 97% were rehired.

    NPP's hierarchy is more formal than before, but also more open to all employees for input. “We have really encouraged a ‘bottom-up’ form of communication instead of a ‘top-down’ mentality,” stresses Burroughs. “Our view is the people who know these farms the best are those who work in them everyday.”

    When problems surface at the farms, a task force typically made up of farm managers and production supervisors is formed to address the issue, and then a policy decision is implemented system-wide, he continues.

    Production supervisor Jeff Wright likes the new arrangement because it provides more structure. There are weekly production meetings with staffs from all farms, monthly production supervisor meetings, and quarterly meetings of all management teams company-wide to provide more opportunity for input and feedback. The latter goes beyond production issues to focus on people management and resolving conflicts.

  • Improved employee training and compensation. When employees are hired, they receive an employee manual and a biosecurity sheet of farm movement protocols. Burroughs states NPP has increased salaries to be more competitive in the industry, put in place a 401K matching funds program, and installed an incentive program based on production improvements. “As the company does well, the team members also do well,” he notes.

    Wright was impressed by the new approach to teamwork. “There have been positive changes in employee morale, and they feel like they have ownership in the system that they never had before,” he says. “It was also nice that NPP offered everybody their jobs back and provided improved employee benefit packages.”

    Todd Flinn, farm manager at Ridgetop Farms, a 32,000-head finisher at Albion, NE, benefits from NPP's production incentive program by selling a large majority of hogs in the packer's red box (271-300 lb.) and finishing out a large percentage of feeder pigs received.

    Out of the last turn of 28,000 head sold, only 256 head were trimmed for bruises, etc. at the packing plant, adds Flinn. He attributes that success to extreme patience and handling of hogs. As he sells more quality hogs, the “lost opportunity” category developed by NPP for pig deaths and quality losses declines, and Flinn and his farm staff are rewarded accordingly.

    Ridgetop is enrolled in Farmland's Process Verified Program, producing quality hogs for Japan.

  • Embarked on a health improvement program that continues the PRRS stabilization program started by Furnas County Farms. Biosecurity has become more stringent. Logistics have been streamlined to make sure trailers are sequenced properly, with proper downtime and hygiene applied. Sanitation will be enhanced with the completion of three truck washes and drying bays in 2006.

    Sandy Urban, boar stud manager at Spalding, NE, was impressed with NPP's responsiveness in upgrading equipment at the stud.

    The company went the “extra mile” to stock the lab with new equipment to totally automate testing and extend semen collections for artificial insemination, she says. Batch control and traceback are also automated, enhancing accuracy and accountability. The increased attention to detail and technology upgrades have increased farrowing rates over 10%.

    NPP's two, well-isolated gilt multipliers in western Nebraska are negative for PRRS and Mycoplasmal pneumonia. The rest of the production system is PRRS stable.

  • Adjusted pig flow. NPP is built in reverse from the ideal, with large finishing and small sow farms, says Burroughs. Its three-site production system is comprised of sow units, nurseries and finishers. Weaned pigs are commingled by breeding farm health status into common nurseries. Those nurseries then populate the large finishers, he explains. NPP has moved away from continuous-flow to all-in, all-out production where possible, and to what Burroughs calls “age segregation blocks” in the largest finishers.

    “We are not able to depopulate these large finishers 100% between groups, so we are basically bringing in a large block of pigs of about the same age and segregating them in a part of the barn,” he explains. The largest finishers are filled in less than four weeks, vs. 20 weeks with continuous-flow production, he says.

  • Increased weaning age. Weaning age used to be about 16 days. NPP has increased weaning age to about 21 days by cutting the sow herd to 42,000 (10,000-sow reduction), says Burroughs. The herd is stocked with PIC breeding stock, and Danbred genetics are being added to the mix.

    Despite this large reduction in sow numbers, total weaned pig production has stayed the same.

    “The increased efficiency is due to many factors, but primarily a production team that focuses on the basics of production every day,” stresses Burroughs. “We have culled poor-producing sows, but the real difference is that our production teams are handling many details daily that were missed before.” Reducing sow numbers while producing the same number of weaned pigs has helped cut production costs.

