Whenever John Goihl and Dean Koehler think they've seen everything in feeding hogs, there's another day, another hog farm and another surprise.

The Shakopee, MN, nutritionists are partners in Agri-Nutrition Services Inc. They serve as nutrition consultants for hog producers in several Midwest and western states. Their top 10 feeding ideas that could make the biggest difference in profits on most hog farms are:

Customize Nutrition Programs. Koehler and Goihl formulate diets based on what is happening on a particular farm. Diets that work for the producer down the road may not be right for you, they say.

"We had a case where the hog producer had extra finishing space so he bought pigs of the same genetic source that he produces and there was day and night difference in how those pigs performed," Goihl adds. Diets must be tailored to include management, type of facilities, health status and genetics, he says.

"Another client has both modern confinement facilities and buildings that are more exposed to the elements," says Koehler. "We have formulated two different nutrition programs for that hog producer."

Using their Agri-Nutrition Service Grow-Finish model and Sow Lactation model, Koehler and Goihl draw on herd data from clients to help guide diet recommendations for a particular herd.

Farm-specific nutritional planning starts with gestating sows and follows through to producing the carcass that maximizes profitability.

Evaluate Feed Additives. There's nothing wrong with feed additives when they're needed. The problem Goihl and Koehler find is additives often don't get taken out when they're no longer adding value.

"Producers and nutritionists often assume that the diets on file, are what's being fed," says Koehler. "But we had a case where we checked a client's current file diets against those actual diets being fed and found about $8/ton of additional feed additives and antibiotics.

"Different things had been added at different times - extra minerals, vitamins and trace minerals, fiber and some antibiotics. But nothing was ever taken out. The owner was shocked that all those additives were still in there."

The situation often occurs when a consultant suggests trying an additive in the diet for 30 days, it may or may not solve the problem, but six months later somebody realizes that the additive is still being added.

Use Real Numbers. Production records are too often accepted as the gospel truth, says Koehler. Unfortunately, a lot of records have incorrect data because proper controls weren't used in the gathering process.

"We had a hog producer who routinely over-filled pens to start with and then would pull six or eight pigs out of each pen later on. That distorted daily gain, feed intake and conversion. If you formulate diets based on that, you're going to make mistakes that cost dollars," Goihl explains.

Accurate recordkeeping must be a priority. "You need a series of close-out records because they vary," says Koehler.

Nursery production costs are a classic example. A lot of people use a fixed cost per pound of gain as a benchmark. But if you start with a lighter weight pig, your cost is going to be higher. There will also be a big difference if pigs leave the nursery stage at 40 lb. vs. 60 lb. Even if the starting and ending weights are the same benchmarks are still subjective. Health, facilities and management play a major role in determining nursery feed costs.

Your weight parameters don't have to be the same as everybody else's. What's important is that you count the pigs right, measure the feed right and record the numbers accurately. Then, diets can be formulated to fit your system.

Think Profit Vs. Maximum Performance. Koehler says achieving maximum daily gain, feed efficiency and lean premium goals does not guarantee the most profitable outcome.

"For example, we can look at whether or not to use fat in finishing diets," he explains. "If we want to get maximum feed conversion, we are going to add fat. But if I look at fat cost vs. grain sources at the current time and consider the impact of that fat on the carcass, I might decide to not use fat in that diet."

Using a corn production analogy, he says you can keep fertilizing until you get tremendous yields but the added cost of fertilizer may exceed the value of added bushels long before you hit that maximum yield. It's the same with hogs except it's even more complicated when you factor in the effect of fat on the carcass and the economic impact of extra weight and backfat under different buying systems.

Increase Sow Production. "If you are going to get production throughout the whole sow herd, the key is to get sows fed correctly during lactation," Koehler stresses. "Producers go to great lengths to get sows that mobilize excess body stores in lactation back into condition during gestation. The futility of this strategy is proven by high breeding herd turnover rates. Sows that lose excess lean tissue simply will not last in your herd.

"You have already lost it as far as re-breeding if she is losing condition, especially body protein, during lactation," he adds. "You will likely have trouble with re-breeding and small subsequent litter size."

When replacement gilts are being raised under a fixed price contract, Goihl suggests some negotiation and cooperation is needed to ensure that the gilts are properly fed. This strategy will assist in ensuring optimum breeding herd performance.

In truth, if the person raising those gilts feeds them properly, it costs him more. But, proper feeding likely reduces his customer's culling rate and extends parities in production.

Gilt buyers need to calculate the benefits of having gilts stay in the herd longer. They may even find it's worth paying some of the extra cost for both feed and the sale of fewer gilts.

Avoid Waste In Starter Diets. Excessive nursery feed costs may result from over-feeding of the first few stages of the pig starter program. They eat good, look good, says Goihl, but it costs.

As pigs advance through the typical nursery diet phases, the cost of the diets decreases. Therefore, you want to get them to that last phase and lower cost as fast as you can. It's costly to continue feeding early diets any longer than necessary.

One of the problems is uniformity of pig size in the pens. It's not unusual to overfeed the big ones in order to provide for the smaller ones.

