It used to be that swine feeding programs were simple in nature, according to John Patience, Iowa State University Extension swine specialist. Those feeding programs were in place whether corn was $1.50 a bushel or $2.50 a bushel. Diets were basically corn and soybean meal, with added minerals and vitamins and probably some added fat. The life of a swine nutritionist was relatively simple.

But the volatility of the feed ingredient marketplace featuring $7 corn, the expansion of the corn-based biofuels industry and the recognition that pigs of differing genotypes or with differing health statuses require differing diets meant that the use of those ingredients needed to be dictated by the broader marketplace — and not just the cost of the ingredient itself, he says.

“For example, right now if we look at lowering feed cost per pig, compared to even a year ago, we typically set diets to maximize barn throughput, because with lower feed costs, that is where profits may be maximized. Of course, the profit point will vary among farms.

“Increasingly, producers are looking at what is their return per pig place in the barn, and what is their return for the overall farming operation; because when feed costs are high, it may be cheaper, especially when corn is $7 a bushel, to feed a lower-energy diet. This may reduce barn throughput, but net income for the overall operation might be higher. Producers adjust by putting down more grow-out capacity to account for slower growth,” Patience explains. That allows producers to use myriad byproducts, such as wheat midds, corn bran or field peas.

“By doing so, the energy level of that diet may go down, growth rate probably will suffer, but the net return over feed costs or the net return for the farm over the year will go up.

“Then the question becomes if that increased return over feed costs is enough to allow us to have additional grow-out space to accommodate the slower growth, because in our overall operation, to reach our target market weights, we get a little bit slower growth rate, but we make more money,” Patience explains. “Essentially, the feeding program for most farms is dictated by a variety of factors; unlike in the past, changes in pig growth rate and barn throughput are variables that play into the equation. Years ago, barn throughput had to be maximized. Period.”

Patience observes that feeding programs for pigs need to be based on what the pigs require to achieve the overall performance that a producer expects of them. That is called getting predictable performance — understanding how the pig will respond to differing energy levels or lysine levels in the diet.

“We need to know what the ingredients are going to cost and what the nutrient composition of those ingredients are, as well as look at the hog markets, financial markets and what the packer wants from us in terms of carcass quality,” he says.

Taking those various considerations into account has helped many producers come up with a feeding program to maximize their net income or minimize their losses as markets fluctuated, Patience says.

Being able to react quickly to market changes is also essential. A good example: a year ago, no one would have envisioned corn prices ranging from $3 to $4 a bushel.

“The point is, when market prices are high and feed costs are low, it might be economical to feed a little higher-quality diet in order to push the pigs a little bit more to have more weight on them going out the door,” he says. “But when market prices are low and feed costs are high, it might make more sense to spend a little less on feed, because you are not going to get that same marginal return on your investment in feed.”