Beyond farming, if you like to take the occasional chance, you probably purchase a lottery ticket or try your luck in a local raffle. If you’re feeling especially lucky, you may even head to a casino.

But if you finish out feeder or weaned pigs, that’s not the time to rely on luck. Before the pigs arrive on your site there are numerous things you can do to increase your chance of success.

One Iowa producer puts the odds in his favor by purchasing feeder pigs from producers or suppliers who have a record of delivering high-quality pigs. “We buy pigs with a strong health history from producers who have a reputation for providing high-quality pigs,” says Bryan Karwal, feeder-to-finish producer in Elliott, Iowa.

Karwal finishes 40,000 hogs annually in several southwest Iowa facilities and depends on caretakers to provide daily observation. He brings in 50-pound feeder pigs and markets them about 4.5 months later.

“The actual price of the pigs will be based on a fixed pig weight, at 40 or 50 pounds, then is negotiated between the broker, feeder-pig producer and us. A ‘slide’ price of about 35 cents per pound will be added or subtracted depending on average weight of pigs,” he explains.

Of course, when it comes to buying pigs, your lender plays a role. “We would typically loan 75 percent of the lower of cost or market price,” says Kent Bang, regional vice president, Bank of the West, Omaha, Neb.

While transportation is usually included in the pig price, your purchase agreement should outline who covers death loss in transit. Feeder pigs are often graded within 24 to 36 hours after arrival, and the agreement should include a discount schedule to cover any ruptured, lame or injured pigs.

Handle with Care

Before the pigs arrive, make sure the receiving facilities are clean and disinfected, with ample time for the buildings, feeders and equipment to dry thoroughly.

It’s important to ease the pigs’ arrival and help them adapt without adding unnecessary stress. “Pay attention to pig comfort, get them acquainted to the area and consuming water,” says Steve Henry, DVM, Abilene Animal Hospital, Abilene, Kan. “Don’t harass them with shots or unnecessary vaccinations.”

There are a variety of possible disease challenges that can occur, including enteric and respiratory infections, Henry notes. “We recommend designating one pen for pigs that are ‘challenged on arrival’ as well as having empty pens available to place disadvantaged pigs in from days 3 through 7.”

Karwal makes it a priority to be prepared for the pigs’ arrival. “Make sure the site is ready so the pigs can be unloaded and placed in pens without delay,” he says. “Make sure there is fresh feed and water.” To further minimize stress, he suggests unloading pigs in small groups of 10 to 20.

Depending on the pigs’ history and origination, Karwal adds ileitis vaccination as part of the routine. “We normally do not give any other vaccines,” he says. Nor does he administer antibiotics in the feed for new arrivals. If medications are needed, he prefers water delivery or injections, as pigs will drink before they’ll eat. If a health challenge does occur, a prompt diagnosis and treatment is the best medicine. “We normally don’t lose many pigs during starting phase,” he adds.

Mike Brumm, Brumm Swine Consultancy, Mankato, Minn., suggests training personnel to recognize major swine disease symptoms. Also monitor your records. Often the first sign of sick pigs is reduced water consumption, so it’s beneficial to chart water use in these barns. Conduct necropsies on dead pigs to accurately determine the cause of death.

If death loss exceeds 1.5 percent in the first two to three weeks after arrival, seek out a laboratory diagnosis. It will help identify treatment strategies and future prevention ideas. Consult your veterinarian if you think antibiotics are required and, of course, always follow label directions.

“If pigs have been trucked a long distance, consider including an electrolyte medication in the water to aid in restoring fluid balance,” Brumm says. “Water medication equipment that also measures consumption is preferred.”

Sorting out Size

“Available data does not support sorting by size unless you do something special for the smaller pigs that you sort off,” according to Brumm. “By the end of the growth cycle, the weight variation within a pen is about the same whether you sorted at the start or not.”

But Karwal has had good success sorting off the smallest 5 percent of pigs into a separate pen. “It does reduce the competition somewhat for these smaller pigs,” he notes.

He provides about 7.5 square feet of pen space per pig, and he tries to keep groups stable. “When pigs are added to a group, fighting will increase as pigs acclimate to a new pen hierarchy,” Karwal notes, “which interrupts weight gain.”

Pig numbers per pen vary between 25, 50, 100 and 200 head, and Karwal has not noticed a distinct pig performance advantage with any particular group size. “There might be slightly more fighting in the bigger pens, but we have not noticed a difference in performance,” he adds.

