With 15 contract grower sites in southwestern Minnesota, Fairmont (MN) pork producer Duane Behrens needed assurances that the pigs placed in his contract feeding program would get off to a good start and finish strong.

Behrens buys single-source, Newsham × PIC-bred pigs from a 3,000-sow farrowing unit. Pigs are weaned on Tuesdays and Thursdays and it takes one or two weaning groups to fill each of his wean-to-finish barns that he contracts from area growers.

“The fact that four days is the maximum age difference really helps in starting pigs and keeping them going,” he explains.

A few of Behrens’ contract growers have older finishers that can’t easily be converted into wean-to-finish facilities, explains Jeff Kurt, DVM, Fairmont Veterinary Clinic. To deal with that, some of the wean-to-finish contract barns are double-filled for about a month. Then half of the group is moved out to the old grow-finish facilities.

Eighty percent of Behrens’ pigs are finished on contract, with the remaining 20% finished on the home farm in converted farrowing/gestation barns.

Three years ago, the sow farm switched from 18-day weaning to 21-day weaning, which resulted in 15-lb. weaned-pig weights consistently.

To instill some consistency in management of the weaned pig groups, Behrens decided six years ago to invest in a swine caretaker for starting weaned pigs. Dustyn Hartung was hired to assist the contract growers in getting the barns ready for each group of new pigs and to supervise pig growth for the first 3-4 weeks postweaning.

“Dustyn sees what is going on, and sees all of the pigs in all of the custom sites. He and Dr. Kurt discuss what needs to be done at the various sites,” Behrens says. “The great thing about it is you get the same person doing it at all the sites and doing a good job so there is consistency.”

Keys to Starting Pigs

A key to getting weaned pigs off to a good start is ensuring the environment in the barns meets the pigs’ needs. Hartung is in charge of the environment until the barns are turned over to the contract grower, Behrens stresses.

Behrens wants all of the barns ready to go the day before the new group of pigs arrives. To ensure that rooms are clean and dry and warmed to 70° F, he agreed to pay for the LP the first four to six weeks after weaning. Once the barn is turned over to the growers, the LP tank is refilled and charged back to Behrens.

The Minnesota producer switched from heat lamps to 34,000-btu., infrared brooder heaters for more heat coverage, providing a place where it’s 80-85° F. The heaters stay in the barns for three weeks after pigs arrive.

“It’s probably most intense the first 10 days, making sure the environment is right. By being there, I can control the feed, feed medications and oral vaccinations they get; make sure the comfort boards are in place for the pigs; grade the pigs; and remove poor pigs that won’t make it that first week postweaning,” Hartung points out.

“It is important to identify and humanely remove those pigs that are not growing with that group and have no chance of recovery,” Kurt says.

Comfort boards give young pigs a chance to become accustomed to dry feed, Hartung says. The non-biodegradable boards can stay in the 100- to 200-head pens for several weeks. It is important to keep the boards and sleeping area clean and dry.

Each group of weaned pigs will get rolled oats sprinkled on the boards or floor as a top dress to the starter ration, which helps stimulate feeding and provides extra fiber. The grind-and-mix rations contain a crumble (specialized proteins) that aid in the flowability of the ration, ensuring pigs don’t run out of feed due to feed bridging in the bulk bin.

“If you watch young pigs in a barn, you will note that it doesn’t take a pig very long to drink, but it takes a long time to get their belly full of feed, so you need plenty of feeder space,” Kurt says.

Mat feeding in addition to social feeders, such as Hen-Way (Hen-Way Manufacturing) double-sided tube feeders, allow several pigs to eat simultaneously, and make feeding young pigs easier. The open design allows pigs to see other pigs eating on the other side. The feeders stay clean because the pigs have a good environment and are attracted to sleeping under the warm, infrared heaters and dunging in the corners of the pen.

It’s important that pigs establish proper dunging patterns. Normally, the goal is to have about a third of the pen free from moisture and dung to provide a sleeping area. Kurt notes that about 75% of the pen is pretty clean, and pigs are establishing dunging habits in the corners of the pens.

“The pigs are nice and clean, and if you can keep them that way, there are fewer pathogens on the pigs, which helps prevent fecal-oral spread that can lead to diarrhea or scours,” Kurt says. Solid stool consistency rather than a loose, watery stool is another key element to keeping pens clean and dry.

Pigs that eat well give off a lot of heat, requiring more ventilation that draws in fresher air, which translates into a better farm environment. A damp barn with wet pens often means pigs have loose, watery stools and are sick. Watch for pigs that don’t look comfortable in the pens and may be ill.
Behrens uses Rotecna-style drinkers to ensure pigs have easy access to water.

Feeding, Health

Pig diets should match the pigs. The goal is for weaned pigs to consume a third to a half pound of feed per day, as is the case at Behrens.

“When we have pigs starting out that eat just a quarter of a pound of feed per day, we normally have had more struggles with enteric disease, scours, rotavirus and E. coli,” Kurt observes. Weaned pigs can overcome many of the pathogens that commonly reside in the pig, provided they consumer proper amounts of nutrients.

Prior to weaning, contract pigs for Behrens are vaccinated for salmonella, E. coli and circovirus. Hartung uses an oral vaccine to vaccinate groups for ileitis shortly after weaning. Strategic medications are used for control of Mycoplasma hyorhinis and Haemophilus parasuis.

Diet changes caused some health and carcass quality issues, Behrens says. He warns against jumping from one feeding program to another just to try to save a buck. When he increased the level of distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS) from 10% to 20% in his finishing diets, carcass quality dipped, so he dropped the level of DDGS back to 10%.

Also in late finishing, lowering his phosphorus level and using phytase wasn’t supplying proper phosphorus nutrients to the pigs, causing vices such as tail biting and aggressive behavior. Monocalcium phosphate and potassium were added to fortify the diets, Behrens says.

Overall, the contract pig groups have been very healthy. In fact, there are no sort-down pens in any of the contract barns. The team effort of ownership, management, caretakers, nutrition and health has allowed the pigs to succeed and perform.

Best-Cost Rations

Behrens recalls the sage advice of long-time swine veterinary consultant Jim Dick of the Fairmont Veterinary Clinic, who said: “Least-cost diets don’t mean more profits.” What producers need to strive for is best-cost diets, Behrens says.

Kurt also advises Behrens to evaluate the proposed changes for their potential impact before cutting costs.

Sixty-seven-year-old Behrens smiles broadly when asked to evaluate his contract feeding program. He says a consistent management style and starting with uniform, healthy pigs has resulted in a very respectable death loss of just under 5% from wean to finish at 260 lb.

He credits much of that success to young pros Hartung and Kurt, who operate and oversee the program, so he can spend more time focusing on crops, other farming chores and Twins baseball.

Helping Pigs Thrive through Finishing

Breeding sows to keep farrowing and weaning groups tight goes a long way in helping growing pigs flourish, and sets the stage for tight, even closeouts in finishing, says Paul Ruen, DVM, Fairmont (MN) Veterinary Clinic.

The goal is to reduce the number of small and lightweight weaned pigs that can end up plaguing wean-to-finish performance, adds Jeff Kurt, DVM, clinic associate.