Another problem is simply the small amount of feed often needed for early phases, say 800 lb., but the mill sets a 1 ton minimum so that is what goes into the producer's feed budget. Some producers have even gone to bagged feed for these low volume, early phases, says Goihl. Look for solutions rather than overfeeding.

Maximize Uniformity. "There's a big benefit to having all pigs in a weaning group within a week of the same age so that they are uniform when they go into the growing and finishing stage," says Koehler. "If there's a two-week (or more) range in age, we need to phase less aggressively and avoid just aiming at an average of the nutritional needs. If you feed for the average, you will leave the smaller pigs behind and create a greater spread in market weights."

Fit Feeding Phases To Your Farm. Some operations use as many as 12 to 16 grow-finish diet phases. Goihl and Koehler take a more practical approach, suggesting producers match diet changes to what's realistic for their business.

"We recommend to most producers that they use four to six phases," says Goihl. "As you go from two feeding phases to four, the savings are pretty dramatic. Even up to six, the savings are significant. But economic calculationsshow that each additional phase beyond that might save you only a few pennies per pig. And that's the theoretical savings. All pigs within a group do not have identical nutrient needs. Overly aggressive phase feeding programs will not meet the needs of pigs with the highest requirements and may wipe out much or all of that savings."

When you get to 16 phases, for example, Koehler says that is close to being absurd. "We saw one program where the difference was 8 lb./ton of soybean meal between the final two diets," he explains. "The best feed mills we have out there have a plus or minus 5 lb./ton tolerance. Therefore, we can't even attain an 8-lb. difference with accuracy."

Take A Broad View. Problems come disguised in many ways. A problem may look like a nutrition problem when it might be caused by health, genetics, environment or management.

"We can usually recognize what genetic, health, environment and management problems look like," says Goihl. "But, as nutritionists, our job should stop at recognizing them and reporting them to the right specialist."

"It's best when all who are needed for a particular problem are there at the same time rather than communicating through the producer," says Koehler.

Think Business, Not Volume. Size of operation has no influence on who is susceptible to nutrition problems, say Koehler and Goihl. The mistakes may just carry bigger dollar signs.

"Some of the most sophisticated diet formulations are being used in 200- to 300-sow operations," says Goihl. "We have also seen some of the sloppiest efforts in very large operations."

In fact, rapid expansion can be an underlying cause of problems. "The big concern becomes whether the contractor is going to be there on time and if the finishing unit is going to be ready by the time pigs are ready to go in it," Koehler explains. "That's why some of the most basic things get overlooked."

Gene Berger developed an extensive spread sheet to put on his office wall. It shows the benefits of the $35,000-40,000/year he saves on protein costs.

"If anybody tried to get me to change my feeding program, I could show them what my nutritionist helped me do," he explains. "That kind of savings drops right to the profit line."

Berger operates a 300-sow, farrow-to-finish business at Norcross, MN.

"A feed company sold me on the idea that I could afford to feed more protein because it would eventually pay for itself," Berger explains. "I doubted that and as I was talking with several feed companies and nutritionists, John Goihl and Dean Koehler indicated that the amount of protein we were feeding seemed a bit high."

That "a bit high" was over $35,000 per year. Even spread over 300 sows, it was nearly $120 per sow - every year.

Did It Affect Performance? "We monitor both rate of gain and feed efficiency," says Berger. "We also get cutout information. We found no change. The extra protein wasn't doing anything for us."

You can relate that savings to a lot of things. It could be a pretty good standard of living for a family. Berger looks at it as a way he can afford to have somebody grind and mix the diets for him.

Long Term Sows It's harder for Don Herzog, a Rapelje, MT, producer to put a dollars and cents value on the nutrition help he received. He sells most of the production from his 300-sow operation as feeder pigs.

The biggest benefit he's seen since taking the nutritionists' advice is that his sows stay in the herd longer than sows in many other herds.

"When Goihl and Koehler looked at our diets, they felt our sows were borderline on lysine during lactation," he says. "They averaged 4 to 4.5 litters per sow." His nutritionists note that many herds are in the 2 to 2.5 litter parity range. "We could have dropped to that level pretty fast as we pushed our sows harder," Herzog adds.

He kept track of all feed fed during lactation and 21-day litter weights. Then the nutritionists put it all together in a sow model.

"The diets are formulated to meet the needs of the top one-third of the sows," Herzog explains. "That means that, on the lower end, we are probably over-feeding a little. But the nutritionists point out that if we don't feed those highly productive sows to their potential, they won't stay in the herd long.

"The key is that the diets are tailored to our herd," he adds. "All herds are different because of weather, facilities, management and feedstuffs. We use barley as the main energy source, for example."

Herzog says he's been told that, on a body weight basis, a top-producing sow will produce more pounds of milk than a high-producing dairy cow.

One definite benefit he has seen is that 21-day litter weights are a higher percentage of the sow's weight than they ever were before.

"If you're expecting that sow to wean a litter and breed back in five or six days, and repeat that cycle every five months, that's a lot of pressure," says Herzog. "There are probably a lot of sows that are under nourished. But it shows up in reduced performance one way or another."