Computer-based lactation feeder moves sow productivity to a higher plane.

If you could find someone to manage sow feeding during lactation and boost number of pigs born/mated female/year by two, would you hire them?

Alain Lefebvre, owner of Aldo Farms, Inc. in St-Lambert-de-Lauzon, Quebec, challenged a feeder manufacturer to develop a feed management system to improve sow feed intake during lactation. His theory — more feed equals more milk; more milk equals heavier pigs at weaning.

Nine years later, development, refining and testing the computerized feed distribution system has delivered more than Lefebvre bargained for.

Drawing on his most recent seven years of PigChamp data (Table 1), he's quick to point out the multiplying effects the feed management system has had on his 1,700-sow herd:

  • Sows leave farrowing crates in better condition, confirmed by sow weight and backfat measurements;

  • Better condition of newly weaned sows lowered feed demands in gestation by about 1/2 lb./day;

  • Wean-to-first service estrus was shortened by one day;

  • Pigs weaned/mated female/year climbed to 29, and currently stands near 28; and

  • Sow lifetime production was extended by one parity, now averaging 3.5.

Testing the Theory

Lefebvre's interest in sow condition piqued in 1999 while reviewing a French swine industry magazine article, which set optimum backfat levels between 16-20 mm. (0.62-0.78 in.).

Soon after, he began a sow condition study at Aldo Farms to establish the best backfat range to maximize sow performance. His ongoing study measures backfat thickness when sows enter and exit the farrowing crate. The measurement is taken at the last rib, 2.5 in. off the midline, with the location marked in permanent ink to ensure both measurements are taken at the exact location. Sows are weighed on the same schedule.

Lefebvre's challenge to develop a lactation feed management system went out to Jyga Concepts, Inc., St-Nicolas, Quebec. His goal was to record accurate feed intake during lactation and determine correlations to production records typically collected for PigChamp recordkeeping. Since 1999, the database reflects over 15,000 farrowings and over 30,000 sow-weighing and backfat measurement events.

Six months into the study, sows with backfat measurements between 14 and 20 mm (0.55-0.78 in.) had relatively stable total pig born averages, but sows with 21-32 mm (0.82-1.25 in.) backfat were much more erratic. He also realized the impact of lactation length on backfat depletion was more or less controlled by how much the sows ate.

Additionally, he noted that feed intake/day was affected slightly by number of piglets, but eventually it plateaued. It was that plateau that signaled the feed intake potential of the sow, he says.

Eighteen months into the study, Lefebvre noted the benefit of increased feed intake during lactation on total pigs born in the following litter was 0.3 pigs for each additional pound of feed consumed/day. He also observed that as daily feed intake in lactation stabilized at 14-15 lb./day, total pigs born in the subsequent litter stabilized, and backfat loss of 2 mm. (0.10 in.) during lactation was predictable.

At the outset of the study, Lefebvre noted sows that commonly lost 8 mm (0.30 in.) backfat during lactation, averaged 11.1-11.3 pigs born (10.2 live) in the next farrowing. Today, after several years on the computer-controlled feeders, sows average at least 13 pigs born (12.1 live) with backfat loss reduced to 2 mm (0.10 in.). Average age at weaning is just over 16 days (See PigChamp data, Table 1).

When backfat losses exceed the 2 mm. target, total pigs born in the subsequent litter drops 0.2 pigs/litter with each millimeter loss in backfat, he says. The Aldo Farm study also showed that sows entering the farrowing crate in excess of 20 mm. (0.78 in.) of backfat consumed 0.22 lb. less feed/day during their stay. “The lactation-gestation cycles are linked,” he reinforces.

System Refined

With numerous refinements made to the Gestal feed management system during nine years of development, Jyga Concepts electrical engineer Yves Drouin feels confident the system can effectively hit the backfat/sow condition and feed intake parameters needed to maximize performance in each lactation.

“This tool will help manage all of the sows in the herd on an individual basis,” he says.

The individual attention is delivered through computer-calibrated, daily feeding curves. At the heart of the feed management system is a patented, sealed, polyethylene farrowing crate feeder with a capacity to store 26-28 lb. of feed. Feed from the storage bin is rationed to a smaller hopper in 2-lb. increments. The sow calls for feed from the hopper by flipping an agitator in the feeder. A sensor in the trough will not allow the sow to call for more feed if some remains in the trough.

Feeding periods are commonly broken into four, three-hour time periods, beginning at 6 a.m. One-hour breaks are usually set between the feeding periods. The last feeding period for the day concludes at 9 p.m. No feed is available until the cycle starts over again the next morning. The feeding periods are flexible, allowing up to eight feeding periods per day.

