Extension swine specialists provide action lists to lessen the impact of escalating feed costs.

There is little doubt that the ethanol boom is driving corn prices higher, which will mean permanently higher feed costs for pork producers, declares Mike Tokach, Extension swine specialist at Kansas State University (KSU).

The sudden price hike caught producers a bit off guard. But he says they shouldn't delay exploration of all of the available alternatives.

“There are deals to be found, and people need to be watchful for opportunities. Unfortunately, as you'd expect, as the price of corn goes up, the price of all of the alternatives goes up at the same time,” Tokach says.

Tokach offers four tips to help manage current feeding programs:

  • Properly adjust feeders to minimize wastage. “Of course, proper feeder adjustment becomes much more valuable when you have high-priced corn, so make sure feeders are doing their job. This is also an opportune time to replace any old feeders or feeders that don't adjust properly. If you can't get the feed efficiency your counterparts in the industry are getting, then you certainly want to take a hard look at whether feeders are causing the problem, and if so, consider making a capital investment in new feeders,” he stresses.

  • Check particle size of the diet. Reducing particle size improves feed efficiency because digestive enzymes can access feed particles more easily, enabling pigs to improve growth performance when consuming similar amounts of feed, he explains. Fineness of grind is limited by flowability in the feed system.

    “Some of our grow-finish farms are starting to push that particle size down closer to 600 microns, because going from 700 to 600 microns is worth about 60¢/pig with current corn prices,” Tokach adds. Producers need a roller mill to reduce grain fineness to that level and still have acceptable flowability.

    As corn prices rise, producers will also start taking a hard look at pelleting. “We avoided pelleting diets in most of our Midwestern hog operations up to now, because of concerns over cost and problems with poor pellet quality. But pelleting allows you to get the benefits and feed efficiency of finer particle size, and your feed system can still handle it,” he says.

  • Make sure diets are thoroughly mixed. Poorly mixed diets translate into poor growth performance and feed efficiency due to inadequate utilization of the diet.

    “We certainly have found problems on operations either not allowing long enough mixing time, or still adding feed ingredients during the mixing process. Consequently, there is not enough mixing time from the last ingredient being added until the feed is dumped out of the mixer,” Tokach states.

    Adding alternative ingredients that are higher in fiber (dried distiller's grains with solubles) or lower in energy (fat) requires a lot more feed to be mixed, which results in less time to get the job done. Don't short-circuit the mixing process. Take the time to do it properly.

    Also, don't short-circuit nutrition in late-finishing diets. It is commonly thought that one of the easiest ways to reduce the cost of the diet is to lower the protein levels or the amount of amino acids in late-finishing diets. Tokach says that is a total mistake right now, for two reasons:

    “First, feed efficiency becomes poorer very quickly if you go below the pig's lysine requirements in the late finisher. You will actually increase feed usage considerably when you do that.”

    The second problem with reducing protein content late in finishing is that soybean meal prices have not risen nearly as fast as corn prices. There is not as much savings to be gained as it appears, meaning producers can end up increasing feed usage and cost by reducing amino acids in the diet.

  • Double check to ensure that feed budget targets are being met. Don't overfeed diets. Check feed efficiency to see if it is on target with the feed budget. If not, it often means that previous, more expensive diets have been overfed.

“This has really become an issue with diseases like porcine circovirus-associated disease (PCVAD), when you've got a disease that is causing 8-12% mortality,” Tokach emphasizes. “People set up their feed budgets based on the original number of hogs placed in the barn. With PCVAD, most of those pigs die 4-6 weeks into the finishing phase, resulting in overfeeding the feed budget the rest of the way through finishing.” When that happens, remember to adjust the budget to reflect the actual finishing barn inventory, he suggests.

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Sow Feed Management

Overfeeding gestating sows is another common production practice that should be adjusted in these times of higher feed prices, Tokach reminds. Average feed intake of gestating sows on a typical corn-soy diet should range between 4.8 and 5.2 lb.

Plus, be a little careful with some of the new lactation feeders. They are good systems that take some of the labor out of farrowing, but if not managed right, they can end up wasting feed, he cautions.

Feeding Program Review

When reviewing your feeding program for potential areas of improvement, start by focusing on high-impact areas (feed usage) and the most expensive diet cost factors (energy, protein, etc.), before turning to lower-impact solutions, says University of Nebraska Extension swine specialist Duane Reese.

