Not everyone is continuing down the path of large-scale, intensive production. Always a family farm man, I am encouraged by what they are discovering.

There is now growing evidence of two very different methods of pig production around the world.

The first is the large-scale, intensive pig production unit. The tendency here is to think that biggest is best, that organized marketing based on the economy of scale is inevitable, and, that either form of integration — vertical or horizontal — is logistically and economically superior to the more fragmented, smaller units of the past.

Well, maybe. There is nothing new in that philosophy, except the realization, recently, that in this cadre the very biggest is not necessarily the best. Economy of scale will indeed find its level eventually. By this I mean big, possibly, but not gigantic.

Table 1. Large-Scale Intensive Production vs. “Step-Back-A-Bit” Pig Production — Some Early Figures
Client A Reduced (on pollution constraints) from 600 to 450 sows, and from three to two full-time stock people.
Weight of saleable pork produced/herd/year
Before: 1336 tons After: 1,137 tons
Income: 10.5% less Costs: 19.7% less
(Both corrected for price movements)
Net profit improvement: 6.44%
Producer's comment: “This — and less hassle, too.”
Client B Delayed weaning from a theoretical 21 days (actual 23 days) to a theoretical 28 days (actual 30 days).
Feed costs: 10.6% less Fixed costs: 8.7% lower
Total costs: 9.4% lower
These results incorporate lowered productivity per sow and increased farrowing spaces needed from later weaning.
Producer's comment: “We shall not be weaning so early in future.”
Client C Moved from intensive flatdecks (11-55 lb.) in 20 pigs/pen to “big pens” with approx. 250 pigs/pen, on straw.
Flatdecks “Big Pen”
Daily gain, lb./day: 0.765 0.873
Mortality, %: 2.7 1.3
Liveweight/ton of postweaner food, lb.: 450 547
Producer's comment: “On this basis, the cost of converting the flatdecks to other accommodation plus the extra straw costs will be paid back in 1.3 years. I look forward then to shipping 1.4% more pigs, 11 days quicker with fewer vet/med costs!”

Another Option?

The second trend is, I think, very interesting indeed. This is the inclination to step sideways and look again at what we have been trying to do since I first entered pig production in the early 1960s. That is, to produce more at less cost by whatever new means, technology or economics presents itself.

This type of pig producer has stopped wondering if he has been pushing things too fast and too far.

More and more people, bruised by long runs of low profits (or worse), and frustrated by “won't-go-away” viral diseases, are reverting to less intensive strategies. Such things as:

  • Later weaning (28-32 days);

  • Giving pigs more space and softer (bedded) floors;

  • Putting sows outdoors where the circumstances are favorable;

  • Growing gilts more slowly towards first service;

  • Putting more fiber into breeding herd diets;

  • Spending twice as much on pre- and postweaner link feeds (but saving three times over in feed costs by slaughter weight);

  • Investing in batch farrowing on three-week or five-week rhythms (payback in 1½ years).

All of these trends I've described and tried to quantify econometrically, in this journal and others, throughout the world over the past three years.

Grassroots Evidence

I am convinced that this trend has now become a groundswell of intent, a whole movement in itself, based on the results from my clients who have adopted, experimented, and taken the plunge to not go for “performance at all costs.”

I welcome the change because their disease problems are less. Stress-induced reduction in performance is lower. Their weight of saleable pork per ton of feed is, on average, about 17% higher. This alone generates another 31% more gross profit in the finishing barn alone. There is another 10% margin rise in the breeding units. Some difference!

So impressive have been the variations I've come across that I am starting a second textbook, entitled “The Thinking Man's Way of Rearing Pigs.” Table 1 shows some results.

I guess the U.S. is equally split by the two methods. If I am right, it will become a growing debate in the near future, as it now is in Europe.