Driven by high corn and protein prices in 2008, Gary Thome and sons, Matt and Pat, have invested in a system of robotic hardware, wireless communication capabilities and a comprehensive feeding software package for Matt's new, 2,400-head, grow-finish barn aimed at getting the right feed to the right pigs at the right time. Retrospectively, even as feed costs have moderated, the Thomes feel the Feedlogic FeedSaver S (stationary) series system will pay for itself within two years.

Tucked in the rafters between the two rooms of the double-wide barn near Adams, MN, is the FeedSaver feed blending and delivery system. Four, 14-ton bins — two filled with a high-lysine base diet, two filled with a low-lysine base diet — are positioned at the end of the 122 × 164 ft. facility to move the base diets to the FeedSaver blending hopper.

When 45-50-lb. pigs are placed, gilts are loaded on one side of the barn, barrows on the other. The racetrack design from Hen-Way Mfg., Inc., Fairmont, MN, naturally creates pig movement in a clockwise direction through a series of four, one-way gates and pens, which eventually leads to a water court and an Automated Production Systems (AP) auto-sort scale.

During the first two weeks, pigs are put through training paces by moving them down one pen each day. After the fourth pen, pigs cycle back through the water court and the weigh scale — their only route back to the feeders.

Each side of the barn is divided into two major pen segments. The east pen, equipped with six, 8-hole, wet-dry feeders and water stations, claims one-third of the space, while the west portion accounts for two-thirds of the space and features four large pens with 15 wet-dry feeders running down the center of the pens, including supplemental water stations.

With the one-way gates locked open, pigs move freely from pen to pen the first week after stocking. The next week, the one-way gates are reset and pigs are moved through the pens to get them in the habit of moving through the barn.

Stocked with 1,000-1,200 pigs per side, the scales record 900-1,000 “hits” per day, indicating roughly 85% of the pigs cycle through once the routine is established. Of course, there's no way of knowing if the hits are exclusive, but Matt Thome feels it's unlikely that many pigs make more than one complete cycle per day. As pigs pass through the scale, it captures a running average weight of the pigs in the room.

The one-third, two-thirds barn split is at the heart of the design because the scale sorts the lighter pigs to the small pen where feeders contain a higher lysine diet.

“At first I just used the average weight from the prior day and set the scale to sort the ‘below average’ pigs to the small pen,” Matt explains. “The pen was too crowded, so I tried sorting off pigs that were 5 lb. lighter than the average. Then, there were too few pigs in the pen, so I settled at 3 lb. lighter than the average, which sorts off about one-fourth of the pigs. The stocking density is lower than the large end pens, an added benefit because the smaller pigs are usually less competitive at the feeder.”

Diet Changes On-the-fly

Swine nutritionist John Goihl, AgriNutrition, Inc., Shakopee, MN, has developed a multiphase feeding program using Feedlogic's feed consumption curves. Diets are tailored to gilt and barrows, respectively.

“John has calculated the very first feed the pigs should get and the very last feed pigs should get,” explains Gary Thome. “The system blends a different percentage of the first and last diet every day. So, the pigs start out at 100% of the first feed and as they grow, the percentage changes to 100% of the last feed as they reach market weight.”

“If you are sorting pigs by weight and you are feeding Phase 2 and 3 diets, then the light pigs are sorted to the small pen with the Phase 2 diet, and the rest get the Phase 3 diet,” Goihl explains. As the pigs approach the middle of the growth curve — between 120 and 150 lb. — they are receiving a 50-50 blend of the two diets.

The high and low diets are balanced using similar levels of synthetic-L lysine, which provides a consistent level of the amino acid regardless of the blending levels. “The Feedlogic system is driven by feed consumption, like any phased-feeding program using weights against standard feed consumption,” Goihl explains. “The multiphase diets are allocated to specific pig weight ranges easily tracked by the weigh scale.”

The process is seamless because the system is always using the same two base diets. Added benefits include fewer diets to manufacture and the flexibility to create different feeding programs suited to feed ingredient costs and pig performance requirements.

Next Page: First Closeout

Previous Page: Diet Changes On-the-fly

As the Thomes launched into the first turn in the new barn, Matt consulted regularly with Feedlogic's Drew Ryder. Feed intake data from Kansas State University and other sources helped establish a working feed consumption/growth curve.

“We had to tweak the curve a little bit the first time through to get the pigs back on the curve where they should be at a specific weight,” Matt explains. “As we refine the curve, we will be able to adjust for winter/summer and other variables. Every turn presents different challenges — time of year, pig health, stocking density — but I think the more turns we have, the more predictable their growth curves will become.”

“There's a ton of management to this facility compared to the average grow-finish barn,” Gary Thome explains. “But if we weren't feeding on a curve, about half the time we'd be over-feeding and half the time we'd be under-feeding a diet.