    Larry Himmelberg, who previously worked for Danbred North America, is director of nutrition for NPP and provides management advice to farms during regular production visits. He suggests NPP has made “slow but steady progress” in improving production performance. Since NPP took over, farrowing rate has improved by over 10%; born alive/litter has increased by 1.6 pigs/litter; nursery death loss has declined by 50%; and pigs/sow/year has climbed about 15%.

  • Renovated and replaced building components. The hog buildings of the Furnas County Farms' operation were built in two stages, from the late '70s to the early '80s, and the last units went up in the late '90s, says Himmelberg. Breeding, farrowing and nursery units are shallow-pit, pull-plug gutters, and the majority of the Nebraska finishers are open-flush gutters, with effluent irrigated on nearby cropland.

    The newer structures required little repair, but the older barns called for a major changeover in farrowing crates and floors, says Harold Ksiazek, director of purchasing. Automatic drop feeding, along with catching up on repairs, has provided a better environment for team members and the animals.

    Dicam environmental control and monitoring systems with remote access have been installed to track feed, water and ventilation settings, says Ksiazek.

    The new teamwork approach extends to building renovation, says Ksiazek. Everyone is working together to continue fine-tuning facility changes.

  • Updated recordkeeping and re-porting systems. New computer software systems were installed at the two feedmills in Spalding and Arapahoe to get a handle on the feed budgeting process, points out Himmelberg.

    “We had to figure out which feed was going where, and make sure the right feed got in the right bins,” he says. “Before, feed budgets were managed at the farm using paper records. Now, budgets are established and followed for each bin from inside the mill. We track feed in every single bin in our system through a unique identification number that gives the bin history, and shows the feed that should be fed now and in the future.

    “This new computerized batching system networks all feedmills with the main office in Columbus, so production is all tied together now, and every batch of feed is tracked from start to finish,” says Himmelberg. The accounting software also interfaces with the feedmill software to improve efficiency and accuracy of data management.

    Both mills produce complete grind and mix rations, and can manufacture 50 different rations.

    Spalding feedmill manager Dave Thome says a template set up by Himmelberg enables the computer to pull up an order and instantly blend the number of batches required for a group of pigs as they make their way into the nursery and through finishing.

    Computerized mixing is very accurate. Should there be a health challenge, for instance, antibiotics can be added or changed in the feed as necessary, says Thome.

    Danette Stone works at the Columbus office on the Pigchamp recordkeeping system for NPP. She says two new databases are being added to provide much more in-depth record analysis. One system will tie all production records together, while the second will calculate group closeouts, she says.

    Pigchamp records are being managed more closely to reduce costs. One area of focus is using less medication by strategically treating the sick pigs in a group. Since pigs are being weaned older, pig performance is enhanced, and subsequent sow productivity has improved, she says.

  • Updated environmental re-cords. Three-ring binders carry details for every farm such as environmental conditions, maps and permits on over 45,000 acres receiving nutrients from NPP facilities annually. “It was perceived that there were a lot of environmental violations in the past, but that wasn't true,” states Burroughs.

    Burroughs believes that his great production team, who continually strive to be the very best, will shoulder NPP's continued success.

Nebraska Pork Production Lags

State fights to regain lost production and keep pigs at home.

While talk grows of increasing pork production in states like Indiana and even North Dakota, Nebraska, on the other hand, is trying to gain back some of what it has lost.

In the last decade, Nebraska has seen a marked decline in its total inventory and producer numbers.

“In 1994, Nebraska had an inventory of 4.7 million animals, and the current inventory is 2.85 million,” (see Figure 1) reports Rod Johnson, executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association (NPPA). “Along the way, we went from 12,000 producers to about 2,500 producers.”

Nebraska ranked sixth nationally in hog production for 2005. It moved up a notch from the previous year, not because production increased, but because Missouri slipped a notch to seventh place.

Most grievous to folks like Johnson is that Nebraska has an abundant supply of the resources needed for pork production — feedgrains, water, open spaces, a packing and processing industry (markets) and a perceived desire for economic development.

