Mike Deahr
Mike Deahr

Mike Deahr realizes the economic importance of nutrition within his operation. With 3,000 sows in his Muscatine, Iowa, farrow-to-wean/­finish system, sow rations have a large impact on his bottom line.

Focusing on sow nutrition from gestation through lactation has helped this producer move toward his production goals by boosting lactation feed intake, birth weights and average daily gains pre-weaning. “[With rising feed costs and ‑fluctuating markets,] we’re working to become more efficient,” he says. “Thirty psy (pigs per sow per year) is in our sights and we’re working toward that goal by looking at where we’ve been and setting benchmarks to improve.”

Deahr and his team identi­fied a need for change in 2010 when their pre-weaning mortality rates reached an all-time high. Because most of their pigs are marketed at weaning weight, full-potential pigs (those weighing 8 pounds or more at weaning) are vital to the operation’s bottom line.

“We began looking for places where we could make improvements,” Deahr says, noting that along with 30 full-potential psy, his goal was to improve sow health and longevity.

His team ­ first evaluated sow rations. “We realized that we weren’t feeding enough nutrients,” he recalls. “We had to adjust our sow feeding program. Allowing our pre-farrow and lactating sows to eat more has made the most difference.” Deahr has moved from feeding all lactating sows equal rations ­five times a day to a mostly ad libitum regimen.

Sows receive additional feed when they have less than 2 pounds remaining in their feeder. Deahr also has seen a signi­ficant sow productivity gain by increasing nutrients 2 pounds at day-80 in the breeding period.

“Bumping feed levels during gestation better prepares our sows for farrowing,” he says. “Since making the change, we’ve seen an improvement of 0.4 pounds on our average birth weights (from 2.9 to 3.3 pounds between fourth-quarter 2010 and first-quarter 2012).”

Mineral changes also have optimized sow mobility and longevity in the herd. Coupled with added nutrients, it has allowed 15 percent more parity-one females to reach their third parity. Today, the retention rate is nearly 77 percent, allowing Deahr to cull sows based on performance or genetic potential.

The focus on nutrition has helped move the herd to 3.3-pound average birth weights, 13.9-pound average weaning weights and 26 full-potential psy.

The gains that Deahr has witnessed are not exclusive to his operation, says Mike Hemann, Great Lakes Region swine nutritionist for Purina Animal Nutrition.

“If producers adopt a similar focus on sow nutrition, efficiency will continue to climb in the U.S. swine industry,” he predicts. “Increasing productivity over fixed costs normally helps reduce your dollars per unit produced, as long as variable costs are consistently managed.”

Moving to 30 psy can create more revenue from the sow farm and more pro­fitability for the grow/­finish system. However, 30 psy is not the ultimate goal. To achieve maximum efficiency, the goal is 30 full-potential psy.

“Genetic progress is making it possible for our sows to produce large, heavy litters, but we need to support that progress with nutrition,” Hemann says. “‑The producers who are successful at reaching 30 full-potential psy are successful because they do the little things right.”

Realizing that sow nutrition plays a major role in birth weights, researchers with Purina Animal Nutrition have been evaluating the effects of adequate birth weights from well-fed sows for several years. Together, Brenda De Rodas, director of swine research, and Gawain Willis, director of nutrition services, measured birth weights on 2,456 litters over a ­five-year period. ‑

The progeny were monitored for growth and production performance. Thus far, the ongoing research has found that on 21,695 pigs a 1-pound difference in birth weight resulted in twice the survival rate from birth to weaning.

Growth rate and feed efficiency also were better in pigs with higher birth weights. The study showed that pigs with birth weights of 3.1 pounds were 3 pounds heavier at weaning than those with birth weights of 2.1 pounds. ‑This gain continued through the nursery where lighter-born pigs had higher mortality rates, as well as through the finishing stage where heavier-born pigs reached market weight seven days sooner.

The improvements in piglet efficiency easily translate to economic bene­fits on paper.

Citing the study’s survivability, growth and health rates, Willis estimates that a producer can improve his net pro­fit potential by almost $3,000 per 1,000 market pigs. ‑That estimate is based on a producer with 20 percent of his pigs born weighing 2.1 to 2.5 pounds being able to shift that to 3.1 to 3.5 pounds.

“‑This shows that improving birthweights can have a significant financial return,” Willis says. “Based on these numbers, you could invest about $100 per sow to improve her nutrition and management to make sure your sows reach their full potential.”

Because higher birthweights require increased nutrients, producers must not lose sight of nutrient demands of higher-producing sows. “Failing to feed sows for increased productivity leads to rebreeding problems and high sow culling rates, but feeding them properly can result in greater efficiency for both the piglets and the sows’ long-term viability,” Willis says.

Economically, studies show that sows become pro­fitable after their third parity. For sows to produce 30 psy and still maintain adequate body condition and health, proper nutrition needs to start during gilt development and continue through all stages.

R.J. Smits and C.L. Collins collected data in 2009 showing the economic bene­fits of keeping sows in the herd longer. ‑The study concluded that the mortality of gilt progeny is 2 to 3 percentage points higher (pre-weaning through grow/­finish) when compared to sow progeny. Thus, herds that maintain a consistent parity structure of established and productive sows have the potential to cut mortality rates signi­ficantly across the herd.

Using an enterprise sow-breeding model and multi-year average production costs, Willis and Hemann estimate that reducing progeny mortality by 2 to 3 percentage points could mean additional $4,500 gross revenue per 1,000 pigs produced. The researchers further estimate that reducing the sow culling rate by 2 percentage points through better nutrition improves unit pro­fitability about $1.50 per sow over its costs.

When looking at operations that fall short of their economic potential for full-potential pigs as well as sows that leave the herd too soon, Willis notes that often the mistake is in not providing enough feed in the lactation and the rebreeding periods.

“If we think we’re smarter than the sow in terms of managing her diet, we’re wrong,” Willis says. “Allowing the sow to eat what she wants to eat during lactation lets her better maintain body condition during lactation through rebreeding.”

Producers should pay close attention to feeding practices in gestation to allow the sow to recover and move toward ideal body condition scores.

“After farrowing, if a sow gets up and looks at you when you come in and her trough is licked clean, you haven’t fed her enough,” says Ron Ketchem, consultant with Swine Management Services.

“I often suggest that producers purchase a hopper to put feed in and keep it ­filled versus dropping feed for each feeding. If a sow has the option to eat what she wants, she’ll regulate her diet and obtain the nutrients she needs.”

Ketchem feels this practice has paid dividends to his clients, improving sow productivity and longevity. “Increased focus on sow nutrition can bene­fit the herd’s health and long-term productivity, and substantiate a return on investment,” Willis says. “‑The ­first step in meeting the goal is to measure where the herd is at currently. ‑That benchmark will show you areas to improve.”