Generally, the three-hour feeding periods are broken into 15-minute intervals. If a sow eats 2 lb. of feed in five minutes, she must wait 10 minutes before the hopper is replenished with two more pounds of feed. This “rationing” throughout the day ensures fresh feed is always available, and records the eating pattern for every sow, every day, through the system's software program.

A daily feed consumption report, available through a central computer, allows the manager to see each sow's feeding activity during the designated feeding periods.

This individual feeding information is presented two ways. One is the “farrowing sows' consumption” report (Figure 1), which lists each sow's identification number, crate number, the length of her lactation (to date), her assigned feeding curve, her feeding schedule, maximum projected feed consumption and the total amount of feed delivered (to date).

At the far right of the report are blocks representing feeding periods, which are colored in green, yellow, white and red. These colored blocks provide a quick update on each sow's daily feeding pattern.

A green block indicates the sow is eating at the targeted level.

White blocks indicate feed disappearance is exceeding the target. This means one of two things — either she can eat more than she's receiving and her daily allocation should be bumped up, or she is wasting the feed.

A yellow block signals that the sow is eating less than expected. This is an early warning. Successive yellow blocks warrant investigation.

A red block or an “x” indicates the sow did not eat during the allocated feeding period. Successive red blocks alert the manager to check the sow and the feeder. This may indicate she is farrowing.

Generally, the farrowing manager will review the sow eating patterns first thing each morning. If the first feeding period begins at 6 a.m., sows are usually hungry because they haven't eaten overnight. Arriving at 8 a.m., the manager will take note of the sow and crate numbers with white and red blocks. This allows him/her to pinpoint poor consumption patterns and those sows requiring more feed. If a sow is wasting feed, space between delivery periods can be extended so she learns that if she wastes it, it may be awhile before she gets her next meal.

Next, the manager calls up a second graph that provides a real-time snapshot of a sow's feed consumption each day during her lactation. (Figure 2). The red, yellow, green and white sections reflect feed intake during the four feeding periods. The blue line reflects the composite daily feed intake for Sow #0579, for example. The goal is to keep the blue line near the middle of the white section, thus meeting the sow's feed needs. If the blue line moves above the white section, her daily allocation should be increased. If it slips into the green, yellow or red areas, feed allocation should be adjusted accordingly. Severe slippage should be investigated.

After a herd has developed an adequate database, many have found it helpful to develop basic feeding curves for first parity, second parity and 3+ parity sows to serve as guidelines to allocate feeding levels for sows entering farrowing crates.

Ohio Experience

Tom and Galen Harrod of Greenville, OH, have been working with the Gestal prototype feeders in their 350-sow herd for just over a year.

“The first thing I do in the morning is check for the Xs,” explains Galen. He makes a list and checks those sows first. Some aren't eating because they're farrowing. Occasionally, a feeder will get plugged, so that's remedied. If a sow simply quit eating because she's not feeling well, remedies are sought.

Next the Harrods check the feed consumption graphs to ensure the blue line is within the upper parameters of the white section of the graph. If consumption slips, daily feed levels are lowered.

“The great thing about this feeder is the sows will tell you how fast they want to come back,” notes Galen.

Returning to Sow #0579, the graph (Figure 2) shows she's in her 14th day of lactation and 188 lb. has been dispensed to her, for an average of 13.5 lb./day.

The database allows the operator to check previous lactations, too. For example, he notes her feed consumption dropped between Days 7 and 9. Checking back, he can see this is a normal feeding pattern for this sow. “It's amazing how consistent they can be from lactation to lactation,” he observes.

Tom Harrod says weaning weights have stabilized at 11-12 lb. for pigs weaned at 15-16 days of age. “Being able to feed the sow according to her needs and wants actually helps improve pig weights at weaning,” he says. “The best sows, the top 5-8%, will stay in the white area (of the graph). Those are the sows you need to watch because they can eat more.

“The biggest thing I like about the feeder is I know what the sows are eating and they are getting all they want. And, when I'm busy in the fields, I know the sows are being taken care of, even if I can't check them until later in the evening or the next morning,” Tom adds.

No Time Off

Lefebvre says besides being an excellent sow management aid, the lactation feeder doesn't take weekends and holidays off.

“Oftentimes, your best manager is not feeding the sows on weekends and holidays, which actually accounts for 30-35% of the time,” he points out. “This system will do the job better and more consistently than anyone. It's like hiring the best feed management person you can find and putting him/her in your barns 24 hours a day.”