But the fact is, many of the hogs produced in Nebraska are finished out elsewhere, says Johnson.

Truckloads of early-weaned pigs and feeder pigs can be seen leaving the state daily, he says. Iowa and Minnesota are the primary destinations. Mike Brumm, Extension swine specialist at the University of Nebraska, estimates about 1-½ million pigs are shipped out of the state each year.

Johnson says for packers to keep their plants viable in Nebraska, they must import 30-40% of their kill to make up the shortfall.

Ironically, the pig deficit also means that packers must bid an average of $2/cwt. higher to keep pigs slaughtered and processed in the state, he notes.

Local Control Issue

Why has this situation happened?

“When Nebraska has lost market share to the states around us, it indicates an issue here locally,” Johnson explains. “Nebraska is very strongly committed to a system of local control, where local counties have established planning and zoning.”

In some areas, pork producers have faced significant local opposition to hog units, possibly due to a lack of understanding of the industry and the economic benefits it can bring to an area.

“The real frustration for many producers is they have met all the planning and zoning requirements, and are still rejected by the county commissioners, due to the ‘public outcry,’” says Johnson.

Producer Action Plan

In response, the NPPA has created a program called the Nebraska Model (, an effort to promote the industry as an opportunity for the next generation to get involved in production agriculture, and to promote the benefits of the industry to the public, spells out Johnson.

Also, several producers have been trained in the National Pork Board's Operation Main Street program. Several producers have spoken to civic groups around the state about the value of pork production. The checkoff-funded program was launched in 2004 to help producers upgrade their image at the local level.

Agricultural groups in Nebraska have also joined forces to promote the livestock industry in numerous ways, including the development of the Livestock Friendly County Program, administered through the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

Currently, only Morrill County (far western Nebraska, cattle country) has obtained the designation, but 8-10 counties are looking into becoming involved in the program, says Johnson.

At this point, the program is only a promotional effort. “We are hopeful that by becoming Livestock Friendly, it will promote a change of attitude within the general population of the county,” he adds.

Nebraska counties want to attract small businesses and cottage industries to invest in their towns. What community leaders need to understand is that pork production represents rural development, and the first value-added phase to corn and soybean production, stresses Johnson.

Daily Growth Tracking Targets Premiums

Daily gain software helps refine market hog deliveries to producer-owned Meadowbrook Farms plant.

Here's your challenge: Sort a semi-load of market hogs within 4 lb. on either side of the ideal weight needed to capture packer's premiums.

With a keen eye, a scale, and good help — no problem.

Now try identifying those market hogs three weeks in advance so you can hit a 15-minute delivery window on a specific date.

Oh, one more thing — be sure to pick those hogs that will hit a carcass weight that will yield primal cuts in highest demand. Loins must be between 21 and 26 lb., or payment will be docked 50%.

That's the challenge facing members of the Meadowbrook Farms' packing/processing plant near Rantoul, IL.

Some help is available, however. The Daily Weigh software package from Osborne Industries, coupled with the Weight Watcher automatic weighing and sorting features, captures daily weight averages of groups and projects incremental growth rates. The Market Predictor feature in the Daily Weigh program helps producers fulfill Meadowbrook's advance-scheduling requirements, and tighten market weights targeted to capture primal cut premiums.

The farmer-owned plant, operating for just over two years, currently slaughters 3,300 hogs/day. Members are obligated to supply hogs in accordance with the number of stocks they hold. One share equals one hog.

The Meadowbrook plant and the co-op's philosophy are centered on maximizing efficiency. “To keep a highly efficient plant operating smoothly, it depends on the orderly and continuous plant flow of pigs at predetermined times,” explains Jim Altemus, the cooperative's vice president of communications.

The plant and receiving area can handle two semi-loads every 15 minutes. All hogs are rested two hours before slaughter.

The preferred scheduling method is through a computer dial-up program, where an interactive scheduling site displays available time slots for the next three weeks, in 15-minute increments. Producers select a date and time, and plug in the number of hogs they will deliver. When the load has been successfully scheduled, the producer receives an e-mail confirmation.

