By the time you read this article, the Midwest’s construction boom will be well underway. While no one can put an exact number on how many new grow/finish, wean/finish and nursery units are going up, I’ve heard at least one lender estimate 1.2 million new pig spaces for this year. I know some suppliers’ cement slats are sold out for the year, suggesting a busy season for construction crews and equipment suppliers.

Does this latest round of construction mean we’re in for a glut of pigs in 2013? I’m not sure, as I can only identify a few new sow units going in this summer. On the other hand, sow productivity continues to improve so we’re getting more pigs from our existing inventory.

At the same time slaughter weights continue to set records. While we’ve made great strides in daily gain compared to the 1990s, we need facility spaces to house pigs longer. I’ve worked with some production systems that are targeting sale weights exceeding 295 pounds this spring.

There’s also the need to replace older facilities. The confinement boom really took off in the mid- to late-1970s as our parents moved pigs from outside lots to partially slatted facilities. Assuming a 30-year life, with reasonable attention to repairs and maintenance, these barns have ended their useful life. In all but a few instances, the concrete slats are severely eroded, solid-concrete floors are pitted and the building structure may even be in jeopardy.

According to USDA, there were 59.052 million pigs in the kept-for-market inventory on March 1. So assuming a 30-year lifespan, we need to construct approximately 2 million new pig spaces each year as wean/finish or nursery and grow/finish facilities to replace worn out structures. Since the last few years saw limited construction, it suggests a built-up need for new pig spaces. It also suggests the construction boom will last into next year even if industry profits wane.

If you’re among those anticipating a new facility or you have already signed a contract, keep in mind that during a barn’s 30-year life, average sale weights will increase 1.5 to 2 pounds annually. This trend has been active for over 40 years and there are no signs of a slowdown. Consequently, barns and equipment designed today for a 275- to 280-pound sale weight will have pigs averaging 295 to 300 pounds in 10 years.

Equipment purchases such as feeders and drinkers should be made with an eye to pig needs in 10 years, not just today. This means feeder holes that are at least 14 inches wide. The shoulder width of pigs weighing 275 pounds is approximately 12.5 inches. If you increase 1.1x to accommodate some pig movement, the minimum width is 13.6 inches. Shoulder width will increase more rapidly than pig weight would suggest if producers adopt the use of Improvest, the newly approved boar taint vaccine. Other future technologies also could alter pig dimensions in ways we can’t even anticipate.

Several years ago, Harold Gonyou, at Canada’s Prairie Swine Centre, concluded that feeder space depth (distance from the front edge to the point of feed delivery) should range from 8 to 12 inches. In my experience this now should be 10 inches minimum and 12 inches in the future.

Another overlooked feeder-design dimension is the bottom feed-pan depth, before the front angles up, which I find should be 6 inches at minimum. In feeders where that space is less, I’ve seen pigs have trouble working the feeder-delivery plate.

Nursery feeders have had no dimension changes in the past 20 to 30 years. Pigs commonly left the nurseries at 35 to 45 pounds, and the 6-inch by 6-inch hole was correctly sized. Today, pigs leave the nursery, on average, at 55 pounds, but it’s not uncommon to see 75- to 80-pound pigs trying to eat from 6-inch by 6-inch holes.

Shoulder width on a 66-pound pig is about 7.7 inches; factor in the 1.1x dimension and it increases to 8.5 inches. Given the heavier nursery-exit weights, feeder holes need to be bigger, and I have suggested to several manufacturers that they consider offering feeders with 8-inch-square holes.

We know that we can start weaned pigs successfully in wean/finish facilities with properly sized feeders. Why don’t we use wean/finish feeders in swine nurseries? The feeder-hole dimensions would never be a limit to pig performance, regardless of how heavy the pigs become. I know it’s not necessary for the feeder to be as heavy or tall or have as much feed storage capacity as in wean/finish facilities. I also know that the dimensions remove a possible limit to weaned-pig performance in many nurseries.

My goal here is to provide you with ideas to make feeder purchase decisions that allow wean/finish, nursery and grow/finish pigs to have a quality eating experience. If your feeders are more than 10 years old, I urge you to watch your pigs eat during that last week before exiting the facility. Are they having a quality experience or do they have to twist their heads and/or bodies in unnatural angles or directions to access feed?