Daily gain software helps refine market hog deliveries to producer-owned Meadowbrook Farms plant.

Here's your challenge: Sort a semi-load of market hogs within 4 lb. on either side of the ideal weight needed to capture packer's premiums.

With a keen eye, a scale, and good help — no problem.

Now try identifying those market hogs three weeks in advance so you can hit a 15-minute delivery window on a specific date.

Oh, one more thing — be sure to pick those hogs that will hit a carcass weight that will yield primal cuts in highest demand. Loins must be between 21 and 26 lb., or payment will be docked 50%.

That's the challenge facing members of the Meadowbrook Farms' packing/processing plant near Rantoul, IL.

Some help is available, however. The Daily Weigh software package from Osborne Industries, coupled with the Weight Watcher automatic weighing and sorting features, captures daily weight averages of groups and projects incremental growth rates. The Market Predictor feature in the Daily Weigh program helps producers fulfill Meadowbrook's advance-scheduling requirements, and tighten market weights targeted to capture primal cut premiums.

The farmer-owned plant, operating for just over two years, currently slaughters 3,300 hogs/day. Members are obligated to supply hogs in accordance with the number of stocks they hold. One share equals one hog.

The Meadowbrook plant and the co-op's philosophy are centered on maximizing efficiency. “To keep a highly efficient plant operating smoothly, it depends on the orderly and continuous plant flow of pigs at predetermined times,” explains Jim Altemus, the cooperative's vice president of communications.

The plant and receiving area can handle two semi-loads every 15 minutes. All hogs are rested two hours before slaughter.

The preferred scheduling method is through a computer dial-up program, where an interactive scheduling site displays available time slots for the next three weeks, in 15-minute increments. Producers select a date and time, and plug in the number of hogs they will deliver. When the load has been successfully scheduled, the producer receives an e-mail confirmation.

The delivery report includes names and telephone numbers, so if a delivery is delayed, Meadowbrook staff can check on arrival status. Failure to meet delivery commitments results in fines.

However, if the schedule coordinator is notified 24 hours in advance, the fine is waived. The scheduler has a list of members to call to help fill that open time slot.

Producers unwilling or unable to use the computer service can work directly with the Meadowbrook schedule coordinator by telephone or fax.

Once verified, delivery information is forwarded to the receiving and management staffs, so they know who is delivering hogs and when they will arrive. It also helps the sales force project the quantity of pork available.

Normal, open delivery time starts at 5:30 a.m., stops at 11:00 a.m. and reopens from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m.

Specialty Markets

In addition, Meadowbrook has about a dozen producers enrolled in a source-verification program for a Japanese customer. Those deliveries begin at 3:30 a.m. on Monday and Tuesday.

“We are very insistent on the two-hour rest period, so everything is aimed at having the source-verified hogs go through the processing line as the first hogs each day. This allows us to guarantee the integrity of those hogs, then clear the line before we pick up the regular slaughter,” says Altemus.

Loin weight and color specifications must be met for the Japanese market. “We have enough information (size, genetics, production system, etc.) on the members' hogs to make a preliminary sort of those meeting the customer's requirements,” says Altemus.

“That same kind of certification program will serve as a model as we look at other customers with specific needs. Our goal is to help our customers add value through branding and source verification,” he adds.

Carcass weight and the Autofom, which estimates total lean content, helps segregate carcasses according to the size and weight of the primal cuts — loins, hams, bellies and butts. Every loin and ham is individually weighed. The person doing the final trimming and inspection of hams weighs and sorts them by size. Bellies and butts are weighed with less human intervention, but each is weighed individually.

Groups of hogs delivered from a single producer are identified with a radio frequency identification tag marking the beginning and the end of the group. Primal cut weights for those hogs are recorded in sequence, and used to determine premiums and penalties. Although there is the occasional glitch, such as a ham pulled for inspection, “99.9% of the product goes through with a positive identity,” Altemus says.

The sophistication and single-line tracking of carcasses offers producers an opportunity to capture more premiums, yet challenges them to deliver hogs in a relatively narrow weight window. “That is going to become more important as the weight of the desired hog varies with the niche marketing we hope to get into,” he adds.

