One of the largest U.S. hog operations is taking a look at switching its feeding focus.

In an attempt to remain cost-competitive, The Maschhoffs are exploring pelleted rations for their hog-feeding operations.

“We have acknowledged that today, given the current commodity environment, the days of $2/bu. corn are over. We live in a $4-corn era and from a cost standpoint, with feed at 60-70% of our operating costs, we end up looking at technologies to get more out of our feed,” says Aaron Gaines, vice president of Production Resources & Operations for the Carlyle, IL,-based family operation.

“When corn was $2/bu., pelleting didn't make a lot of sense because mills weren't interested in adding the necessary infrastructure and customers didn't want it because it costs more to produce,” he adds.

But today's corn prices hovering near $4/bu. have The Maschhoffs rethinking the merits of pelleting. Already the company has conducted research trials and consequently begun feeding pelleted diets on a limited basis.

So far, the company has only switched 6% of hog diets to pelleting, focusing on grower and sow diets, limited by existing pellet mill infrastructure and potential concerns that come with the process.

Some 60% of feed is manufactured by company-owned or managed mills at Carlyle, IL, Pittsfield, IL, and Buckeye, IA, but only a third of those mills have pelleting capability.

That will all change when a new mill at Griggsville, IL, is completed in June. That mill will have 100% pelleting capability, says Gaines.

Value Proposition

Simply put, the value proposition for pelleting is enhanced with $4 corn. “When corn goes through the pelleting process, it is going to be exposed to high temperature and pressure, so effectively what you are doing is improving nutrient digestibility of that feedstuff,” Gaines says. The result is a 6-8% improvement in both average daily gain and feed conversion, based on field studies.

In addition, freight is reduced because less feed is needed to achieve gains similar to meal feed. And pelleted feed flows through mills and feeding systems easier, a big plus when considering the use of more alternative feed ingredients such as distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS), which tend to inhibit feed flow, he points out.

Pelleting also allows mills/producers to grind to a finer particle size, which enhances conversion of nutrients, says Gaines. Instead of a standard 600-700 micron feed particle size for growing pigs, particle size can be reduced to 400-500 microns through pelleting.

“The other piece to pelleting that often goes unrecognized is the environmental piece. Pelleting increases nutrient digestibility, so there should be less nutrients excreted. And less production and feed usage is going to help reduce the amount of waste produced,” he remarks.

Pelleting also greatly reduces dust levels, both in milling and in the barns.

Pelleting Concerns

There are some concerns about feeding a pelleted diet to pigs, specifically because corn is ground finer than it would be for mash feed. Pelleted diets ground to 450 microns or so can produce gastric ulcers in some pigs, Gaines says.

Be careful about using pelleted feed in health-challenged situations, adds Matt Kocher, associate director of Nutrition Technical Services for The Maschhoffs. “If you have a pig that is health-challenged and you are using a finer particle size in pelleted feed, there is a chance of increased incidence of ulcers. Furthermore, certain genetic lines may be more susceptible to gastric ulcers due to finer particle size,” he points out.

A second potential drawback is the need for increased feeder management with pelleted feed, says Gaines. Fines will occur as pellets travel through the mill and farm feeding systems. As a result, it takes more focused daily feeder adjustments to avoid excessive feeder pan coverage and potentially more feed wastage, he warns.

The Maschhoffs measure pellet quality using a pellet durability index (PDI) to determine how hard the pellets are. This testing procedure gives an indication of how well the pellet will maintain physical form through the manufacturing and delivery processes. When pellets are manufactured consistently and have a higher PDI, less feeder management is required because of less feed fines.

“If you've got a mill that is producing consistent pellets, you will be in great shape. But for a mill that has a lot of fluctuation in terms of pellet quality, you will have to have a lot more focus on feed management at the feeder level,” Gaines explains.

It's tough for pellets to remain intact through feed processing and transport before they reach the hog feeder. When standard corn is used to produce a pelleted diet, the starch contained in the kernel works as a glue-like substance to bind pellet ingredients together, Kocher says.

