Consumers are feeling the pinch from the increased cost of milk and milk products – and so are pork producers, says a Purdue University swine nutritionist.

Nursery pig diets contain a significant amount of lactose. Last year lactose prices were 30 cents/lb., and today prices have nearly tripled to 85 cents/lb.

“This creates a challenge for swine nutritionists and producers to meet the animal’s needs and keep diets economical,” reports Brian Richert, Purdue University Extension swine management specialist. “When a product that makes up 20% to 25% of a diet nearly triples in price, that increases the cost of raising those nursery pigs substantially.”

Richert and other university researchers have been searching for ways to cut feed costs by reducing the duration and amount of lactose fed in swine.

“The first thing producers can do is look at using a little bit less,” he says. “If we drop lactose levels by 5% in each phase of the diet, we will save $85/ton, and that is a quick way to start reducing feed costs.

“Next, producers can start feeding a little bit less of those diets. For example, a producer normally feeding 2 to 3 lb./pig in the first phase of the diet, which typically consists of 20% to 25% lactose, can decrease that to 1.5 to 2 lb./pig. Reducing the amount allotted to each pig for the first several dietary phases that contain lactose can help save some on feed costs.”

Researchers have also been looking at alternatives to lactose.

Dextrose can replace a small amount of the lactose, but not all because certain digestive enzymes are not fully developed in young pigs, explains Richert. Glycerol is another alternative being studied.

“Glycerol has a very high digestibility and, to a limit, has very good metabolic function in the pig,” he adds. “We are hoping to replace a portion of lactose with glycerol, which is going to be a less expensive product, from a feed-grade standpoint, as more biodiesel plants start production.”

“Glycerol is an oily liquid product and when mixed it becomes sticky,” he says. “But, unlike other oily products, it has unique characteristics in that it seems to soak right into the starch grain portion of the diet, and it flows better than expected.”

This fall, one of Richert’s projects will look at using glycerol with lactose in nursery pigs’ diets and testing the boundaries of how much lactose can be replaced with glycerol.

Besides glyercol, researchers are also looking into sucrose or starch hydrolysates.

“It gets really hard to take out a lot of lactose in these early diets,” says Richert. “It’s a dilemma about how much we can replace and still maintain acceptable pig performance.”

While replacements may not provide optimal growth performance, such options offer acceptable performance while maintaining a nutritionally sound diet.

“Pigs may be a couple of pounds lighter coming out of the nursery, which may impact the overall performance in grow-finish,” Richert comments. “It could take a few more days to get them to market weight, but it’s the overall costs that we’re taking into account – the costs per pound of gain.

“We are just trying to give producers a few options because it doesn’t look like the price of dairy products will fall anytime soon. But as you look at futures markets going into the fall, hog prices are going to be down, so we will see income go down, too. So we have to cut costs on the expense side, and 60% to 70% of all costs in a swine operation are in feed costs,” Richert reminds.