Throughput, defined in terms of pork production, is the number of pigs or pounds of pork “put through” any given system, farm or facility.

Efficiency of throughput is the ratio of useful output in relationship to the total inputs that are devoted to a given system.

Productivity is the marriage of the two — throughput and efficiency — as an indicator of how wealth and value are captured and added to the producer's bottom line. It is folly to focus on either throughput or efficiency at the exclusion of the other. They must be pursued together to create productivity.

The number of weaned pigs out the door is the measure of a farm's throughput, but this number does not indicate anything about the inputs required to produce these pigs. More importantly, the throughput number alone does not provide an indication of the productivity or profitability of the farm.

Maintaining top health is essential for maximizing throughput and optimizing productivity. When disease enters a population of pigs, it can affect productivity in many negative, decisive ways, such as increasing mortalities or reducing average daily gains.

But sometimes, in less obvious ways, disease can increase variability and cause a wide range of production challenges that increase the number of undervalued pigs, reduce overall efficiency and, thus, raise the cost of production.

For sow farms attempting to meet buyer specifications, such as batch size or weaning weight and average age, variability from week-to-week or within weekly batches of pigs can be devastating.

Variability is the range that a trait varies from the average of the rest of the group. For example, average daily gain or litter size traits are relatively easy traits to measure and compare.

Producers and veterinarians generally acknowledge that variability in production is bad. In most cases, wide variation in production measures will lower productivity and increase the number of “out of spec” pigs and groups.

Some variability is normal. Small ups and downs can be explained as normal biological inconsistencies.

Statistical Process Control charts are tools that help us understand variability and differentiate between normal biological variation and those fluctuations that require attention to a process that may be “out of control.”

The only time low variability would be undesirable is when the average of the trait is consistently poor.

Health Trumps Other Efficiency Robbers

Of the primary factors that affect throughput — efficiency and productivity — pig health is the trump card. Without top health:

  • Genetic potential will not be expressed or realized;

  • Optimum nutrition formulation will not produce top results;

  • The perfect environment will not allow top levels of production; and

  • The best management will not shine.

While all of these factors are interrelated, top herd health can help win the throughput game.

Top health has been defined many different ways. Most agree that health status can best be described by the absence of certain pathogens in the population.

For instance, we all know that some pathogens are much more important than others. The porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus can be devastating to sow herd performance as well as in the growing phase of production. Other pathogens, such as porcine circovirus Type 2 (PCV2), are much worse in the grower phase than they are in the reproductive side of production.

But top health is not just the absence of the infamous pathogens. It is also the impact of overall disease pressure from common bugs such as Streptococcus suis, Echerichia coli and porcine parvovirus. These pathogens are called ubiquitous because they exist in nearly every herd.

When pigs are introduced to newly constructed buildings, or into facilities that have not housed pigs for some time, the disease pressure from even these ubiquitous bugs is less. This period of enhanced performance is often called the “honeymoon period.”

Pathogen challenge can also be managed through an effective, ongoing high hygiene program.

Health Variance is Broad

Across the industry, between systems, sites and groups, there remains wide variation in health status.

Herd health management strategies, such as depopulation/repopulation programs, segregated early weaning programs, parity segregation programs and all-in, all-out production have been an immense help in keeping production systems running efficiently.

In the last two decades, the swine industry has also benefitted from the use of many new tools for prevention and treatment of diseases that have allowed us to upgrade the health status of existing populations.

Disease elimination strategies have become commonplace. Some diseases that were once devastating, such as the pathogenic strains of Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia (APP), have been eliminated. Similar strategies have been used for the elimination of progressive atrophic rhinitis, Mycoplasmal pneumonia, swine dysentery, and mange and lice.

In addition, we've seen dramatic changes to genetics (leanness, market weights); nutrition and environmental management; weaning age; pig flows; group size and stocking density; biosecurity practices; refined diagnostic tests; targeted vaccines; and the judicious use of antibiotics.

Of course, the really big differences from two decades ago are in the diseases that we fight. Although some disease names have merely changed (such as APP), others are totally new, such as PRRS, PCVAD (Porcine Circovirus-Associated Disease) and PCV2.

Disease Drains Performance

Disease affects average daily gain, feed conversion, days to market and the number of culls or under-valued pigs. While none of these performance parameters are singly indicative of health, together they may indicate a health challenge exists — even when mortality is low.