According to Brumm, space allocation is the key and it has a well-defined impact on feed intake and growth rate but a limited impact on feed conversion. “On fully slatted floors, each 3 percent reduction in space allocation (per pig) results in approximately a 1 percent reduction in daily feed intake and daily gain,” he says.

The industry average for space is 7.2 to 7.5 square feet per pig, Brumm says. However, for systems selling pigs at 265 pounds to 295 pounds, 8.4 to 8.7 square feet per pig was shown to maximize individual pig performance. Still, that may be hard to justify. “While crowding reduces individual pig performance, you generate more pounds of gain per unit of space so the fixed cost of space is spread over more pigs,” Brumm notes.

To move pigs through the finishing stage, Karwal feeds five different diets, most containing 10 percent to 20 percent distillers’ dried grains with solubles. “We use phase feeding and match the ration to the pigs’ weight,” Karwal says.

Of course, pigs must have adequate feeder access to keep growing. “New data on feeders suggest a maximum of 10 pigs per ‘quality’ space for dry feeders and up to 12 pigs per space for wet/dry feeders,” Brumm says. “Many successful systems stock dry feeders at eight pigs per hole (14 inches minimum width), which is 1.75 inches per pig.”

Finishing Strategies

Your feeding protocols should work to achieve uniform-weight pigs at marketing time. When barrows and gilts are housed in the same pen, barrows typically reach market weight 10 to 14 days sooner than gilts, making uniform truckloads a challenge.

Split-sex feeding is one way to address uniformity. It also allows easy identification of pigs for the first marketing sort from a barn — typically mostly barrows, Brumm says.

 “Allocating more space for gilts (8 square feet) and less space for barrows (6 square feet) can help producers achieve a similar rate of live-weight gain,” he says. “Some systems pen by sex but feed a single diet in order to better manage feed deliveries to a site.”

Karwal depends on risk-management strategies that begin when he purchases pigs. “Any potential profit may depend on how well you lock in your feed costs,” he says. This means contracting input prices with elevators producing the feed, as well as contracts with his packer for the finished hogs.

 Karwal markets to Tyson, which will dock pigs weighing over 290 pounds. “We shoot for marketing at over 270 pounds so they grade well,” he says.

Manure from the finishing sites goes to a relative who raises crops on an adjacent farm. “We’re glad to have them come and remove it, and that we don’t have to haul it,” Karwal says.

There’s no expansion in Karwal’s immediate plans. “If this year’s corn crop is successful and the price eases down into the $5 to $6 range, there may be some thoughts to expand, provided pork prices stay firm,” he says. “Right now, it’s just too unpredictable.” PK

Top 10 Feeder-pig Rules

An effective young-pig purchasing and receiving program is necessary to minimize the stress from handling and transport that most purchased pigs encounter. Mike Brumm, Brumm Swine Consultancy, Mankato, Minn., offers the following tips for success.

  • Attain single-source pigs with known genetics and no more than a seven- to 10-day age variation. It’s also helpful to know vaccination status for porcine circovirus and mycoplasma pneumonia.
  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect the facility prior to the pigs’ arrival. Make sure all facilities are completely dry before new pigs are placed.
  • Apply all-in/all-out pig flow, and never put newly arrived pigs in the same facility or on the same building site as home-raised finishing pigs.
  • Ensure the pigs have clean, dry and draft-free sleeping areas with easy access to feed and water.
  • Provide one watering device, with a delivery capacity of 3 to 4 cups of water per minute for each 10 to 15 pigs. If using bowl drinkers, do not exceed 25 pigs per watering device.
  • Check pigs thoroughly at least twice a day. If you spot a problem, remove the pig to a zone-heated sick pen and treat immediately.
  • Monitor feed and water intake; declines in either can signal health problems. If water intake drops for three days in a row, or by 30 percent in a single day, a health challenge is likely occurring and more intense health monitoring is recommended.

De-stressing Pigs in Transit

The stress of transporting and commingling pigs can leave the new arrivals weak and susceptible to disease.

Stress from fatigue, thirst, hunger and temperature variations is cumulative, so minimize as many as possible. Get an idea of the per-pig space allowance from the transporter who will deliver your pigs. Rely on experienced truckers and monitor the delivery.

Group pigs by size and partition the truck so that no more than 50 pigs are in each section. Provide good directions regarding where pigs are to be delivered and provide your contact information to the transporter.