Increasing pigs/sow/year (p/s/y) is a worthwhile goal as it translates to more pigs out the door, lowers cost of production and drives profits.

For Jon Hoek, director of production strategy for DeMotte, IN-based Belstra Milling's swine division known as the Belstra Group, increasing p/s/y also means increasing the potential for gilt sales.

The Belstra Group is comprised of 11,500 sows, producing gilts at five multiplication farms in Indiana and Illinois. About 65% of total available gilts produced are available for sale to PIC as Camborough gilts to clients in North Carolina and throughout the Midwest. The “non-select” gilts and barrows are shipped to the IPC packing plant in Delphi, IN.

30 P/S/Y Goal, Challenges

As the first decade of the 21st Century nears an end, the Belstra Group closes in on its goal of producing 30 p/s/y. The poster child for achieving this goal has been Max-L Farms near DeMotte, a 1,950-sow, breed-to-wean farm built in 2002 that produces the PIC Camborough-22 gilt line.

“Max-L Farms has been at 29.1 p/s/y for the last three years and averaged 30 p/s/y for about 45 of the 52 weeks between June '06-May '07,” Hoek reports (See Figure 1).

But he emphasizes Belstra's 30-p/s/y goal doesn't come easily.

“That goal comes with challenges that means it may not be right for everybody to pursue,” cautions Kurt Nagel, former manager of the 1,150-sow unit known as Iroquois Valley Breeders, a Belstra gilt multiplier. He now serves as finances/production and environment director for the Belstra Group.

“Some of the challenges stem from the fact that when you start to build a farm, you don't normally build the nursery-finishing flow for 30 p/s/y,” Hoek explains. “Therefore, once you've got the p/s/y higher than you ever dreamed — it can cause an issue downstream in finishing with crowding and growth challenges if you do not react quickly enough,” he adds.

Belstra has avoided increasing finishing space for the additional pigs produced as they continue their drive to reach the 30 p/s/y goal.

“We have negotiated long-term relationships for weaned gilt and feeder pigs to avoid major off-site finishing building projects,” Hoek remarks. “You have to remember with multiplication you can't just throw a finisher down anywhere. There are strict requirements for biosecurity and health when planning a new building site.”

“You have to have the confidence that you can maintain that level of production because you surely don't want production to slip after paying for additional facilities,” Nagel warns.

Producers need to think about the health and the quality of pigs they are weaning, too. “You can get to 30 p/s/y by weaning marginal pigs,” Hoek points out.

“But why pay for survival of non-Grade A pigs that won't make you any money just to play the p/s/y numbers game?” Nagel asks.

Some have questioned whether having a 30 p/s/y target is practical or sustainable. Litters with 15-18 total born will often have some non-viable runts that are intentionally euthanized to prevent suffering. This increases preweaning mortality by 3-4%, but allows the rest of the viable pigs to express their genetic growth potential.

Nagel says PIC genetics are doing their job, with some of the farms averaging near 14.5 total born and 13 born alive, meaning efforts to consistently hit 30 p/s/y are within reach.

However, to date the Belstra farms are more focused on maintaining 29 high-quality, healthy pigs per sow per year than including marginal pigs just to hit the 30 p/s/y target, Hoek explains.

With continual genetic improvement over the years, Belstra leaders believe it is reasonable they can reach 30 viable weaned pigs per sow consistently in the coming years.

Health Concerns

“We are in a continual process to improve the health of our farms for our customers' sake,” Hoek says. Circovirus has challenged most U.S. farms, and Belstra has responded by instituting a preventative vaccination program on the farms producing replacement gilts.

Proactive strategies for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) are being met with implementation of Boehringer Ingelheim's PRRS Risk Assessment Program, coordinated by consulting swine veterinarian Tom Gillespie of Rensselaer, IN.

“It is a program that measures our internal and external risks for attracting PRRS based on various production and management techniques,” Hoek explains. External risks include things like neighboring pigs, highways and transport to packing plants. Internal risks cover how pigs and supplies are brought onto the farm.