“Last summer's $7/bu. corn and higher soybean meal prices drove us to look at the better environmental control of tunnel-ventilated barns and more efficient use of feed. We need to get as much out of every bit of feed that those pigs eat — and we need to put it into pork and not burn it up by the pigs trying to stay warm,” he says.

First Closeout

The first group of single-source pigs was marketed 85 days after placement, the last 24 days later (Table 1). The 2,408 barrows and gilts averaged 50 lb. going into the barn and 270.2 lb. at market. Average daily gain for the group was an impressive 2.15 lb./day, with 32 mortalities subtracted as they occurred. Average daily feeding intake was 5.9 lb. for the complete turn, for a feed:gain ratio of 2.74. The feed-use summary showed 40.12% high-lysine diet and 59.88% low-lysine diet was fed during the turn. Feed cost averaged 10 cents/lb., with a cost/lb. of gain at 29 cents.

“This was an excellent closeout compared to the industry average,” Goihl notes. Matt Thome agrees, noting it could have been even better if the pigs could have been scheduled for delivery to the packer on a timelier basis.

Carcass weights edged upward in the fifth through eleventh loads sold. “Eighty-five percent hit Hormel's red box; if I could have averaged 200-lb. carcasses, I could have placed 90% in the red box,” Matt assures. Hormel's preferred (red box) carcass weight range is 167-229 lb. with less than 1.10 in. of backfat.

Matt attributes the impressive first closeout to the high health and even weights of the pigs coming out of the nursery. “Part of it was we gave the smaller pigs an opportunity to catch up by not forcing them to eat what the ‘average’ population was eating,” he says.

The second group placed in the barn has had some health challenges. “They had a PRRS-related (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome) challenge, so I expected a huge range in weight. Some were sick, got over it and took off, but some may be chronically sick and not grow as fast. I think this system is going to pay for itself in a different way this time in that the less thrifty pigs are sorted off to get a better diet with less competition at the feeders,” he explains.

Pat Thome has a grow-finish barn with the same design except it has conventional feeders and a standard phase-feeding program. His barn will serve as a “control” barn to compare to performance in the FeedSaver-equipped barn over the next several repetitions.

Learning Curve, Payback

Matt Thome says the remote capability of the Feedlogic system is another advantage, because he can track feed consumption on his laptop from anywhere Internet access is available.

“I know what's in those bins all of the time,” he explains. “I can order feed 3-4 days ahead of time because I know what was in the bins yesterday and I know exactly how much of the high-lysine and low-lysine rations they eat daily, so I can predict when the bins will be empty.”

When the system is blending 50-50, high- and low-lysine diets, it delivers about 1,800 lb. of feed/hour. Toward the end of a finishing cycle, a drawback is the system can barely keep up when the pigs are eating nearly 100% low- lysine diet.

“Having a big hopper at the feeder is a big deal. Our feeders hold roughly 280 lb./feeder, so if we start with full feeders at 5 a.m. and the pigs hit the feeders all day long, the system is running almost constantly (to keep the feeders full) for about 20 hours/day. The feeders will not fill up until after midnight when activity begins to die down,” he says.

The Thomes plan to add another bin to meet the high feed demands toward the end of each turn. “It won't get feed to them any faster, but it will ensure we have enough feed on a three-day weekend,” Matt explains.

Next Page: Nursery Application

Previous Page: First Closeout

Typically, there are 150-200 pigs/pen in the large-pen area. If a feeder plugs or if Matt turns feeders off to check them — which he does a couple of times during each turn — the pigs leave those pens.

And, because there are essentially no aisles in the barn, “You have to walk the pens to check feeders and waterers, so the pigs get used to you,” Matt explains.

The large pens seem to suit the pigs, too. “From a pig comfort and pig welfare standpoint, there's next to no tail biting and lameness. Pigs don't get picked on or beat up because they can leave a pen anytime they want,” he adds.

“I think feed cost is the biggest issue we face,” adds Gary Thome. “Looking long term, if we can have a feed savings of 1.5 cents/lb., which some Australian work shows, and if average gain is 200 lb./pig, that's $2.50-3.00/pig — a realistic goal.

“Another advantage we have is we're a family operation and I feel very comfortable that we've got the management and expertise to get the most out of this system. With the way the industry is headed, one of the strategic advantages we have is management, so we need to capitalize on that,” he adds.

Nursery Application

Mark Schaefer, Taopi, MN, owner and manager of an 850-sow, farrow-to-finish operation, has completed six turns in a pair of 1,000-head nursery rooms equipped with a Feedlogic FeedSaver M (mobile) series system.

Of the six turns, Schaefer has data summarized on five. Table 2 summarizes the Turn #5 closeout.