The delivery report includes names and telephone numbers, so if a delivery is delayed, Meadowbrook staff can check on arrival status. Failure to meet delivery commitments results in fines.

However, if the schedule coordinator is notified 24 hours in advance, the fine is waived. The scheduler has a list of members to call to help fill that open time slot.

Producers unwilling or unable to use the computer service can work directly with the Meadowbrook schedule coordinator by telephone or fax.

Once verified, delivery information is forwarded to the receiving and management staffs, so they know who is delivering hogs and when they will arrive. It also helps the sales force project the quantity of pork available.

Normal, open delivery time starts at 5:30 a.m., stops at 11:00 a.m. and reopens from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m.

Specialty Markets

In addition, Meadowbrook has about a dozen producers enrolled in a source-verification program for a Japanese customer. Those deliveries begin at 3:30 a.m. on Monday and Tuesday.

“We are very insistent on the two-hour rest period, so everything is aimed at having the source-verified hogs go through the processing line as the first hogs each day. This allows us to guarantee the integrity of those hogs, then clear the line before we pick up the regular slaughter,” says Altemus.

Loin weight and color specifications must be met for the Japanese market. “We have enough information (size, genetics, production system, etc.) on the members' hogs to make a preliminary sort of those meeting the customer's requirements,” says Altemus.

“That same kind of certification program will serve as a model as we look at other customers with specific needs. Our goal is to help our customers add value through branding and source verification,” he adds.

Carcass weight and the Autofom, which estimates total lean content, helps segregate carcasses according to the size and weight of the primal cuts — loins, hams, bellies and butts. Every loin and ham is individually weighed. The person doing the final trimming and inspection of hams weighs and sorts them by size. Bellies and butts are weighed with less human intervention, but each is weighed individually.

Groups of hogs delivered from a single producer are identified with a radio frequency identification tag marking the beginning and the end of the group. Primal cut weights for those hogs are recorded in sequence, and used to determine premiums and penalties. Although there is the occasional glitch, such as a ham pulled for inspection, “99.9% of the product goes through with a positive identity,” Altemus says.

The sophistication and single-line tracking of carcasses offers producers an opportunity to capture more premiums, yet challenges them to deliver hogs in a relatively narrow weight window. “That is going to become more important as the weight of the desired hog varies with the niche marketing we hope to get into,” he adds.

Rising to the Challenge

It is this growing precision that has Meadowbrook Farms' members tapping into automatic sorting and growth rate tracking technologies.

With over 50 years of hog-raising experience under his belt, Carl Swinford of Hillsdale, IN, has turned to Osborne's computer-based Weight Watcher system.

Swinford Farms' 1,800 sows produce about 35,000 market hogs annually. Although only about 15% of his hogs are committed to Meadowbrook Farms, Swinford says the auto-sorting technology and Osborne's Daily Weigh software are helping him capture premiums at other packers, too.

“At Meadowbrook, we've got to keep the loins below 26 lb.,” he explains. Referring to a late-October kill sheet, he adds: “See, the loins (weighing) 26 lb. and over are only 38¢/lb., compared to 87¢/lb. for 21-26 lb. loins. We want the pigs to be the heaviest they can be without exceeding the 26-lb. loin limit. That's probably a 290-300-lb. pig in our operation.

“At the price of corn right now, you need to ship hogs as heavy as possible without getting them into the discounted categories,” Swinford says.

“To do that, you've got to have good information,” agrees Travis Huxford, unit manager at Swinford Farms for 10 years.

The Weight Watcher design allocates 15-20% of room space as a watering pen, and 80-85% to feeding pens. Once trained, pigs cycle through the scales 4-6 times a day, on average. After getting a drink, pigs pass through a one-way gate to return to the feeder. The only route back to water is through the scale.

Swinford Farms feeds six specific rations from 50-60 lb. to market weight. Huxford likes the system because pigs are sorted with every trip through the scale. Pigs lighter than the pen average are sorted to the right; pigs heavier than the average are sorted to the left.