“We have been monitoring our PRRS risk with this program for 4-5 years now. We have successfully quantified through statistical analysis that our farms have reduced our risk of PRRS infection significantly,” Hoek remarks. “It is our desire as a breeding stock supplier to deliver healthy gilts to the customers' farms so they can properly customize the acclimation of that animal to the health of the receiving farm,” he observes.

“PRRS is a problem in the industry, and we sell a lot of gilts to both PRRS-positive and mycoplasma-positive farms, providing the customer flexibility by varying the times of isolation and acclimation, and size and age of the animal any way these customers would like to receive them,” Hoek continues.

To farrow and raise large numbers of viable piglets also requires that many other reproductive parameters must be running on all cylinders, including farrowing rate, lactation length, preweaning mortality, non-productive sow days, parity distribution and sow mortality. Management and facilities must also be fine-tuned.

In order to provide better tracking of p/s/y, Belstra switched to MetaFarms' recordkeeping programs. Hoek and Nagel believe the Minnesota-based service does a better job of tracking 20- and 40-week production periods and in annualizing the data.

MetaFarms also is a leader in data mining technology that allows the Belstra Group to customize data analysis of particular farms or barns. This information system has played a key role in strategic decision-making processes that allow Belstra to throttle these farms forward to maximum sustainable levels of production, according to company officials.

It All Starts with Gilts

Strict standards are used for gilt development. No gilts are bred until they reach 210 days of age, weigh a minimum of 300 lb. and are provided regular boar exposure.

Gilts receive periodic boar exposure in isolation to ensure they are coming into heat and to speed up maturity. The goal is to breed gilts on the third or fourth heat cycle.

“I think gilt development starts with isolation, making sure those gilts are first isolated for a minimum of eight weeks in a separate facility to assure that we are not going to bring something into the herd, healthwise, that we don't want. And we can use that time for the gilts to get acclimated to whatever is in our herd,” Nagel says. This also allows time for gilt vaccination and titer stabilization before entry into the breeding herd.

During acclimation, sow fecal material is used to expose the gilts to the gestation barn health challenges.

One area of concern for the Belstra Group is “tabletop parity distribution,” which is how Hoek describes Max-L Farms' leveled-out 3rd to 5th parities. To develop a more traditional parity curve and retain sows longer, Belstra has begun looking at management techniques with PIC researchers to further enhance sow longevity and minimize any negative production parameters on parity zero through parity two. (See Figure 2 to review 2008 parity performance.)

Even so, Hoek proudly points to Belstra Group's sow mortality figures at less than 4% for the last three years.

Breeding Efficiency

An average farrowing interval of 142 days is achieved through farrowing rate improvements and deliberate management decisions at the multiplier farms, Hoek stresses. It's monitored closely and breaks down averaging 115 days of gestation, 18 days of lactation, six days wean-to-first service interval and 3.2 non-productive days. The interval includes some intentional sow skips as well. The golden rule at Belstra is that no thin or out-of-condition sow will be bred.

To maintain those intervals means getting sows bred by Day 4-5, postweaning, because research has shown that sows bred sooner will have larger litters than sows bred on Day 6-7. Belstra's goal is to have 90% of sows bred by seven days postweaning. Hoek says 95% of sows have been bred by then unless intentionally skipped because of poor body condition. “Most of our farms are breeding at the onset of standing heat,” he adds.

Good boar contact and sow stimulation are essential for quality matings. “This is something that I think a lot of people are trying to rush right now,” Hoek explains. “I see a lot of people using AI (artificial insemination) buddies or saddles. We don't use them. We believe in individual attention — one person and one mating.”

The industry appears to be moving away from individual attention as they try to cut labor costs. But Hoek thinks that's a big mistake. “I think that alone hurts 30 p/s/y as much as anything because you don't get those top farrowing rates and you don't get high total borns,” he stresses.

Spending 2-5 minutes/sow on proper stimulation of underline and flank with good boar exposure will be rewarded with more total born piglets, says Hoek. Gilts require more time than mature sows.

It is very critical that the number of open sows be kept to a minimum, he continues. Heat checking sows should start at 18 days postbreeding and continue throughout the next five weeks. Sows should be pregnancy-checked at least once; most pregnancy-checking machines are accurate at 28-35 days post-breeding.