Base results on economics. “Feed cost/ton is the worst measure you can use,” he says, “because it gives no consideration to pig performance or revenue. Better measures are feed cost/pound of gain, feed cost/pig marketed or profit/pig. The best measure is returns/pig space.”

To ensure your feeding program is economically sound, consider implementing some of these 26 tips:

  • Shop around for specific ingredients. For example, you may want to switch from a supplement to a base mix or from corn to wheat midds, fat, milo or dried distiller's grains with solubles. “You may want to replace some soybean meal with meat and bone meal or crystalline amino acids,” Reese advises.

  • Shop with specific standards in mind — dietary lysine, for example. Make valid comparisons.

  • Place a realistic value on convenience and service from feed suppliers as you decide whether to use a complete feed, supplement, base mix or premix as a method of supplying pigs' nutritional needs.

  • Be sure that each feed ingredient meets the pigs' needs, or has consistently improved feed efficiency, average daily gain, reproductive performance or carcass merit. “Some producers still use ingredients in feed that are not necessary, do not consistently improve performance or provide excessive levels of trace minerals and vitamins,” Reese says.

  • Take steps to tailor diets to your pigs under your production situation to cut the odds of underfeeding and overfeeding nutrients. “That means knowing your pigs' rate of fat-free lean gain, feed intake and 21-day litter weight, and adjusting diets accordingly,” he says.

  • Don't overfeed nutrients when pigs reach about 190 lb. During this time, pigs eat about one-third of their total feed needs, and their daily lean gain is decreasing.

  • Be sure to budget feed, switching pigs to the next, lower nutrient-dense diet in the sequence after they have consumed a certain amount of each diet. Don't guess weights and switch diets.

  • Split-sex feed. Provide barrows with a lower amount of amino acids than gilts, especially after they reach about 80 lb.

  • Phase feed by offering at least seven different diets to pigs from weaning to slaughter.

  • Evaluate the use of growth-promoting levels of antibiotics during grow-finish for their economic payback.

  • Offer diets with an average particle size of 650 to 750 microns. Feed efficiency should improve by about 1.2% for each 100-micron reduction in particle size. “A 1.2% change in feed efficiency represents about $0.60/pig, based on a current diet cost of about $150/ton. If six months or more have elapsed since you last sent a feed sample to a laboratory for particle size analysis, do it today,” Reese urges.

  • Use breeding stock that are selected for increased rate of lean growth. The energy cost of producing fat is about four times greater than that of lean growth.

  • Improve the health status of your pigs. All-in, all-out production flow is a key factor in keeping health status high.

  • Establish a euthanasia program for your farm or review the current program with your veterinarian and employees. Very poor-performing pigs consume a large amount of feed and medications, and should be humanely euthanized.

  • Work with other producers to coordinate feed ingredient purchases in large quantities to qualify for volume discounts.

  • Buy ingredients in bulk rather than bagged whenever possible.

  • Evaluate having your feed pelleted if it is toll-milled. “Pelleting a corn- or milo-soybean meal diet improves feed efficiency by 5 to 8%, and is more likely to pay off when feed prices are high,” Reese notes.

  • Set realistic feed targets and know your herd's feed efficiency, average daily gain, feed cost/cwt. of pork produced and return over feed costs. Benchmark performance to identify areas needing improvement.

  • Reduce feed wastage by keeping feeders adjusted. In general, less than 50% of the feeding trough should be covered with feed.

  • Remember that having the lowest feed cost/cwt. of pork produced doesn't always result in the most profit. A more precise approach to nutritional decisions is to use partial budgeting to evaluate cost and revenue figures.

  • Build a relationship with your feed supplier that is more likely to lead to success when questions or problems arise.

  • Consider pricing feed ingredients in advance to help manage input price risk (some form of forward contract).

  • Develop methods of purchasing and delivering feed and feed ingredients to reduce the risk of disease introductions.

  • Use well-designed and carefully selected on-farm research trials to determine feeding strategies.

  • Project total costs associated with on-farm feed manufacturing and compare to a custom rate. “Some producers are better off not manufacturing their own feed on the farm, because it can be done for significantly less expense if toll-milled,” Reese says.

  • Establish a feed quality control program regardless of whether feed or feed ingredients are purchased or grown at home. Monitor key physical and nutritional attributes of the feed ingredients. Obtain more details at the University of Nebraska/South Dakota State University Swine Nutrition Guide: http://www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/epublic/pages/index.jsp?what=publicationD&publicationId=704.