I was recently called to a 300-sow, farrow-to-finish operation in southwest Minnesota to do a herd health walk through. The main focus of our visit was to highlight areas that would lessen the impact of $20 hogs.

Unfortunately, I couldn't alter market price. But, there were several points that I stressed, which helped improve efficiency and salvage as many dollars as possible.

In the breeding area, we discussed the throughput and the number of sows bred. This producer wanted to meet his breeding targets but not exceed them. The throughput value of extra pigs out the door is clearly negated in this down market. Not only does the producer lose more money per pig, but the total number of pigs in the market is also a detriment. Breeding efficiency, conception rates and whole herd feed efficiency are the most critical numbers to focus on in the breeding herd at this time. This is different from a year ago when pigs out the door was one of the most critical numbers to concentrate on.

In the farrowing barn, I recommended that this producer concentrate on pig quality. Ruptures, runts and non-viable pigs are of absolutely no value in today's climate and should be eliminated. Pig weaning weight is the other component of piglet quality that is extremely important at this time. Improved weaning weights are primarily influenced by lactation feed consumption by the sows. Improving lactation consumption throughout the entire lactation period needs to be a primary focus of all farrowing operators. Whether this is achieved by feeding three times per day or other feeding methods, the goal is to maximize lactation consumption throughout the entire lactation period.

The last part of maintaining high-quality pigs flowing through the farrowing barn is treating pigs early. Joint infections, respiratory or other disease problems should be identified and treated early. This will decrease the number of chronics and poor-doers in the farrowing barn. Early identification of these problems is more important than what antibiotic regimen or choice is followed.

In walking through the nursery, I stressed the importance of improving air quality and environmental temperatures. Extra effort is needed, especially going into winter, to focus on attaining ideal humidity and temperature levels. Humidity should be kept between 60% and 68%. Temperature swings should be kept to less than 5 degrees F. Ammonia, carbon dioxide and other gases should also be monitored to determine proper ventilation.

Maintaining pig quality in the nursery is an important goal in tough times. Poor- doers, fall-behind pigs and "waster" pigs should be removed because they disrupt all-in, all-out pig flow and will not be marketed with their current group.

We don't want these pigs staying behind to compromise the next group of nursery pigs. These pigs are potential disease shedders and they cost producers money as they continue to eat feed. If they are sold as light pigs or to a cull market, there is a severe discount in addition to the low market price. Early identification and treatment of disease problems continues to be a key part of maximizing performance and profitability through the nursery phase.

In finishing, it's also vital to prevent and reduce disease problems through early identification and treatment. Eliminate poor-doing and fall-behind pigs.

As marketing time approaches, concentrate on reducing sort loss to help maximize returns from the packer. Re-think the ideal selling weight for individual packers by evaluating the corn price and soybean price. Compare the packer matrix with the ideal carcass weight for that particular packer.

In these tough times, producers need to take a hard look at their records to know if they are competitive with other producers in the industry. Feeding programs throughout producers' operations need to be re-evaluated. Feeding goals should be least-cost rations and not optimal average daily gain.

Throughput in finishing barns is less desirable now when each pig marketed incurs a substantial loss. So it doesn't pay to overcrowd pigs in finishing.

Other considerations to fine-tune and reduce the negative impact of $20 hogs includes:

c Reevaluate feed costs and other inputs such as semen (if artificial insemination is being utilized), veterinary inputs and all other supplies.

c Reexamine your genetic program to determine the most profitable way to provide carcasses desired by packers, while keeping down breeding stock costs.

c Review disease control measures and vaccination protocols. If disease has been a continuing problem on your farm, this may be a good time to consider repopulation or a partial depopulation.

c Re-think asset reallocation. Restructuring your loan with the bank and looking for contracts or other ways to work with the packers are all extremely important elements of minimizing this down cycle.

Producers need to reevaluate their entire operations and eliminate all inefficient areas that may be adding to losses.

Contact your veterinary consultant to get his/her ideas on other areas that need to be considered.