Anyway you look at it, the grow/finish production phase ties up the largest amount of resources in your operation. "It's also the toughest resource to manage if you consider the lack of sophistication in record systems available," says Mike Brumm, Extension swine specialist, University of Nebraska.

There's always room for improvement. So, to help you get a better handle on your operation's grow/finish phase and identify areas you might otherwise overlook, Brumm shares his top 10 suggestions.

1. Set realistic performance expectations and goals.

"The bottom line is that today's performance expectations are considerably different than they were 10 years ago," says Brumm. If you continue to maintain the same performance goals that you had even five years ago, you'll miss the opportunity to increase efficiency and productivity.

Just look at these statistics from Swine Graphics Record System in 1989 and the 1999 PigChamp Summary for grow/finish performance. In 1989, Brumm notes that Swine Graphics reported that pigs growing from 50 pounds to 235 pounds grew at a rate of 1.42 pounds per day with a feed conversion of 3.44 pounds of feed per pound of gain. For 1999, PigChamp reported an average in-weight of 56.9 pounds and out-weight of 250 pounds for 6,342 grow/finish units. Average daily gain was 1.58 pounds per day with a 3.09 feed conversion.

In 1989, the top 10 percent of grow/finish herds reported a 1.61-pounds-per-day daily gain with a 3.30 feed conversion; while in 1999, the top 10 percent had 1.83-pounds-per-day daily gain and 2.65 feed conversion.

Brumm notes that feed efficiency gains may be attributed in part to increased use of fat in swine diets – to add calories and control dust. He also sees the increased use of pelleted feeds as having some impact. As a rule, Brumm says each 1 percent addition of fat to grow/finish diets improves feed conversion by 2 percent, whereas pelleting improves feed conversion by 5 percent to 8 percent.

2. Use record systems to monitor ongoing pig performance.

Instead of monitoring pig performance while animals grow, many of you rely on closeouts of the previous group. According to Brumm, there are better tracking methods.

The first is to plot feed deliveries against a pre-planned feed budget. Once you track several pig groups, you can monitor pig performance by tracking feed disappearance vs. expected delivery date or amount.

Another useful monitoring tool is measuring water disappearance. A sudden change indicates a performance change, many times related to health status. So, both feed and water monitoring let you intervene in the growth process, rather than using closeout information and then trying to determine "what went wrong?"

3. Utilize feed budgets to manage diets in all-in/all-out facilities.

Brumm sees many producers running into problems because they still base feed management decisions on estimated weights or perceived performance. You can remedy the situation by setting up a feed budget. This helps you avoid overfeeding expensive first diets in the feeding sequence and allows you to monitor pig performance – especially when you combine it with item No. 2. He recommends consulting with your herd nutritionist or feed supplier before setting up a feed budget for your operation.

4. Select appropriate diets.

Another common management problem is inappropriate diet sequencing. Brumm notes that as late as 1988, many of you were still following recommended diets for pigs weighing 40 pounds to 110 pounds of 0.8 percent lysine, and 0.65 percent lysine for pigs from 110 pounds to market weight.

New recommendations for corn/soybean meal-based diets also take into account the pig's sex, lean-gain potential and daily feed intake. Once again, talk to your herd nutritionist or feed supplier for their specific recommendations.

5. Set feed cost per unit of gain targets.

Another suggestion to improve your grow/finish pig performance is to set targets for feed cost per unit of gain.

Here's an example: Below are estimated feed ingredient costs per hundredweight of gain for mixed sex pens of medium-lean-gain potential pigs with a feed-to-gain ratio of 3.2:1 (from 45 pounds to 250 pounds) fed corn/soybean meal-based diets in meal form.
These costs don't included growth promoting feed additives or any grind/mix/deliver feed preparation charges. For example, if your feed preparation charges are $10 per ton, add $1.60 to each of the numbers to include those fees.

6. Implement a herd-health management plan.

Recent technologies, such as multiple-site production and all-in/all-out pig flow, have helped reduce herd-health risks, but not as much as originally thought, says Brumm. Plus, too many of you still approach herd-health on an "as-needed basis", instead of implementing a preventative plan. At the very least, Brumm recommends that you establish a herd-health plan containing the following:

A. A whole-herd vaccination plan for farrow-to-finish enterprises.

B. Veterinarian-to-veterinarian consultations between feeder-pig buyers and sellers (this includes segregated-early weaning pigs too).

C. Implement procedures to recognize and minimize herd-health problems as they occur.

D. Adhere to the 10 steps outlined in the Pork Quality Assurance Level III certification program for responsible medication usage.

7. Appropriate temperature management in the pig zone.

Especially in the Midwest, Brumm says grow/finish pigs are exposed to a wide temperature variation. This may be caused by ineffective cooling techniques in the summer, resulting in slower daily gain.

Then of course there are the winter months, when drafts from leaking doors and curtains result in chilled pigs. Those things also increase health risks and reduce feed conversion efficiency.

A major problem in the Midwest is that producers tend to keep facilities too warm in the winter. If you have naturally ventilated buildings, you're probably restricting ventilation causing high humidity levels. This in turn encourages respiratory disease challenges and equipment deterioration.

With the advances in ventilation controls, it's easier to monitor and correct temperature differences within the building. There are controls available that are able to monitor temperature uniformity within the building and correct for hot and cold spots.

8. Limit the number of times pigs are sized and sorted.

Sorting by pig size increases your labor needs and may be counter-productive to your goal of uniform pig performance, contends Brumm.

Before deciding whether you should sort pigs by size when you stock a facility, ask yourself these questions:

Will you delay feeding diets to the larger pigs by several days to allow the smallest pigs to have a diet more appropriate to their needs?

Will pen modifications allow for reduced competition or warmer temperatures or meet some other need in a more appropriate manner?

If you answered "no" to either question, you should reconsider your sorting methods. If you don't make any special management considerations for pens with the lightest pigs, Brumm says sorting by size won't improve performance and may result in increased stress and social aggression within the pens following arrival.

9. Replace worn out feeders.
It may be expensive up front, but replacing old feeders will improve performance. He attributes that to improved feeder designs that allow for more refined feed disbursement and enhanced pig comfort while eating. Many of the older feeders (more than five to eight years old) were designed for market hogs weighing up to 220 pounds. Once the pigs surpass that weight, your old feeders can limit the pig's feed intake and encourage feed waste.

Look at it this way, a feed conversion gain of 0.1 units with feed costing $140 per ton is worth $1.43 per pig. At 2.7 turns per year and eight pigs per feeder space, this amounts to $30.88 per feeder space per year.

10. Consider contract finishing to stretch your capital resources and/or implement all-in/all-out pig flow.

For some of you, owning finishing facilities may not be feasible. If this is the case, Brumm suggests considering contract finishing. When you break out the costs, building a fully slatted finisher that houses 1,000 pigs per room will run about $150 to $170 per pig space. If you have only 250 to 300 pigs per room, the cost increases to more than $200 per pig space.

As an alternative to owning, some producers are contracting pigs to raise in hoop facilities. If you can contract for two hoop facilities, each housing 150 pigs, you'll end up with production costs similar to the larger unit.

"Feed conversion and feed cost per unit of gain may be higher in the hoop structure, but the payment per pig is lower than payments associated with confinement facilities," says Brumm. (See Pro Center Talk, "Hoops Offer A Viable Contract Option," in the June 2000 issue of Pork).

These top 10 rules for grow/finish facilities are a good way to revitalize your grow/finish area and make your operation run more efficiently.