Breeding sows improve to ease profit pressure

17 October 1997

Breeding sows improve to ease profit pressure

Combating the effects of a

lower pig price has been top

priority for Anthony Lee, as

he seeks to get more out of

his breeding herd.

Philip Clarke reports

AN improved breeding herd performance is helping to offset the continued pressure on profit in the pig finishing unit at Dowrich.

Overall, finisher margins are ticking along at about £25 a pig sold, compared with over £45 at the end of September last year. Signet costings show this is mainly due to the drop in pig price from 147p/kg dw to 110p/kg dw on a three-month rolling average.

But there has also been a slight rise in the cost of the home-mixed ration (to £188/t) and a small drop in the feed conversion ratio (to 2.84). This relates to a recent Astrid worm attack, which the Lees were first alerted to in the summer after a high proportion of liver rejections due to milk spot.

Remedial action has included adding Flubenol – an in-feed wormer – to first stage creep, at a cost of about £10/t. Previously, worming did not start until three weeks after weaning. Finishers are also getting an in-feed wormer at between 40 and 55kg to try to break the worms life cycle. Sows are treated twice yearly. Despite these problems, the Signet figures show that the Lees have achieved their target of lifting slaughter weights, with the average pig leaving the unit at 96kg lw. This compares with 90kg a year ago and is now above the MLC Top Third for home-mix units.

But during the summer pigs were getting over-fat, says Anthony Lee. The percentage hitting the top two grades, with less than 14mm fat cover, slipped to 65% in June and July, according to the abattoir.

"At the time the finishers were feeding to appetite and getting too much meal," says Anthony. "Also it was fairly hot, so excess nutrients were being converted into fat rather than lean meat." With up to 7p/kg premium available from co-op Western Quality Pigs, the incentive to get it right is strong.

The Lees, therefore, changed the ration as soon as they realised there was a problem, restricting animals over 60kg to a maximum 2.5kg meal equivalent a day. September results showed a big improvement, with an average fat probe of 11.7mm and 75% of Dowrich pigs making the top two grades. The financial benefits should follow.

At the other end of the enterprise, the breeding herd, the effects of a change of management 18 months ago are showing through already, with more pigs born and successfully reared.

For example, in the six months to the end of September, the number of pigs reared a sow and gilt stood at 19.6 a year. This is still well below the MLC average of 21.7, reflecting the more challenging environment for outdoor pigs in mid-Devon. But it is more than one extra pig to be finished than was being achieved a year ago.

A switch to "dynamic grouping" holds the key. "We used to keep our sows in static groups of about 10, regardless of size," explains Anthony. "They would be served together and returned to the field together, after one week, with one or two chaser boars.

"But 18 months ago we switched to dynamic groups. These contain up to 30 sows running in a paddock with four boars. Each week I add two or three more sows for serving and take out two or three. Each sow, therefore, gets about 12 weeks with the boar, and this leads to fewer returns."

There are seven such groups, each containing similar sized animals. This helps overcome problems of bullying and again is better for sow performance. "The other small change is to put sows in with the boars on day four after weaning rather than day five. This catches any that come on heat early."

Anthony has also been analysing the results of using Pioneer pig arks on the breeding unit, which now account for 20% of all arks. The Pioneers are of wooden construction and provide piglets with an inner chamber for their protection, with separate access for handling.

Based on over 500 farrowings at Dowrich in the past 12 months, the Pioneers produced an extra 1.43 weaners compared with ordinary arks. But they also started with 1.29 more piglets born alive, suggesting a minimal overall benefit in terms of the number of piglets making it to weaning stage.

"This does not mean we are going to stop investing in the Pioneers, even though they are more expensive. There was a noticeable improvement in terms of reduced piglet mortality. And there are other advantages in that they make it safer to attend to farrowings and easier to do vaccinations and weaning."

But Anthony is considering changing his breeding stock replace-ment policy, going for one regular supplier rather than two. &#42

Anthony Lee gives his breeding sows an extra bite at Dowrich.


&#8226 A 235ha (580-acre) family farm in mid-Devon, run by Anthony Lee, his father Michael and his brothers, Roger and Christopher.

&#8226 Dairy herd of 252 Holstein Friesians averaging 5800 litres a year.

&#8226 Outdoor pigs reared from 220 sows.

&#8226 Potatoes grown on the farm and on rented land.

&#8226 Strong emphasis on co-operative marketing.

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