Industry standards, targets and benchmarks provide a good place to begin a comparison, but they do not take into account differences or idiosyncrasies of a particular farm or system. Farm-specific records are necessary to begin to understand and analyze the effects of disease and the value of health to each farm or site.

Good farm records are necessary to begin to tease apart differences between groups of pigs, caretakers, sites, seasons, genetics and so on. Without good production records, guessing and supposition become the drivers of our decision-making, which make it impossible to know if a suspected problem is real and whether any intervention strategy will be beneficial.

Top Health Opportunities

If herd health is the trump card for winning the production game, there are some tools that will help stack the deck in your favor. Following is a list of ideas and concepts that are available to nearly every farm. Some are simple and easy to adopt, while others may require substantial investment. All have been used in some manner to increase throughput, reduce variation and improve overall productivity.

  • Implement benchmarking

    Benchmarking is simply a tool for comparison. (See SMS Production Index above.) Benchmarking your production against other farms or systems can help identify areas of opportunity. It can also be a tool to use within a system or farm. Comparing various production parameters will allow strengths and weaknesses to surface and help focus resources to the areas of greatest needs.

    Benchmarking is not limited to use with health-related measurements, but it can help identify health issues affecting production.

  • Establish a herd health plan

    Regardless of the current health status, the approach to addressing the impact a health problem is having on a population is essentially the same.

    First, you must identify the problem. Your veterinarian can help analyze production records, conduct postmortem examinations, collect and submit samples to a diagnostic laboratory or conduct serological surveys to get a snapshot of health status.

    Once a health baseline is established, your veterinarian can help establish a herd health plan to address disease and health-related issues. Vaccines, therapeutics and health management technologies are but a few of the tools available.

  • Identify and rapidly respond to health challenges

    Early detection and intervention is essential to reducing the impact a health challenge has on production, as well as reducing the suffering and loss of the pigs. Early detection may come in the form of clinical symptoms (coughing, sneezing, abortions, diarrhea) or a reduction in water or feed intake.

    When unusual or unexpected pig deaths occur, your veterinarian can compile a thorough history of the problem, conduct postmortem examinations and collect proper specimens for diagnostic laboratory analysis to determine the cause of death.

    As part of the herd health plan, your veterinarian can also design ongoing disease monitoring protocols that may include periodic serological monitoring and near real-time monitoring of important health parameters. Mortality rates and other production records can help identify problems in their early stages. Early detection and rapid response help lessen the severity of a health challenge and shorten the time to recovery.

  • Wean older, heavier pigs

    Several years ago, Rodger Main, DVM, and other researchers at Kansas State University conducted a large study comparing pigs weaned at various ages from 12 to 21 days of age. The results showed dramatic differences in postweaning performance across the various weaning ages. Besides dramatic improvements in average daily gain as weaning age increased, researchers also discovered profound reductions in mortality in the older pigs at weaning.

    The economic benefit of older weaning age is substantial. Some estimate the benefit is up to $1/head for each additional day of age. Another benefit to weaning older pigs came in the form of larger litters in subsequent farrowings from sows with longer lactation lengths.

    If you are purchasing pigs, make older weaning age and weight a part of the purchase specifications to improve throughput and average daily gain and reduce mortality. In the end, you will improve productivity and add to the bottom line.

  • Start pigs right

    Getting pigs off to a great start applies to newborn pigs as well as to newly weaned pigs.

    At birth, there is no substitute for ensuring every pig gets adequate colostrum, which provides the energy and antibodies needed to protect the pigs from diseases.

    At weaning, the first few days after weaning are essential as pigs transition from sow's milk to dry feed. Newly weaned pigs are stressed by being removed from their mothers and littermates, being transported and resorted into unfamiliar surroundings with new penmates.

    Managing this transition and identifying the pigs that fail to adjust in the first 24 to 48 hours is critical. Pigs that fall back at weaning are destined to do poorly and fall behind other pigs throughout the growing and finishing periods. A poor start contributes to a poor finish.

  • Evaluate pig flow

    Pig flow is movement of animals through a farm or system. Segregated production, such as all-in, all-out (AIAO) pig flow, is the practice of completely populating a site, barn or airspace, then at the end of that production period, completely emptying the site, barn or airspace before repeating the cycle. The purpose is to break the group-to-group disease transmission that routinely occurs with continuous-flow production.

