Variation in batches of pigs could be losing producers thousands of pounds a year, but a new concept could help stop that, as Jeremy Hunt reports

It’s not unusual to find underperforming pigs in a batch. But a difference of 10kg liveweight – 8kg deadweight – at £1.40/kg means an underperforming pig could be losing £11.20 in value.

Moreover, trying to grow lighter pigs to a heavier market weight is costly. About 40% of the finished pig’s daily feed intake is for maintenance, so a longer time on the unit greatly impacts on their overall feed conversion ratio (FCR).

But do you know what the variation is in each of your batches of pigs? And more importantly, what the weight for age of pigs should be as they move through the system?

Weight variation

At a recent BPEX workshop, some finishers admitted their pigs can have a weight variation of up to 40kg at the same age. In addition. keeping records of development at critical stages of their growth-cycle was also lacking.

Weight for age of pigs is something Angela Cliff of BPEX says producers must aware of as they move through the system. “We advise weighing at birth and then weaning, then when leaving the nursery stage at say five to 10 weeks, the grower stage and again on leaving the finisher accommodation, which may involve two stages.

“Once the first pig has reached market weight, the whole batch should be weighed so that the true variation in growth from pigs all born within 24 hrs of each other can be evaluated. It is also important to identify if a sub set of pigs are beginning to underperform,” she says.

Full value pig

BPEX is encouraging producers to embrace the Full Value Pig concept, which was launched by Elanco. The concept encourages producers to weigh pigs at regular intervals to measure their growth rates and progress. Its aim is to help producers become more efficient at every stage of the production cycle, to optimise feed use and to help finishers market their pigs at the right weight and at the right time.

It’s hoped the concept can help producers overcome widespread weight variations that can occur at various stages of rearing and finishing.

Ms Cliff recommends producers keep tabs on how long pigs are on the unit and what level of performance they are achieving. “Producers who lose track of this information, often simply by not knowing the date the pigs were weaned, are immediately on the back foot in terms of monitoring performance. A system of identifying piglets – either tagging or tattooing – at least gives you a means of effective monitoring.”

BPEX believes the Full Value Pig concept is enabling producers to collate data that can then be evaluated to highlight areas of management that need attention, based on the feedback of individual pig weighings.

“Inconsistent growth rates at certain stages may be compromising the overall performance of individual pigs during their time on the system and increase the level of variation within the group. And a failure to be aware of any shortcomings in the unit’s management will ultimately impact on growth and the margin being left by pigs that are underperforming,” she says.

Weight for age curve

Each breeding company will supply a “weight for age” curve, on which producers can base their own pigs’ performance but unfortunately many producers are unaware of the rate at which their pigs are growing.

“The Full Value Pig concept gives a vital snapshot of what the management system of individual units is delivering, in terms of pig performance. If a pig is 5kg below what it should be during the growing stage, that means it’s taking at least an extra week to finish. We’ve had producers who have started weighing and found some pigs to be up to 8kg lighter that they should have been during the growing period.

Reaseheath College

The pig unit at Reaseheath College in Cheshire is following the Full Value Pig concept and is regularly weighing pigs produced from the 140-sow herd.

“We’ve just weighed our first 100 newborn piglets from a batch of 130. We’ll weigh them again at weaning at five weeks and then at 12 weeks, as well as weighing during the finishing period,” says lecturer Mark Walton.

“It’s a very straightforward way of monitoring how pigs are performing and will hopefully give us answers to questions that we need to know to maintain efficiency within the system. Is there a point between birth and slaughter at which pigs are at their most vulnerable in terms of their rate of growth? And can pigs recover from poor performance by the time they reach the later stages of the system?

“Hopefully these are some of the questions we’ll find the answers to by following the aims of the Full Value Pig,” says Mr Walton.

Case study – Neil Newlove

Neil-NewloveNeil Newlove runs 750 sows on an outdoor unit near York. He’s producing newly weaned piglets for Suffolk-based Easey Pigs – and is fully committed to careful monitoring and recording at every stage of the system.

“We’re on a three-week batch system with 105 sows farrowing in each batch, but every sow rearing a litter is managed individually,” says Mr Newlove.

“We monitor everything as efficiently as we can so that we know precisely how each sow is performing.” Average litter size on the unit is 11.5 piglets born alive from 2.35 litters a sow a year. Piglets are weaned at 28 days and recent weaning weights have been achieving 9.3kg.

Although running a large outdoor unit, an efficient system of data collection is considered fundamental to the business and to achieving the “full value” of the pigs produced.

All data is collected using Agrosoft’s Win Pig system, which incorporates an i-paq handheld pocket PC. Information input is undertaken on site during the day-to-day management of the herd and is uploaded on to the computer in the farm office via a wireless connection.

“We can be away down the fields farrowing a sow and input data on the spot. And as soon as we do that we automatically see a display on the screen of the sow’s life history and performance. So we can make an immediate assessment of her based on her past performance and that helps us decide what the future holds for that sow.

“We are instantly told how many pigs she’s had and any mortality issues or other problems. Similarly when we’re scanning we can immediately see on the screen all the data relating to each sow – it makes culling decisions more efficient and means we can keep a tight grip on performance across the whole herd,” he adds.

The ability to achieve this level of monitoring and “on the spot” availability of data relating to every sow in the herd is now a crucial part of the herd’s management.

“When you are writing information down by hand and then having to input the data into the computer in the evening there’s always room for errors to be made. And if that does happen it means sows that should have gone end up slipping back into the herd unnoticed and that impacts on performance.”

Sows with litters are held in individual paddocks. There are shared water troughs, but each sow is bucket-fed as an individual. “We’ve set up a system where we have a board screwed to a post by each paddock that carries information relating to that particular sow. I’ve made laminated farrowing cards which we attach to the board and showing information relating to the litter size and any other relevant data.

“And there’s also a feed chart so that every time the sow is fed it’s marked on the chart. No matter who is feeding everyone has information about the sow and the litter. These are small details, but they help us keep control and ensure it’s maintained whoever is dealing with the pigs.”

All sows are individually fed. Feeders have been made from 200-litre plastic drums by cutting a hole out of the front and filling with around 50kg of concrete in the base for stability.

“We just use a bucket to tip the required amount of feed for each sow into these individual feeders – it’s a simple system but we know what each sow is getting and we know she’s getting clean, dry feed every time and no birds get in either.”

Mr Newlove believes improved recording is making sure he’s getting the “full value” from his sows. “There’s never a temptation to run a sow around again even though she probably should have been culled. We’re ruthless in our culling policy and the recording system flags up anything that isn’t performing and it goes. We’re getting better results because the sows that could be a drag on the system’s efficiency are weeded out quickly.”

What is the full value pig concept?

• Encourages producers to weigh pigs at regular intervals to measure their growth rates and progress

• Drive efficiency and reduce variation in batches at every stage of the production cycle

• Aid feed optimisation

• Help finishers market their pigs at the right weight and at the right time