Rising to the Challenge

It is this growing precision that has Meadowbrook Farms' members tapping into automatic sorting and growth rate tracking technologies.

With over 50 years of hog-raising experience under his belt, Carl Swinford of Hillsdale, IN, has turned to Osborne's computer-based Weight Watcher system.

Swinford Farms' 1,800 sows produce about 35,000 market hogs annually. Although only about 15% of his hogs are committed to Meadowbrook Farms, Swinford says the auto-sorting technology and Osborne's Daily Weigh software are helping him capture premiums at other packers, too.

“At Meadowbrook, we've got to keep the loins below 26 lb.,” he explains. Referring to a late-October kill sheet, he adds: “See, the loins (weighing) 26 lb. and over are only 38¢/lb., compared to 87¢/lb. for 21-26 lb. loins. We want the pigs to be the heaviest they can be without exceeding the 26-lb. loin limit. That's probably a 290-300-lb. pig in our operation.

“At the price of corn right now, you need to ship hogs as heavy as possible without getting them into the discounted categories,” Swinford says.

“To do that, you've got to have good information,” agrees Travis Huxford, unit manager at Swinford Farms for 10 years.

The Weight Watcher design allocates 15-20% of room space as a watering pen, and 80-85% to feeding pens. Once trained, pigs cycle through the scales 4-6 times a day, on average. After getting a drink, pigs pass through a one-way gate to return to the feeder. The only route back to water is through the scale.

Swinford Farms feeds six specific rations from 50-60 lb. to market weight. Huxford likes the system because pigs are sorted with every trip through the scale. Pigs lighter than the pen average are sorted to the right; pigs heavier than the average are sorted to the left.

At the stroke of midnight each day, the scale automatically resets the sort point for heavies and lights as pigs grow. Swinford and Huxford like this split-by-weight categorization because it allows lightweight pigs to catch up without hampering the growth of the heavyweights, and it avoids feeding the more expensive diet to half of the pigs too long.

Huxford begins the phase-feeding program when pigs average 60 lb. Pigs weighing over 100 lb. are switched to the second ration, while lighter pigs remain on the higher-protein diet a while longer. Weight brackets determine which diet the pigs receive.

Osborne's Daily Weigh software generates several reports, but the “animal growth” chart and the “market predictor” tally best serves producers trying to hit target weights. Distribution, phase-feeding and activity reports are also available.

Each pig is weighed every time it passes through the scale. At the end of the day, the composite weight is divided by the number of trips through the scale. This provides the data points for the animal growth graph (Figure 1). The red boxes track the average daily gain (ADG) for all pigs in the pen (1.97 lb./day), while the brown boxes show ADG for pigs sorted to the heavy side (2.07 lb./day). The green boxes track ADG of lightweight pigs (1.93 lb./day). Gain data can be tracked from Day 1 to the current date, or between designated dates. In this example, ADG was calculated for a two-week period.

The daily gain data also drives the market predictor function (Table 1). Selecting a “high” and “low” target weight (290 lb. and 270 lb., respectively) and a projected period of growth (Nov. 14 to Dec. 26), Swinford can use the average growth rate for the past two weeks, for example, and the market predictor software calculates the percentages of pigs above, below and within the target weights at future dates.

“Basically, it shows that 13% of pigs are within the 270-290-lb. window and 2% have already exceeded it,” explains Osborne sales manager Lyle Jones. “By Nov. 21, you would have 21% in the weight window and 9% over. If you're selling to Meadowbrook, you'd best be selling those pigs or begin considering another market.”

If you know the market weight at which your pigs begin exceeding Meadowbrook's 26-lb. loin weight limit, the scale can be set to sort those off.

Swinford says automatic sorting saves some labor, but he's quick to point out: “You won't buy the system because of labor saving. Our goal is to reduce variability. We feel we're doing it two ways — by reducing competition at the feeder, and having the ability to feed separate diets. Now we know what these pigs are doing, where before we didn't know until they went to market.”

To take full advantage of the market predictor capabilities, data transfer is critical. “You have to have daily data to generate the reports,” Jones says.

In addition to guiding the phase-feeding program, Huxford says the system helps project when a barn will be empty. And, if he needs a barn soon, he can sort pigs into different weight brackets for different packers.