At the stroke of midnight each day, the scale automatically resets the sort point for heavies and lights as pigs grow. Swinford and Huxford like this split-by-weight categorization because it allows lightweight pigs to catch up without hampering the growth of the heavyweights, and it avoids feeding the more expensive diet to half of the pigs too long.

Huxford begins the phase-feeding program when pigs average 60 lb. Pigs weighing over 100 lb. are switched to the second ration, while lighter pigs remain on the higher-protein diet a while longer. Weight brackets determine which diet the pigs receive.

Osborne's Daily Weigh software generates several reports, but the “animal growth” chart and the “market predictor” tally best serves producers trying to hit target weights. Distribution, phase-feeding and activity reports are also available.

Each pig is weighed every time it passes through the scale. At the end of the day, the composite weight is divided by the number of trips through the scale. This provides the data points for the animal growth graph (Figure 1). The red boxes track the average daily gain (ADG) for all pigs in the pen (1.97 lb./day), while the brown boxes show ADG for pigs sorted to the heavy side (2.07 lb./day). The green boxes track ADG of lightweight pigs (1.93 lb./day). Gain data can be tracked from Day 1 to the current date, or between designated dates. In this example, ADG was calculated for a two-week period.

The daily gain data also drives the market predictor function (Table 1). Selecting a “high” and “low” target weight (290 lb. and 270 lb., respectively) and a projected period of growth (Nov. 14 to Dec. 26), Swinford can use the average growth rate for the past two weeks, for example, and the market predictor software calculates the percentages of pigs above, below and within the target weights at future dates.

“Basically, it shows that 13% of pigs are within the 270-290-lb. window and 2% have already exceeded it,” explains Osborne sales manager Lyle Jones. “By Nov. 21, you would have 21% in the weight window and 9% over. If you're selling to Meadowbrook, you'd best be selling those pigs or begin considering another market.”

If you know the market weight at which your pigs begin exceeding Meadowbrook's 26-lb. loin weight limit, the scale can be set to sort those off.

Swinford says automatic sorting saves some labor, but he's quick to point out: “You won't buy the system because of labor saving. Our goal is to reduce variability. We feel we're doing it two ways — by reducing competition at the feeder, and having the ability to feed separate diets. Now we know what these pigs are doing, where before we didn't know until they went to market.”

To take full advantage of the market predictor capabilities, data transfer is critical. “You have to have daily data to generate the reports,” Jones says.

In addition to guiding the phase-feeding program, Huxford says the system helps project when a barn will be empty. And, if he needs a barn soon, he can sort pigs into different weight brackets for different packers.

Ideally, one Weight Watcher sorting scale handles about 500 pigs. All-stainless steel scales cost $6,800, stainless/galvanized steel combo scales are $5,900, and all-galvanized steel scales cost $5,500. One-way gates are $415 each. Daily Weigh Software costs $495, a one-time investment with free upgrades for a year.

Source-Verified Fit

Melvin Coulter, Paxton, IL, is one of Meadowbrook's source-verified producers. Tired of the rigors of farrowing, he and seven other producers invested in a 2,400-sow pasture farrowing operation about nine years ago. Three partners have since bought out the others.

Sows are housed in hoop buildings until they're artificially inseminated and pregnancy-checked positive. PigChamp records show non-productive sow days range from 16 to 24 days — slightly higher in the summer. Average parity is 3.5; 4.0 is their target.

Average weaning age has been bumped back from 19 days of age to 20-21 days, with weights averaging 11.0-11.6 lb. at weaning. The radial-design pasture system cranks out 22 pigs/sow/year.

Owning half the shares, Coulter finishes 20,000 pigs annually. About 9,000 are fed and managed on four Weight Watcher systems in a double-wide, totally slotted finishing barn.

Coulter, a self-professed “slow adapter” of technology, sees an opportunity to narrow the weight range of pigs delivered to the Meadowbrook plant just 11 miles down the road.

“Our weight variance was running 13-14 lb. on a load,” he notes. “With the Weight Watcher, we're down to 9.7 lb., but much of that variation still comes from pigs sorted from conventional finishing barns to make a load.”