    AIAO production is one of many health technologies that evolved in the 1980s to become a standard in today's industry. AIAO has gained almost universal acceptance in farrowing and nursery phases, and has gradually been adopted at the growing and finishing stages. The wean-to-finish concept helped advance this technology.

    Early adopters of segregated production realized as much as a 10% improvement in average daily gain and upwards of 7% improvement in feed efficiency. Diseases that were once endemic in a flow of pigs, such as APP and atrophic rhinitis, were rendered less harmful by segregating younger pigs from the disease-laden older pigs.

  • Adopt timely and humane euthanasia

    While it seems counterintuitive that euthanizing pigs would be an opportunity to improve throughput, from a health and welfare standpoint, it is very important.

    Every farm should have a written euthanasia protocol that describes methods and responsibilities. The most important responsibility producers have is to prevent animal suffering when the prospect of response to therapy is poor.

    Timely euthanasia improves throughput by quickly identifying and euthanizing sick pigs that have little or no chance of recovery. When handled properly, there will be less disease pressure and less potential for shedding pathogens to barnmates.

    Timely euthanasia allows the remaining pigs to perform better with less competition and lower stocking density. It also pays the largest benefits at closeout by reducing the variation and severe discounts that can affect the entire turn of pigs.

  • Tighten biosecurity

    The ultimate tool for disease prevention is to never allow the introduction of new infectious agents.

    The finishing phase of most operations is often considered to be at the bottom of the herd health pyramid. Consequently, the safeguards are usually fewer and less stringent than we see at sow sites and nurseries.

    Arguably, this is backwards thinking. Recent studies show that the majority of the cost of a PRRS outbreak in a farrow-to-finish operation is borne by the grow-finish stage of production. One study put the postweaning cost share of a PRRS break at 88%!

    The primary objective of any biosecurity protocol is to prevent the entry of new pathogens, regardless of the stage of production. While location of the site and proximity to other pigs are important biosecurity risks, there is usually little that can be done on these issues once a barn is sited. We can, however, work to reduce the risks associated with many other practices, vectors, and fomites that present biosecurity risks.

    Start by having your swine veterinarian perform a biosecurity audit of your farm. Your veterinarian will point out ways to reduce the disease risks and close holes in the biosecurity net. In the case of PRRS, small investments in biosecurity measures may prevent entry of a virus that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in production losses.

    Biosecurity does not come without some cost, but mostly it is investment in time, education and discipline. Some estimate the cost of a PRRS outbreak to a farrow-to-wean farm at $200/sow or half a million dollars for a 2,500-sow farm. That will buy a lot of biosecurity!

  • Weigh the value of lost opportunity

    Variation should be viewed as a “lost opportunity.” Every carcass that is “outside the box” results in unrealized revenue, even when that cost is spread across a truckload of pigs.

    Of course, each packer has a matrix that dictates the upper and lower limits for carcass weight. Some matrixes are tighter than others, and they vary by the degree of penalties assigned when carcasses land outside the box. Typically, the “sweet spot” of the matrix will range from 271 to 300 lb. live weight.

    A typical load of pigs weighing 285 lb. with normal variation could still have over a third of the pigs outside the box. Some studies have shown that the standard deviation of market weights (the weight above and below the average encompassing two-thirds of the set) is about 25 lb. Put another way, two-thirds of a set of pigs that average 285 lb. will fall between 260 and 310 lb. The farther away from the minimum and maximum weights, the higher the penalty will be for being outside the box.

    Again, depending on the packer, the penalty might be as little as $5/head for the first 10 lb. on either side of the box, but stepping up to nearly $40/head for those pigs under 230 lb. or over 310 lb.

    At current feed prices, it is foolish to send extremely heavy hogs to market. But, packer matrixes really tip the scale against light carcasses, which is where most of the opportunity lies.

  • Tools to lower variability

    We have many tools for lowering variability, especially when dealing with health issues.

    First, early detection and treatment with the appropriate antibiotic will reduce mortality and variation by lowering the days that the pigs are not eating or gaining weight.

    Certainly, accurate diagnosis, then prudent use of the antimicrobial that is most effective on the problem a farm is facing, are essential.

    Most veterinarians recommend hospital pens for disadvantaged pigs to reduce competition for food and water, allow them more space and provide the greatest chance for full recovery. The hospital pen allows for sorting off the pigs that fall back, as well as giving special attention to sick or injured pigs. To reduce variation at market time, these disadvantaged pigs must be identified early so their particular challenge can be addressed, which will help them to keep up with their healthy peers.