The constant push for production efficiency has producers extending weaning ages, increasing nutrient demands of sows nursing a larger litter, longer.

A recent study by University of Minnesota researchers in a 1,275-sow commercial herd showed sows consuming less than 9 lb. of feed during the first two weeks of lactation had a 27% greater chance of being culled. Researchers also reported the likelihood of a sow being culled dropped by 11% with every pound increase in average daily feed intake during lactation.

Clearly, ensuring that sows receive the feed they need improves their reproductive efficiency and longevity.

Two commercial herds, one in east central Iowa, the other in southern Minnesota, have turned to a lactation feeder that allows sows to eat as much as they want, when they want. Manufactured by Osborne Industries, Inc., the ad-lib feeder adapts to the headgate of any conventional farrowing crate.

Gamble Pays Off

Steve Kruse, production supervisor of three Pipestone Systems operations in Iowa, “took a bit of a gamble” when he included the new lactation feeder when ordering farrowing crates for the 2,600-sow Prairie Gold farrow-to-wean unit built in 2001.

While planning the unit near Winthrop, IA, Kruse focused on improving sow performance, with an emphasis on heavier weaning weights. The Osborne feeder had seen limited application in the field, but the capability of offering sows their full daily feed needs appealed to Kruse. As an added bonus, the feeder would potentially reduce labor.

The gamble paid off. Kruse confirms the feeder's effectiveness by comparing PigChamp production data in the Prairie Gold operation to a 3,400-sow farm in the Pipestone System equipped with conventional, bowl-type lactation feeders and twice-a-day feeding. This farm is referred to as Farm “B” for comparison.

Prairie Gold is stocked with PIC Line-42 females and Farm B has Genetiporc F2-Line females. All are bred to PIC Line 327 boars. Production and sow culling rates have been somewhat affected by outbreaks of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS). Currently, both herds are considered to be PRRS stable.

What the Records Show

In a comparison of second and third quarter 2006 production records, Kruse says weaning weight averages and the percentage of sows bred by seven days are good indicators that the sows at Prairie Gold are milking better and maintaining better body condition. He attributes both assets to higher feed consumption (see Table 1, page 14).

“The biggest thing is weaning weights,” he says. “Prairie Gold can always wean pigs a couple of pounds heavier (than Farm B) at the same age bracket, just from more sow feed intake, even during the summer heat.” Sows receive essentially the same diet at both locations.

Granted, Prairie Gold pigs are older at weaning, but Kruse says the ad-lib sow feeders help provide the additional feed needed to nurse litters an average of 2-3 days longer, and still send sows back to the breeding barn in better condition. Farrowing rooms are currently being added to Farm B to lengthen lactations.

Manager Jeff Kinney came to Prairie Gold from Farm B. “We were weaning 11-12 lb. pigs at that farm,” he says. “Every load I've seen go out of here (Prairie Gold) has averaged over 15 lb. Last week we sent out a load that averaged 16.4 lb. (averaging 21 days old).

“And the sows don't drop a lot of weight here,” he continues. “We don't see many skinny sows coming out of the farrowing rooms.”

Kruse also points out that the Prairie Gold operation consistently beat Farm B for total pigs born by about a half a pig per litter.

Based on the Kansas State University feed calculator, average daily feed intake/sow averages about 2 lb. higher at Prairie Gold than Farm B, where lactating sows are hand-fed twice daily and gotten up three times/day.

Lactation feed costs naturally run slightly higher at Prairie Gold, but Kruse feels it balances out because sows require less feed to get them back into condition during gestation.

“Sure, you're feeding more expensive feed for 20-21 days, but you're feeding less during the 114 days of gestation,” he notes.

Managing the Feeders

“On any sow farm, those first three days are very critical to getting sows to take off,” Kruse explains. “We hand-feed sows twice a day the first three days after farrowing (at Prairie Gold). Sows get two 2-lb. feedings the first day, two 3-lb. feedings the second day and two 4-lb. feedings the third day. We get them up twice a day and scrape the crates, making sure they're feeling well.”

Satisfied that the sows are eating and feeling well, the flex-auger feed drops are opened. Prairie Gold has Osborne's S110 feeders, which includes a 4-in. PVC pipe with a capacity of about 14 lb. of feed. Connected to this vertical tube is a transparent tube that holds another 10 lb. of feed and runs diagonally from the supply line to the 4-in. vertical pipe.

Walking each farrowing room every day helps the staff find sows that are not eating well. “If the upper (transparent) tube is still full, you'll know those sows aren't eating,” explains Kinney. Pig condition is another good indicator, he says. On average, most sows eat 12-14 lb./day.

“If you run the delivery augers once a day, there is 24 lb. available to each sow. You don't have to worry about whether an employee is over-feeding or under-feeding sows,” Kinney adds. “They can concentrate on taking care of the newborn pigs and the sows.”