Automatic sorting makes it easy to pull feed the day before delivery. “We need the advantage of those pigs cleaning out by the time they get to market, because we're the closest we've ever been to their preferred weight range,” he says. Turning to the computer screen to reinforce the precision, he notes on the current day, “8% of the pigs in the barn are at the target — 274-282 lb.”

The Japanese buyer wants loins weighing 21-26 lb., screened for color and delivered in container units. Coulter knows his 275-285 pounders hit that loin bracket, so delivering consistent weights is essential to capturing premiums from the source-verified program.

Coulter feels his $5,900/scale investment is reasonable. Compared to conventional finishing, he says, “It's not a terribly big investment — only 5-6% of the cost of the building. Gating and feeder costs are the same. We put in watering troughs, which work real well — except in hot weather, when the heavier pigs want to lie beside them.” Before next summer, he plans to install hanging nipple waterers so the lighter pigs can get a drink and go back to the feeders.

Finishing Flexibility

Gene Niemerg of Dieterich, IL, is testing the Market Predictor functions in various finishing barn configurations. One 1,000-head barn pushes about 500 pigs through the auto-sort system at a time. As pigs are marketed, lighter pigs from the conventional pens are pulled forward to the auto-sort pen. Another 1,000-head barn finishes about 400 on the side equipped with the auto-sort scale, which helps finishing site manager DeWain Bohnhoff sort market-ready hogs in the conventional pens on the other side.

A 1,300-head, double-wide finishing barn with a Weight Watcher system on each side handles 650 pigs/side.

Bohnhoff says the systems help fill a semi-load within a fairly tight weight range, drawing from the three barns. “We've nearly eliminated any penalties for overweight hogs since installing the scales,” he notes.

In November, pigs in the double-wide barn weighed an average of 178 lb., with an ADG of 1.8 lb. Sorted as lights and heavies, a check on the ADG for each group during the past three weeks showed the heavier pigs averaging 1.66 lb./day, while lights averaged 1.72 lb./day. Both groups were fed the same ration.

“There's an advantage to reducing competition at the feeders by continually sorting. If you take that advantage and also feed different diets, you can magnify the advantage,” explains Jones.

Table 1. Market Predictor — Scale 1 North — Scale 2 South
Target Weight Low: 270.00 lb. Date from: 11/15/05
High: 290.00 lb. Date to: 12/26/05
Predictions based upon past 14 days growth rate. Step: 7 days
Date Percentage Under Percentage OK Percentage Over
11/14/05 85 13 2
11/21/05 70 21 9
11/28/05 50 28 22
12/05/05 26 35 39
12/12/05 15 22 63
12/19/05 10 11 79

It's Time to Pony Up

How many times have you heard someone make that statement or fuss and fret when a raise comes in under the rate of inflation, knowing full well they are losing ground?

The most popular measure used to benchmark these gains and losses is the Consumer Price Index — CPI for short.

“CPI is a measure of the average change in prices over time in a market basket of goods and services,” explains the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis' web site, It's there that I found a handy CPI calculator where you can simply plug in any year, the price you paid for goods or services that year, then enter the year you'd like to compare the value of a dollar to, click the “calculate” button and in a blink it presents you with the comparative worth.

Here's an example. Your parents have told you they could see a movie for just a quarter in 1950. Using the CPI calculator, plug in 1950, 25¢, 2005, and presto, the calculator reveals the comparative value of 25¢ in 1950 is $2.02 in 2005 dollars.

Impact on Checkoff

Intrigued, I decided to compare the purchasing power of your checkoff dollars over the years.

A call to ag economist Ron Plain at the University of Missouri provided the yearly average price of hogs from 1986 through 2005 (see Table1). The Pork Promotion, Research and Education Act, a.k.a. the “Pork Act,” went into effect in 1986, so we now have 20 years of the mandatory checkoff under our belts. Although the initial checkoff rate was 25¢/$100, I wanted to compare constant dollar values, so I used the current rate of 40¢/$100 to calculate a checkoff contribution on the average value of a market hog in the respective years.

