There are no easy ways to manage and market lightweight pigs. Seek out solutions that fit your system and your packer, and pay attention to disease management, says a Minnesota veterinarian.
The U.S. pork industry faces up to $1.2 billion/year in pig attrition losses from dead, cull and lightweight pigs, says University of Minnesota Swine Center Director John Deen, DVM.
These three groups of pigs comprise the biggest source of weight variability and loss of profit in an operation, he argues. An estimated 30 to 35% of newborn pigs never reach acceptable market weight, translating into an attrition loss of $10-12/ head in grow-finish.
Deen lumps the three groups together because they are frequently one and the same problem.
“Often the dead pig is the cull pig that we gave a shot, which stopped the pathogenic process, but (the pig) never started growing again,” he explains.
Hog operations need to improve weight uniformity by developing a management program to deal with lightweights. Tighten down the range of weights produced in a group to boost their value at the packing plant.
Don't fool yourself into thinking that if you hold pigs back to equalize weight at weaning or at nursery closeout, that it will make up for age and slow growth, says Deen.
“Historically, average daily gain does make a difference, and so we end up with slow-growing pigs that in many cases came in looking pretty even,” he warns.
Don't view these slow-growers as a normal part of production, because they create huge farm inefficiencies. They generate higher treatment and mortality costs, as well as wreck weight distributions, says Deen.
They should be viewed as an opportunity to improve and implement intervention strategies.
“This is critical if we as an industry want to focus on increasing the value of our outputs, rather than continuing to just look at inputs and cost of production,” he adds.
Set key attrition benchmarks at 6-8% preweaning mortality, 2% nursery and grow-finish mortality and 10% for culls and lightweights in grow-finish.
Disease is a big part of attrition in grow-finish because it is where ileitis often strikes, says Tom Marsteller, DVM, Swine Technical Services manager, Elanco Animal Health.
Deen says enteric diseases like ileitis “create poor-doing pigs that grow more slowly.”
Tylan offers an easy, effective treatment for ileitis, because it prevents and controls all forms of the disease, improves performance and reduces mortality, reduces attrition and improves pig flow, says Marsteller.
Pork producers have several options for marketing lightweight pigs, says Deen:
Find an understanding packer who will pay top dollar.
Maximize weekly sorting strategies.
Run the barns longer so slow-growers hit target markets.
Revise the barn design to mechanize and improve sorting and marketing programs.
However, none of those options is a cure-all for the nagging problem of lightweight pigs. However, it's a problem which is naturally built into most production schemes, Deen says.
“All-in, all-out production forces producers to continue to close out buildings and sell lightweights or do something else with them,” he says.
Normal pig flow patterns and marketing schemes do not eliminate variation problems caused by lightweight pigs, he states.
Sorting can help reduce variation and capture some of the opportunity costs available to producers by moving pigs into weight brackets preferred by packers, Deen stresses.
Sorting is often criticized because it disrupts social order within a group of pigs. “Pigs do fight and grow more slowly, and there are welfare concerns, especially in small pens (40 head and under),” he concedes. But fighting only involves the heaviest group of pigs left in the pen, as they try to reestablish social order.
Sorting is also beneficial, because removing the heaviest pigs gives the remaining group a better chance to express potential growth.
Deen recommends sorting pigs weekly as they near market weights. Don't depend on eyeballing, because producers aren't a good judge of guessing actual weights; however, they are skilled at visually selecting the heaviest hogs.
The big beef over variation has been whether lightweight hogs are simply penalized on a pounds basis or whether there are larger profit losses from missing the packer matrix.
“If we compare a 210-lb. pig to a 260-lb. pig, in many of our matrixes, even at prices of $38-40/cwt., we are losing somewhere around $30-40 over feed costs with these lightweight pigs,” he explains.
At the retail level, lightweight carcasses drain profits mainly because there is little demand for small pork loins. Again, it's a matter of consistency. Loins must fit the box just as chicken breasts fit the box.