While feed costs are taking a bigger bite from your production margins, there are some big-picture strategies to consider that can help you fight back.

Certainly the stakes are high enough. For example, in an average 1,200-head barn, more than 800,000 pounds of feed can be used per turn. On an annual basis, that’s about $12,000 of feed going through each feeder in a barn, or about $290,000 for a barn’s total, according to Mike Tokach, Kansas State University Extension swine nutritionist.

Reviewing your current feeding practices can reveal areas where improvements are possible. No task is too routine so focus your efforts on reducing feed wastage and improving feed efficiency. Here are several barn management strategies to give you some profitable advantages in the battle against high-cost feed.

Before They Arrive

The break between pig groups offers a prime time to clean rooms and make any necessary repairs. That not only can extend facility and equipment life but also offers the opportunity to find ways to improve feed efficiency for the next group of pigs.

“Clean out the feed bins to ensure the newly arriving pigs get started on the appropriate starter diet,” Tokach says. “Often, this is the only chance you will have to clean the bins to remove spoiled, stale or moldy feed.”

Check heating and ventilation equipment, fan covers or louvers and, depending on the season, check heaters, sprinklers and curtains. Make sure that maintenance is completed before you bring in a new group of pigs. The importance of performing maintenance and repairs cannot be overstated, as it helps ensure that the barn can be adjusted to the appropriate temperature range as the pigs grow.

With high feed costs, checking, repairing and adjusting feeders is increasingly important to help reduce feed loss. Items that may require maintenance or repair include leaking bins, broken feed lines and feeder adjustment rods. Make sure feed is flowing freely through all delivery system components. You don’t want the feed system to go down and create an out-of-feed event.

When filling pigs into the barn do not sort them into tight weight categories. “Data consistently show that when pigs are sorted into weight categories, the average growth rate of those pigs is lower than the growth rate of unsorted pigs,” Tokach says. “Pigs that are sorted into a uniform-sized group fight longer to establish a social hierarchy within the pen because one pig cannot easily dominate another based on size alone. In unsorted groups, the bigger pigs more quickly establish their dominance and smaller pigs are quickly established at the bottom of the social rank.”                                                                            

A Matter of Microns

Feed processing is an important on-farm management strategy to lower costs and improve feed efficiency. “Producers can achieve improved feed efficiency of pigs by decreasing feed particle size in diets,” says Bob Goodband, Kansas State University Extension swine nutritionist. “With every 100-micron reduction in feed particle size, we see a 1.2 percent improvement in feed efficiency.” (See sidebar.)

Keep feed grinders well maintained. If grinder screens are worn, particle size may creep up to near 1,000 microns. This could increase feed cost by 50 cents to $1 per pig due to reduced feed efficiency.

Always be aware of feeder adjustments; if not adjusted properly, feed efficiency can suffer by up to 5 percent, according to Kansas State research. Improving wean-to-finish feed efficiency from 2.7:1 to 2.6:1 will save 26 pounds of feed per pig. With an average diet cost of 15 cents per pound, that saves $3.90 per pig.

For most dry feeders on the market, Tokach recommends 50 percent pan coverage in common stocking density situations.

Give Them Room

“As we increase hog sale weights, we need to remember that the feeder space must be bigger for the pig to fit and eat comfortably,” says Mike Brumm, Brumm Swine Consultancy, Mankato, Minn.  As pigs approach market weight, Tokach and Brumm recommend a minimum width of 14 inches per feeding space with a 10-inch, front-to-back feeder depth. “With 10 inches allotted from the feeder’s front lip to the point of feed delivery, the pig’s head remains over the pan as it goes through its eating motions,” Brumm adds. 

Feeder dividers also can force pigs to stand perpendicular to the feeder to reduce rooting and fighting, which helps minimize feed waste.

 Watch closely for signs of wasted feed. Certain feeders are likely to waste feed when pigs are placed on only one side of the feeder. “Some feeders don’t work well with partially filled pens and extra wastage may occur,” Tokach notes.

 Monitor waterers to ensure they are functioning properly and that all pigs have full ad lib access. Never assume that all waterers are always working. “Never limit water as this will also limit feed intake,” Brumm says.

Following and reviewing your feed budgets assures that you are matching amino acid and energy levels to the pigs’ changing needs. Failing to develop and follow feed budgets can increase production costs by $1 per pig or more if, for example, Phase I or Phase II diets are fed for longer than necessary. If insufficient amounts of the early diets are fed, lower market weights may result. Kansas State offers a feed budget calculator to assist with this, which you can access at http://bit.ly/rOnMg8.

Marketing strategies also impact your close-out feed efficiency. Pen unloading (or removing a selected number of pigs from each pen) can improve the remaining pigs’ growth rate. Kansas State research shows that feed efficiency can be improved by removing pigs from pens in two stages, such as removing two pigs one day and 10 days later removing two, four or six more. 

By carefully managing feeders and waterers, making facility and equipment repairs, and looking closely at feed particle size, you will improve pig productivity as well as save feed and dollars. In the end, these strategies can help improve your odds for success in the fight against high-cost feed.

Feed Processing Matters

Feed processing strategies, such as feed particle size or pelleting, offer increased feed efficiency benefits that you can add to your bottom line.

Particle size reduction increases the surface area of the feed and allows for greater interaction with digestive enzymes, which improves digestibility and feed efficiency.

For many years producers have been grinding to an average particle size of 700 microns. This particle size was based on research showing that if grain is ground to a smaller particle size, pigs may be more likely to develop ulcers.

Newer research indicates that feed conversion may be improved by 2 percent to 3 percent if corn particle size is reduced from 700 to 500 microns. What’s more, that could lead to substantial savings. Because of this, many producers are now grinding to an average particle size of about 500 microns.

“Our recommendation is to grind feed as finely as your equipment can handle and yet make sure the feed can still flow through bins and feeders. There is a compromise between reducing particle size and keeping feed flowing,” says Bob Goodband, Kansas State University swine nutritionist.

Problems with ulcers do not seem to be as much of an issue today. That’s because new inclusions, such as distillers’ dried grains with solubles or wheat middlings, have increased the diets’ fiber content, which reduces the risk of pigs developing ulcers.

Pelleting feed is another strategy that can pay off in better feed efficiency. According to Kansas State researchers, pigs provided high-quality pellets via dry feeders had increased growth performance compared with pigs fed meal diets. “Pigs fed pelleted diets grow about 4 percent faster in average daily gain and have about a 4 percent improvement in feed efficiency,” Goodband says.

It is important that the pelleted feed remains in pellet form and does not disintegrate. Strive for high-quality, durable pellets that are free of excessive particles and dust, or fines. If pellet quality is poor, feed efficiency benefits associated with pelleting can easily be lost.