Using the CPI calculator, I then converted those per-head checkoff investments into 2005 dollars. The clinker is, the 51¢/hog checkoff rate in 1986 would be 91¢ in 2005 dollars. In other words, your “real” checkoff contribution has been shaved nearly in half by 20 years of inflation.

I raise this issue because there seems to be an arbitrary ceiling (45 cents/$100 value) on what pork producers are willing to contribute to industry programs. Although the Pork Act set a limit at 50¢/$100 of market value, nowhere is it written that additional funds cannot be voluntarily contributed to pork industry organizations — the National Pork Board and National Pork Producers Council — or even a new industry organization.

As the CPI calculator so vividly shows, your checkoff dollars do not buy as much as they once did. If you felt you got your dollars' worth in 1986, your per-head contribution in 2006 should nearly double — just to stay even.

Now's the Time

With more months of profitability than many of us hoped for, now is the time to rethink priorities and contribution levels.

The challenges are as great, or greater than those we faced two decades ago. Whether it's porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome or an animal welfare bill banning gestation stalls, your dollars are critical. In 2005, a buck a head was comparable to 56 cents in 1986. It's time to pony up.

Table 1. 20-Year Average Barrow and Gilt Prices
Year $/cwt $/head $/head checkoff (40 cents/$100) Checkoff Value in 2005 dollars ($)
1986 53.63 128.16 0.51 0.91
1987 54.79 132.05 0.53 0.91
1988 45.85 110.94 0.44 0.72
1989 46.40 111.81 0.45 0.71
1990 57.82 140.51 0.56 0.83
1991 51.37 125.85 0.50 0.71
1992 44.64 109.36 0.44 0.61
1993 48.04 118.66 0.48 0.65
1994 41.90 104.34 0.42 0.55
1995 44.06 109.72 0.44 0.56
1996 56.54 140.78 0.56 0.69
1997 54.30 137.92 0.55 0.67
1998 34.72 88.54 0.35 0.42
1999 34.00 87.38 0.35 0.41
2000 44.70 115.77 0.46 0.52
2001 45.81 119.11 0.48 0.53
2002 34.95 91.22 0.37 0.40
2003 39.45 103.36 0.41 0.43
2004 52.51 138.63 0.56 0.58
2005 50.02 132.55 0.53 0.53

Organic Acids a Popular Antibiotic Alternative

The 2006 European ban on antibiotics as growth promoters is a well-accepted regulation, says Martin Verstegen, an animal nutrition professor at Wageningen University, the Netherlands.

Organic acids are considered the new generation of growth promoters, Verstegen told attendees of the Minnesota Nutrition Conference session on non-antibiotic alternatives available in Europe.

About 90% of pigs in the Netherlands receive organic acids as an alternative for growth promotion. Fed as a fermented ingredient, organic acids have been shown to improve protein digestibility and decrease gastric pH — resulting in increased enzyme activity and boost pepsin activity. The fermented feedstuff has the greatest effect in diets low in essential amino acids, he adds.

Organic acids have a preservative effect on feed, and are thought to influence gut microflora in two ways. First, a change in physical conditions occurs, which is less appropriate for pathogenic species growth, explains Verstegen. Second, the acids may be lethal to some pathogens.

New developments are expected regarding acid mixtures and protected acids that can affect microbials at specific locations in the intestine, the Dutch scientist says.

Another new development is the use of pre-fermented feeds in liquid nursery diets. About 20 to 30% of pigs are fed wet diets in the Netherlands to reduce drying costs. Lactic acid is a good acidifier, but the feed pH must not be too low (4.8 or higher), particularly for young pigs, or intake becomes a problem, says Verstegen.

Prebiotics are inexpensive and commonly used. Prebiotics belonging to the group of non-starch polysaccharides are a group of carbohydrate compounds that can affect gut fermentation and microbiology, the immune function and, ultimately, health of the intestinal tract. They seem to work best in poor conditions, and the most benefit may be in combination with specific probiotics. The most promising prebiotics have not been established.

Enzymes used widely in poultry and increasingly in pig diets hold much potential, he says. It has been suggested that enzymes can reduce viscosity in the gastrointestinal tract, increasing rate of passage and counteracting bacteria proliferation.