“Remember, open sows are a drain on profits. One sow that goes all the way and is not bred during the gestation period is equivalent to 5.5 sows returning to estrus at 21 days,” Hoek emphasizes.

Farrowing Strategies

Farrowing rates for Belstra's Max-L Farms was 94.9% in 2008. The average for the entire Belstra system was 92.10% (Figure 3). Overall, preweaning mortality for nearly the last three years is just above 10%.

Hoek says larger, faster computer systems as well as large sow production databases have allowed PIC and other genetic companies to improve preweaning mortality, farrowing rate and other lowly heritable traits faster.

In order to maximize genetic potential, Belstra farms have fine-tuned their farrowing strategies with the following protocols:

  • Adopting the McRebel approach to crossfostering developed by Monte McCaw, DVM, North Carolina State University. Crossfostering is limited to the first 24 hours of life. Leaving piglets on their original mothers has helped reduce labor and the spread of viruses or other pathogens.

  • Moving away from bump weaning used since 2004 has improved weaning performance. With bump weaning, you wean the sow off her original litter and place another litter on the sow in order to make the maximum use of the most productive sows in the farm, Nagel explains.

    But bump weaning depressed feed consumption in lactation and lowered weaning weights, he says.

    “The end result was this problem dragged on into the nursery and finisher phases, and we ended up with a big stratification of ages within litters (10-12 days age spread) due to constantly moving pigs forward in farrowing,” Hoek notes. When bump weaning ceased, Belstra found they started weaning far more pigs than ever — and they didn't work nearly as hard doing it. Weaning averages improved from 10.9 to nearly 11.4 pigs/litter. Preweaning mortality dropped by almost 2%.

    Weaning age has ranged from 18 to 21 days old across the farms. Max-L Farms, with the highest p/s/y, was reduced to 18 days lactation length in order to accommodate the high farrowing rate and the subsequent productivity, he notes.

  • Installing a Rescue Deck (S&R Resources) system in all of the farms in 2005 and 2006 helped boost average weaning weights from 12.6 to 15.2 lb. Pounds weaned/sow/year climbed dramatically from 329 to 400 lb. Average daily gain of nursing piglets also improved by almost 0.15 lb./day, Nagel says.

Hoek says the Rescue Deck should serve as a tool, not a crutch. It should help maximize crate utilization and increase labor efficiency.

Employee Factor

Nagel, who served as farm manager for Iroquois Valley for 10 years, stresses that employee “ownership” plays a crucial role in the reproductive success of the gilt farms.

“Our employees are our greatest asset, and we have many long-term staff members on the farms who have bought into the success of the farms. For me, there is a tremendous support staff here at the mill as well,” he comments.

Farm staff has access to all production data and are consulted on production changes. Much of the staff has worked for a decade or longer at the Belstra Group's gilt farms.

Employees are treated with respect, and receive a generous wage and benefits package. There is often a waiting list to work at Belstra.

One prime example of how an ownership culture can evolve is Troy Goodman, farm manager at Hopkins Ridge Farm, a 1,250-sow farm constructed in 1996. Goodman served as an assistant manager at several other Belstra gilt farms in the early 1990s.

He and his wife were given the opportunity to transfer to Hopkins Ridge to manage and become part-owners of the farm in 1996.

Goodman declares: “We love it. Belstra provides great incentives and this opportunity has given my family a chance to work in a modern hog unit that we couldn't afford on our own. We own part of it, so that is added incentive to do the best darned job that we can.”

Part of Belstra's draw is that it is a family-oriented business. From the ownership to the 80-plus employees working on the farms, plus the dozen or so staff who work at the feedmill's offices, there are numerous family members working at different locations.

Quarterly Analysis

To closely monitor changing costs and conditions on a quarterly basis, Hoek and Nagel review financial and production data and look for changes that impact the bottom line.

Even though their niche business is producing replacement gilts, the non-select gilts and barrows that are sold to slaughter have to be raised right and sold right.

“Our whole goal here is to sell the best pigs regardless of the customer,” Hoek says.