With hog prices and the economics of producing pork having improved considerably over the past several months, there has been a universal sigh of relief. Still, pork producers in particular and the industry as a whole are trying to recoup losses accumulated over the past two-plus years.

It’s no time to become complacent, especially when it comes to your pigs’ feeding program. Feed accounts for 60 percent to 75 percent of the total cost of producing a market hog, so it makes good production sense to monitor feeding programs consistently to ensure that the diet formulated on paper maximizes economic return and is indeed what reaches the pig at the feeder. 

The new National Swine Nutrition Guide, released by the U.S. Pork Center of Excellence and developed with the assistance of numerous land-grant universities’ Extension groups, provides a wealth of information on nutrients, feeding management, ingredients and quality control. It is available for purchase in a complete bound book for $125 per copy. Individual chapters presented in a factsheet format also are available in PDF form, free of charge, to be downloaded online. Information on the National Swine Nutrition Guide — or NSNG — along with individual factsheets can be found at porkmag.com/nutrition.

To give you a taste of some of the items addressed in the NSNG, let’s review a few areas that you should routinely examine and evaluate within the feeding and nutrition program for your herd.

Do the nutrient specifications allow for optimal economic return?

When we evaluate herd performance and put together nutritional programs to support that, we often think in terms of maximizing growth performance or reproductive efficiency.  However, it’s safe to say that most pork producers are in the business of producing pork, not just involved as a hobby. Therefore, it is important that we think in terms of economic return when we make any decisions regarding the production system, and this includes nutrition. 

There may be times or opportunities when feeding pigs at nutrient levels that are near but not fully supportive of maximal growth is a better business decision than feeding nutrient levels that maximize performance at too high a cost.  For example, alternative feed ingredients may fall into this category. Some alternative ingredients may decrease performance slightly, but if it occurs at a reduced cost that still produces improved net returns, it makes sense to accept the slight performance reduction. Of course, that all has to occur within the production barn’s schedule so as not to back up the pig flow.

Because of the challenges in matching nutrition to optimize production, it’s highly recommended that producers work with a consultant, nutritionist and/or feed company representative who can assist in evaluating records, establishing performance levels and feed-cost goals, and then help match nutrient levels accordingly.

Do the nutrient specifications on paper match what's in the feeder?

Once diets have been formulated based on the feeding goals, you then need to ensure that the feed delivered in the feeder to the pig matches what has been carefully formulated on paper. There is inherent variability in all ingredients used in swine diets, and therefore, you should conduct careful, periodic nutrient sampling and analysis to ensure that the nutritional assumptions for ingredients used to formulate diets are correct. How often ingredients should be analyzed depends on the ingredient itself and if you suspect problems. 

For example, it’s a good idea to analyze new crop corn for basic nutrient content as well as mycotoxins if you suspect contamination. Byproduct ingredients, such as distillers’ dried grains with solubles, may require more frequent sampling and analysis, since its nutrient content tends to be more variable.

Being consistent with ingredient sources and using a preferred supplier are crucial to minimizing the amount of variation. When sampling an ingredient or complete feed, it’s important that you take subsamples of ingredients from several locations within the load or bin. Then combine the subsamples to ensure that you have a representative sample overall. You can get more detailed information about this process from the NSNG factsheet titled “Swine Feed and Ingredient Sampling and Analysis.”

Is the feed manufacturing equipment functioning  properly?

It’s important to conduct routine checks and maintenance of feed manufacturing equipment. For example, are the weighing scales properly calibrated? A slight deviation when weighing some micro-ingredients can greatly affect whether there is an appropriate amount of that ingredient in the diet. Also, grinding equipment, whether it’s a hammermill or rollermill, should be checked periodically to ensure the equipment is functioning properly and that you are getting the correct particle size.

A general recommendation for particle size is between 650 and 750 microns for ground-mash diets. A higher micron size decreases the pig’s efficiency to utilize the nutrients within the diet — every 100 microns over 700 microns reduces feed efficiency by 1.2 percent to 1.4 percent. Meanwhile, if the micron size is too small it increases feed production costs, can result in feed bridging in bins or feeders and may lead to gastric ulcers in pigs. 

Finally, are the mixers appropriately combining ingredients into the final product? Many different kinds of feed mixers are used in the market today, and a diet’s mixing time will vary greatly. An acceptable variation within a diet would be less than 10 percent difference between samples. Greater variation would indicate a need to increase mix time and/or that equipment maintenance is needed. You can find more detailed information on this in the NSNG factsheet “Swine Feed Processing and Manufacturing.”

These are just a few of the items that you should examine on a routine basis to ensure that the feed in the feeder is meeting your nutritional program goals. Although many producers do not manufacture their own diets, it’s still important to ask one’s feed supplier what steps are being taken within a quality-control program to ensure that feed quality is consistent and accurately meets your goals.