Returning to the PigChamp data, Lefebvre notes that the “pigs weaned/lifetime female” has risen from a range of 37-50 in the early days of testing the Gestal feeder, to the mid-60s in 2003-2004. Slippage in 2001 was caused by a porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) outbreak.

The Gestal system has evolved through several modifications to improve the feeder's reliability and cut costs. Currently, the system can be installed for an average price of about $600/farrowing crate. A standard desktop computer drives the software feeding programs.

Table 1. PigChamp Performance Monitor for Aldo Farms, Inc.
Jan 991
Jun 99
Jul 99
Dec 99
Jan 00
Jun 00
Jul 002
Dec 00
Jan 01
Jun 01
Jul 01
Dec 01
Jan 02
Jun 02
Jul 02
Dec 02
Jan 03
Jun 03
Jun 03
Dec 03
Jan 04
Jun 04
Jan 052,3
Dec 05
Breeding Performance
Total number of services 2,647 2,515 2,460 2,447 2,442 2,598 2,399 2,404 2,399 2,385 2,380 4,986
Weaning-1st service interval 5.6 6.6 5.7 6.8 6.5 6.1 4.9 4.8 4.7 4.7 4.9 4.8
Percent sows bred by 7 days 93.6 87.7 92.8 86.0 90.4 92.1 96.4 96.0 97.0 97.0 95.5 96.4
Farrowing Performance
Number of sows farrowed 1,956 2,119 2,079 2,068 2,121 2,064 2,147 2,141 2,142 2,177 2,150 4,224
Avg. parity of farrowed sows 5.1 5.6 5.8 4.6 3.6 3.9 4.3 4.5 4.6 4.5 4.5 4.3
Average total pigs/litter 11.3 11.1 11.1 11.5 12.1 11.9 12.6 13.0 13.0 13.0 13.0 13.1
Average pigs born alive/litter 10.3 10.2 10.2 10.7 11.3 11.1 11.7 12.1 12.0 12.1 12.1 12.1
Farrowing rate 75.2 79.1 84.3 84.3 86.4 82.9 86.2 88.4 90.2 89.3 90.4 84.2
Litters/mated female/year 2.45 2.48 2.50 2.50 2.51 2.47 2.56 2.56 2.60 2.58 2.59 2.52
Weaning Performance
Pigs weaned/mated female/year 22.8 22.9 23.2 24.6 26.7 25.5 27.2 27.8 28.5 28.7 28.0 27.6
Pigs weaned/lifetime female 37 50 62 59 42 41 53 53 60 64 64 61
Population
Average parity 4.5 4.9 4.0 2.7 2.9 3.3 3.5 3.7 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.4
Avg. female inventory 1,649 1,666 1,668 1,676 1,712 1,700 1,690 1,688 1,698 1,683 1,695 1,752
Avg. non-productive sow days 43.1 39.5 40.5 44.2 39.9 44.2 32.5 33.6 31.5 30.9 31.5 36.0
1 January 1999 to June 2000 adjustment period as original Gestal feeders were installed.
2 July 2000 to June 2001 and Jan.-Feb. 2005 outbreaks of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome impacted breeding herd performance.
3 2005 presented for 12-month period; all other data presented in six-month increments.
Figure 1. Farrowing Sows' Consumption
Sow Crate Day % Curve Schedule Received Maximum Distribution %
0579 W6 14 100 High Litter 2 1 hour 12.25 15.09 93
0577 W7 10 100 High Litter 2 30 min. 8.34 14.40 66
0584 W8 9 110 High Litter 2 30 min. 11.72 15.36 87
0692 W9 14 100 High Litter 1 30 min. 10.06 11.81 97
0612 W10 8 100 High Litter 2 30 min. 11.28 13.62 95
0539 W11 9 100 High Litter 3+ 30 min. 8.73 13.11 76
W12 0 0 0 0
0542 W13 6 100 High Litter 3+ 30 min. 9.94 11.64 98
0540 W14 5 100 High Litter 3+ 30 min. 9.94 11.64 98
0620 W15 6 105 High Litter 2 30 min. 10.95 13.13 95
0400 W16 6 100 High Litter 3+ 30 min. 7.77 11.64 76
0543 W17 6 100 High Litter 3+ 30 min. 9.94 11.64 98
0329 W18 6 100 High Litter 3+ 30 min. 6.07 11.64 60
0705 W19 7 100 High Litter 1 1 hour 5.47 9.83 64
0110 W20 7 100 High Litter 3+ 30 min. 7.18 12.41 66
0348 W21 4 100 High Litter 3+ 30 min. 2.20 11.47 22
0229 W22 4 100 High Litter 3+ 30 min. 6.64 11.47 66