But when that starch is removed, such as during fermentation in the ethanol process, the remaining corn co-products, such as DDGS, produce a high-fiber, low-starch product. That type of product can be difficult for some pelleted mills to blend together with regular corn to produce a consistent pelleted product, Kocher explains.

“Mill throughput goes down, and there is a decrease in pellet quality in diets that have a high amount of corn co-products,” he continues. “A high level of DDGS may require formulation changes to boost throughput. And if you end up with too-high feed fines, you mitigate some of the advantages of pelleting and cause more management headaches on farms as well,” Gaines comments.

A well-formulated pellet should withstand the rigors of transport and reduce ingredient segregation. The result is a more homogenous product that will produce better gains and feed efficiency, such as those achieved by pork producers in the southeast, who have been pelleting hog rations for many years, Gaines says.

Better gains and feed efficiency through pelleted feed are also achieved from an improvement in nutrient digestibility that comes from exposing feed to higher temperatures, says Gaines.

New Mill Capabilities

When the new mill at Griggsville is completed, The Maschhoffs estimate 20% of their system will utilize pelleted feed. The mill will have the capacity to produce 80 tons of feed an hour and the capability to pellet all of the company's hog diets in that area, Gaines says.

The mill boasts several unique milling technologies. Unlike standard roller mills, which use two pairs of rollers to grind feed, the Griggsville mill uses a three-pair roller mill system that maximizes throughput and improves consistency of grind, he explains.

The feed load out system is automated using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. When a feed truck enters the mill, a laser system reads the RFID tag on the truck to determine which feed to fill that truck with. The driver never leaves the truck during this process. “That way we are getting the right feed out of the mill on the right truck,” Gaines explains.

Process verification is currently being studied. “The gap we have today, even with the investment in this technology, is that none of us can, with 100% confidence, verify that once the feed has left the feedmill that it went to the correct farm and the correct bin,” he continues.

This system also helps track any feed that doesn't all fit in the bulk bin and must be unloaded into some other bin or destination, adds Kocher.

“Process verification allows us to make sure we can validate and verify for our pork customers that we know exactly where that feed was delivered and what our pigs were fed. It provides another step in the process for feed and food safety,” remarks Gaines.

The Griggsville process verification system will also be tested in a pilot project this summer at the company's mill in Carlyle, IL, involving five area sow farms, before the program is adopted system-wide.

Regular Grain Testing

The swine nutrition team at The Maschhoffs started a regular program of testing for molds and mycotoxins in corn a couple of years ago, says Matt Kocher, associate director of Nutrition Technical Services for The Maschhoffs.

It's also important to test corn co-products before using them in a dietary regimen, because the concentration of corn toxins becomes magnified threefold in distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS), he says.

“We basically send in samples routinely for mycotoxin testing from each DDGS supplier that we utilize in all of our company mills, and we continue to monitor this situation throughout the year to make sure our feeding strategies are adequate for the challenges we are facing,” adds Kocher.

The 2008 corn crop was fairly high in mycotoxins, and levels in the 2009 crop so far are “not pretty,” he says. Overall, vomitoxin and zearalenone levels are higher compared to a year ago, he says.

There are certainly regional differences. Mycotoxin levels are lower in Illinois and worse in other states, particularly in parts of Iowa impacted by hail and downed corn in addition to excessive moisture.

Mycotoxin levels are monitored on a regular basis. Corn samples and DDGS samples are sent to a commercial laboratory.

Reports from Iowa also show that corn test weights are down significantly into the low 50 lb./bu. range. A standard bushel of corn weighs 56 lb. Mills in Illinois have not reported big drops in test weights, he says.

If you find DDGS feed contains mycotoxins, avoid feeding the contaminated byproduct or find ways to dilute or reduce the inclusion rate in the diet. Mycotoxin binders may help reduce the impact of toxins, as the binders work well in controlling vomitoxin, but are less effective against zearlenone, he points out.

Depending on the toxin and its level, pigs may experience reduced feed intake, growth and efficiency, liver damage, pulmonary edema or reproductive challenges, says Kocher.

Watch out for vomitoxin contamination in sow feed, which can lead to feed refusal. Zearalenone can produce estrogenic symptoms in prepubertal gilts and possibly abortions in sows.