Everyone in the pork industry knows all too well about the corn price surge and has struggled to adapt. However, there also have been dramatic increases in costs of milk and fish meal products, both used extensively in newly weaned pig diets.

In 2002, the price of menhaden fish meal was about $500 per ton. Recently it nearly doubled that price. In 2003, you could buy dried whey for less than $300 per ton, but it now costs nearly three times that and has been even higher in recent months.

While there are steps that you can take to adapt to these price increases, I am concerned that overreacting could be worse than not adapting at all.

Here, I will focus on the complex diets containing special ingredients fed to pigs during the first few weeks after weaning up until about 30 pounds body weight, when a simple corn/soybean meal diet is introduced.

Such diets make up only 5 percent to 6 percent of the total feed fed to a pig during its growth from weaning to market. Because of the small amount, you would have to reduce the average cost of the young-pig diet by about $18 per ton to have the same kind of production-cost impact that you’d get from reducing a later-stage feed by $1 per ton. The recent rise in fish meal and milk product prices has the same impact as a $9-per-ton increase in later-stage feeds. That’s an important cost increase, but it’s much smaller than the impact of the corn price rally.

While the temptation is to pull or reduce these expensive ingredients from the young pigs’ diet, attention should focus on controlling feed prices in the later production stages. After all, that accounts for the lion’s share of the feed.

The two diets actually perform different roles. The ingredients’ job in finishing diets is simply to provide bio-available nutrients. Ingredients used in newly weaned pigs’ diets also perform that job, but some ingredients are there because they have additional physiological effects that promote health and growth of these fragile pigs. Here are some of the expensive ingredients that provide those physiological effects: spray-dried plasma, lactose, fish meal and milk protein sources.

We could make weaned-pig diets substantially cheaper without these ingredients, but that would compromise the pigs’ health and productivity.

Swine nutritionists have developed appropriate programs to gradually reduce the amounts of these special ingredients and, consequently, feed costs, as pigs rapidly mature during those first weeks after weaning. The programs typically involve a series of diets and a feed budget that specify how much of each diet to feed to each pig. Not all such programs or feed budgets are alike due to differences in pig weaning ages and weights, herd health and the various dietary formulas. In all cases, the overall program is designed carefully and specifically for a specific barn. What’s most important is that the personnel within the barn implement the program exactly. Switching pigs from one diet to the next earlier than scheduled is not the way to control feed costs.

Swine nutritionists have some limited opportunities to reduce newly weaned pigs’ feed costs. Most of us who formulate these complex diets set minimum fish meal and milk product levels. However, the research data are not clear on how much is required. We tend to set those levels based on experience and perceptions, so given the current environment, it is appropriate to re-examine those levels to determine whether they can be reduced.

The opportunity to reduce feed costs for young pigs is in minimizing waste. Feeder management is especially difficult as you work to encourage feed intake immediately after weaning and then gradually begin to transition into later-stage diets. But often the most difficult things are the most important. So work to minimize feed waste during this process.

In summary, there are ways to control costs of these complex weaning diets as ingredient prices rise, but the most important thing is to maintain the diet’s quality, which helps maintain the young pigs’ health and growth.