“It's an ongoing training issue to maximize sow feed intake without throwing her off feed,” explains Kruse. “With this feeder, she eats what she wants. She has to spin the wheel to get more feed, but she never gets so much that she can gorge herself, and there's not enough in the trough that she can waste it.”

If hand feeding is preferred, Osborne offers the S100 feeder, which includes a transparent, calibrated, volumetric hopper, making it easy to track feed consumption. The company's patented mechanical flow system features a paddle-wheel-type agitator that the sow must spin to call for more feed.

Hand Feeding Preferred

At Independent Pork Partners (IPP) near New Richland, MN, the family-owned-and-managed 1,650-sow operation subscribes to daily hand feeding of sows in lactation.

Brad Stenzel, part owner and general manager, says they tried a lot of different ways to get more energy into sows in an effort to get heavier pigs at weaning. Normally, lactating sows were fed in the morning, then before the staff left in the late afternoon. For a time, they hired someone to do a third feeding at night, but that created a whole new set of problems, he says.

The Osborne feeders were tested in one of the 11, 24-crate farrowing rooms. Sow performance on 12 Osborne feeders was compared to 12 conventional, stainless steel bowl feeders. All sows were fed 6 lb. of feed twice a day, with the uneaten feed dumped and weighed before each feeding.

“We dumped more out of the stainless steel feeders, but the Osborne feeders were licked clean,” explains IPP farrowing manager Becky Mudgett. The daily feedings were increased to two, 12-lb. feedings the second week. Sows with the Osborne feeders ate 2-4 lb. more, on average.

Finally, they filled the Osborne feeders to capacity, about 26 lb., but the capacity of the existing feeders was 6 lb./feeding, so those sows received a maximum of 12 lb./day. None of the Osborne-fed sows fell below 12 lb./day and some ate up to 18 lb., she reports.

“We tried feeding sows with the regular feeders three times a day, but it seemed like they didn't want to get up and eat at every feeding,” adds IPP manager Albert Fenton. “And, if the feed got wet, some of those sows wouldn't touch it, so we'd have to dump it in the pit.”

The side-by-side comparison was repeated on the next group with similar results.

“It was kind of a no-brainer to go to a system that would keep fresh feed in front of the sows all of the time,” Stenzel says. They chose the S100 model because they preferred to hand-feed the sows. The calibrated, volumetric hopper allows them to more accurately record the amount of feed sows actually consume each day.

The new feeder was adapted to the existing farrowing crate head gate, gaining 4 in. of space in the crate. That was a big selling point for Fenton. “The sows can lay completely flat in the crate without putting their heads in the feeder. It's a comfort issue for the sow, and it's easier for them to get up and down and to expose their underlines for the pigs,” he explains.

“Our sows come out of the farrowing crate in 10 times better condition with this feeder,” exclaims Fenton. “Before we had so much variance — so many skinny sows and some fat sows. Now, they're all pretty even. The only thing we've changed is the feeder.”

The feeders were installed in all farrowing rooms in March 2006. In a 10-month comparison of PigChamp data, March-December 2005 vs. March-December 2006, they cite the following advantages:

  • Gained 0.41 pigs weaned/litter (9.51 vs. 9.92);

  • Reduced age at weaning by 1.55 days (18.14 vs. 16.59);

  • Although younger, litter weights were 5.71 lb. heavier (106.03 vs. 111.74);

  • Wean-to-service interval was shortened 0.65 days (7.19 vs. 6.54); and

  • Percent bred by Day 7 improved 1.02% (87.55 vs. 88.57).

Those improvements are reinforced by rolling 13-week and 52-week benchmarking data provided by Swine Management Systems (SMS). Table 2, featuring select entries from a Nov. 4, 2006 report, provides a percentile ranking for IPP compared to the 330 farms (603,736 sows) in the dataset, plus a benchmark compared to the average of the top 50% in the dataset. As the table indicates, IPP ranked 29th in the 13-week average and 65th in the 52-week average for all farms represented.

Some of the sows that were first fed on the new feeders were cycling through the farrowing rooms again in late November 2006, when Fenton noted: “We've seen an average increase of about three-quarters of a pig per litter for pigs born alive for sows fed on the Osborne feeder. I attribute that to the better condition of the sows.”

Feeding Routine

All lactation feeders are filled each evening and the amount of feed eaten for the day is recorded on a sow card. Each sow receives a little more feed than she ate to ensure she has all she wants. For example, if she eats 10 lb., she'll get 12 lb. the next feeding.

“It's really funny how sows have different eating patterns,” Fenton remarks. “Some sows eat 9 lb. every day, while the next sow will eat 12 lb. one day, then 4 lb. the next, then 12 lb., and then 4 lb.”