Ideally, one Weight Watcher sorting scale handles about 500 pigs. All-stainless steel scales cost $6,800, stainless/galvanized steel combo scales are $5,900, and all-galvanized steel scales cost $5,500. One-way gates are $415 each. Daily Weigh Software costs $495, a one-time investment with free upgrades for a year.

Source-Verified Fit

Melvin Coulter, Paxton, IL, is one of Meadowbrook's source-verified producers. Tired of the rigors of farrowing, he and seven other producers invested in a 2,400-sow pasture farrowing operation about nine years ago. Three partners have since bought out the others.

Sows are housed in hoop buildings until they're artificially inseminated and pregnancy-checked positive. PigChamp records show non-productive sow days range from 16 to 24 days — slightly higher in the summer. Average parity is 3.5; 4.0 is their target.

Average weaning age has been bumped back from 19 days of age to 20-21 days, with weights averaging 11.0-11.6 lb. at weaning. The radial-design pasture system cranks out 22 pigs/sow/year.

Owning half the shares, Coulter finishes 20,000 pigs annually. About 9,000 are fed and managed on four Weight Watcher systems in a double-wide, totally slotted finishing barn.

Coulter, a self-professed “slow adapter” of technology, sees an opportunity to narrow the weight range of pigs delivered to the Meadowbrook plant just 11 miles down the road.

“Our weight variance was running 13-14 lb. on a load,” he notes. “With the Weight Watcher, we're down to 9.7 lb., but much of that variation still comes from pigs sorted from conventional finishing barns to make a load.”

Automatic sorting makes it easy to pull feed the day before delivery. “We need the advantage of those pigs cleaning out by the time they get to market, because we're the closest we've ever been to their preferred weight range,” he says. Turning to the computer screen to reinforce the precision, he notes on the current day, “8% of the pigs in the barn are at the target — 274-282 lb.”

The Japanese buyer wants loins weighing 21-26 lb., screened for color and delivered in container units. Coulter knows his 275-285 pounders hit that loin bracket, so delivering consistent weights is essential to capturing premiums from the source-verified program.

Coulter feels his $5,900/scale investment is reasonable. Compared to conventional finishing, he says, “It's not a terribly big investment — only 5-6% of the cost of the building. Gating and feeder costs are the same. We put in watering troughs, which work real well — except in hot weather, when the heavier pigs want to lie beside them.” Before next summer, he plans to install hanging nipple waterers so the lighter pigs can get a drink and go back to the feeders.

Finishing Flexibility

Gene Niemerg of Dieterich, IL, is testing the Market Predictor functions in various finishing barn configurations. One 1,000-head barn pushes about 500 pigs through the auto-sort system at a time. As pigs are marketed, lighter pigs from the conventional pens are pulled forward to the auto-sort pen. Another 1,000-head barn finishes about 400 on the side equipped with the auto-sort scale, which helps finishing site manager DeWain Bohnhoff sort market-ready hogs in the conventional pens on the other side.

A 1,300-head, double-wide finishing barn with a Weight Watcher system on each side handles 650 pigs/side.

Bohnhoff says the systems help fill a semi-load within a fairly tight weight range, drawing from the three barns. “We've nearly eliminated any penalties for overweight hogs since installing the scales,” he notes.

In November, pigs in the double-wide barn weighed an average of 178 lb., with an ADG of 1.8 lb. Sorted as lights and heavies, a check on the ADG for each group during the past three weeks showed the heavier pigs averaging 1.66 lb./day, while lights averaged 1.72 lb./day. Both groups were fed the same ration.

“There's an advantage to reducing competition at the feeders by continually sorting. If you take that advantage and also feed different diets, you can magnify the advantage,” explains Jones.

Table 1. Market Predictor — Scale 1 North — Scale 2 South
Target Weight Low: 270.00 lb. Date from: 11/15/05
High: 290.00 lb. Date to: 12/26/05
Predictions based upon past 14 days growth rate. Step: 7 days
Date Percentage Under Percentage OK Percentage Over
11/14/05 85 13 2
11/21/05 70 21 9
11/28/05 50 28 22
12/05/05 26 35 39
12/12/05 15 22 63
12/19/05 10 11 79