That's where the Osborne feeder shines, he says. “With the old feeders, you'd have to guess what she's going to eat tomorrow. If she cleaned her feeder, you'd give her a pound more. If she didn't, you'd give her the same. But what if tomorrow was her day to eat 12 lb. instead of 4 lb.?” he asks. “With the new feeders, she always has more than she'll probably eat and she can eat whenever she prefers to eat.”

The 26- to 27-lb. total capacity has simplified weekend feedings, too. Feeders are filled Friday evenings, which lasts most sows through the weekend. A few receive extra feed as needed during the Saturday and Sunday walk-through. “I don't like to see levels go below 12 lb.,” Mudgett explains. “Most eat between 12 and 18 lb./day, with a few eating up to 20 lb.”

Payback Potential

With sows eating more, Fenton knew the feed tab in lactation was edging upward, so he took a three-month snapshot and made a comparison. The difference: They fed about 9,000 lb. more lactation ration than with the original feeders. With IPP production targeted at 41,000-plus pigs/year, the extra feed costs them about 7¢/pig going out the door, he says.

“That's spreading the costs across our whole production — breeding, weaning, sow condition, etc. In fact, we're getting a better premium on our cull sows because they're good sows — no rails or skinny sows,” he adds.

Now they can cull sows based on poor performance, age or if they need fewer sows in breeding, Mudgett adds.

The only disadvantage with the feeders is that water and excess feed tends to settle in the bowl when farrowing rooms are pressure washed.

The best solution? “Buy yourself a good shop vac,” says Fenton. “Use it to suck the feed and water from the bowl after pressure washing.” Mudgett also uses the shop vac to remove the excess feed from the feeder hopper before rooms are cleaned. “It's still good feed, so we recycle it,” she adds.

The S100 feeder with the translucent hopper lists for $180, while the S110 model with a 4-in. feed tube lists for $160.

Table 1. Quarterly Comparison of Osborne S110 Feeder to Conventional Lactation Feeder at Prairie Gold
Prairie Gold Farm B
2nd Qrtr. 3rd Qrtr. 2nd Qrtr. 3rd Qrtr.
Breeding Performance
Wean — 1st service interval, days 6.3 6.8 6.9 6.8
Sows bred by 7 days, % 91.5 89.3 83.2 82.6
Farrowing Performance
No. sows farrowed 1,502 1,651 1,923 1,930
Avg. parity 3.4 3.2 4.0 3.7
Avg. total pigs/litter 13.1 13.1 12.6 12.4
Avg. pigs born alive/litter 11.6 11.9 11.2 11.1
Farrowing rate, % 75.2 82.6 86.0 87.2
Farrowing interval, days 143 147 140 143
Litters/mated female/yr. 2.39 2.45 2.50 2.57
Weaning Performance
No. litters weaned 1,449 1,644 1,924 1,981
Pigs weaned/litter 9.9 10.0 9.6 9.9
Avg. pig wean wt., lb. 14.6 13.3 11.7 11.6
Avg. wean age, days 20.2 20.3 17.5 16.7
Pigs weaned/mated female/yr. 23.7 24.5 24.0 25.4
Source: PigChamp
Table 2. Independent Pork Partners Farm Benchmarking Report
Pigs weaned/mated
female/year —
out of 330 farms
and 603,736 females
13-week average ranked 29th 52-week average ranked 62nd
11/04/06 Percentile Benchmark (average top 50%) 11/04/06 Percentile Benchmark (average top 50%)
Breeding Performance
Percent bred by 7 days 88.4% 64% 84.5% 88.9% 64% 88.9%
Wean to 1st service interval, days* 6.79 49% 6.7 6.61 57% 6.6
Farrowing & Weaning Performance
Farrowing rate, % 88.8 90 84.9 87.5 87 84.6
Avg. parity of females farrowed 3.31 47% 3.25 3.33 45% 3.21
Pigs born/litter 12.81 82% 12.49 12.61 80% 12.30
Live born/litter 11.39 74% 11.39 11.34 74% 11.24
Pigs weaned/litter farrowed 10.03 73% 10.05 9.83 68% 9.92
Pig weaning age, days 16.7- 19% 18.4 16.7- 16% 18.6
Avg. litter weaning weight, lb. 118.4+ 73% 105.8 111.1+ 68% 104.9
Avg. pig weaning weight, lb. 12.0+ 69% 10.6 11.9+ 68% 10.2
Herd Performance
Litters/mated female/year 2.55 95% 2.43 2.48 90% 2.42
Pigs weaned/mated female/year 25.60 91% 24.51 24.46 81% 23.93
Pounds weaned/mated female/year 306.73+ 83% 259.11 290.00+ 84% 244.35
Pigs/crate/year 161.56+ 87% 153.73 156.46+ 87% 145.01
Mated female non-productive days* 31.17- 73% 34.65 31.38- 82% 34.88
*Lower number is better performance. Source: Swine Management Services, LLC; + is > 5% over benchmark; — is < 5% below benchmark.