The M-series differs in that it features a fixed rail mounted to the room's ceiling. A self-propelled feed hopper rides the rail and stops over each feeder, positioned by sensors mounted in the ceiling.

From the central computer bay positioned at the end of a hallway dividing the nursery rooms, Schaefer easily accesses two software modules. The control module allows him to manage and monitor the system. A customized virtual barn view displays the pen layout in each room, which allows him to manage the diet, time and frequency of feed delivery. A data module generates reports on feeding activities and tracks the diets offered. A wide area network (WAN) provides off-site access to the on-site, wireless network.

As each room is loaded, pigs are sorted by sex and into three categories — lights, standards and heavies. With a 20-pen diagrammed worksheet in hand, he goes to the computer and clicks on each pen in the virtual layout, placing it in one of the three categories.

The feed consumption curve is developed with the assistance of a Land O'Lakes swine nutritionist, tailoring it to the herd's typical feed consumption during the nursery stage with a little tweaking for genetics changes, as needed. Once placed on the curve, the pigs progressively move through three primary diets, transitioning from one to the next as they meet respective benchmark weights.

“The feeding curve is preset, so all I have to decide is which curve to start them on,” Schaefer explains. “In turn #5, the heavies get 1.0 lb., the standards get 1.2 lb., and the lights get 1.8 lb. of the pelleted diet (Table 3). “When they move to the transition (second) diet, the heavies get 3 lb., the standards get 4.2 lb. and the lights get 5.1 lb. of the grind-and-mix diet.”

Occasionally, a pen of extra light pigs is placed in the nursery, so the feeding system is programmed to skip their pen feeder so Schaefer can bag feed Land O'Lakes' Ultra Care pellets for 3-4 days before placing them on the feed consumption curve.

“The thing I watch the closest is making sure the pigs weigh at least 15 lb. before they move onto the transition diet,” he notes. This is accomplished by hand-weighing a few pigs in a pen to ensure they've reached the target weight. The procedure is repeated as pig weights approach 20 lb., the step in the feeding curve where each pig receives about 7 lb. of “high” blend.

The steps that follow continue along the curve, with the next blend being 90% high/10% low diet, then 80/20, 70/30 and so on until the last 10 days in the nursery when pigs receive 100% of low blend diet.

Feed, Pig Management

From 20-40 lb., the pigs are on high-low diet blends, but after 40 lb., they receive the low blend exclusively. Schaefer pulls out the nursery closeout sheet for the fifth turn on the FeedSaver system to illustrate a point: “The difference in costs between the high and low diets is $189/ton. The quicker I can get them switched over, the better,” he notes.

Next Page: Five-turn Summary

Previous Page: Nursery Application

“The most obvious thing is I can help the little pigs — the lights. Typically, you feed for the middle of the road, so the big ones get overfed and the small ones fall further behind. Those little pigs will do just fine if you get them on the right feed, early on, and you give them a little more of it,” he explains.

Schaefer estimates he saves 75 cents to $1/pig/turn. With each of the 1,000-head nursery rooms turned eight times per year, the net savings could be up to $16,000 annually. His feed costs are calculated on $3.50/bu. corn and $310 soybean meal, admittedly a little high, “but they're my actual costs,” he explains. “Any way you figure it, 60-70% of the cost of raising a pig is feed, so anything you can do to lower those costs is worthwhile.

“And, I think we will pick up more savings in the finisher because the nursery pigs are more even going in,” he says. The first set of the FeedSaver-fed nursery pigs were being closed out in a nearby finisher in mid-May. “I think we will have just seven light pigs in the 800-head barn,” he says. “I think I can take a week off of the tail-enders pretty easily by getting the light pigs caught up in the nursery. Everyone talks about barn utilization and evening out groups and I think we are accomplishing that pretty well.”

Five-turn Summary

Schaefer is particularly impressed by how quickly feed cost/lb. of gain can be calculated when a nursery room is closed out. The five-turn summary (Table 4) shows daily gain performance at or near 1 lb./day, which he attributes in part to feeding the lighter pigs better. “Any time you get close to a pound of gain per day — and you can do it in about 40 days — it's pretty good, particularly when most pigs gain about 0.85 lb./day in 50 days. That's about where we were before,” he explains. “My Land O'Lakes nutritionist tells me these closeouts are in the top 10% of the numbers they see.”

He gives some credit for the improved nursery performance to his switch to batch farrowing, which has given him healthier pigs vs. the co-mingled pigs placed previously.

Schaefer is anticipating a two-year payback on his investment. “Instead of getting bigger and bigger, I would just as soon get the best out of everything I've got,” he says. “You can't argue with the concept — it's the right way to feed pigs.”

Drew Ryder, product manager at Feed Logic Corporation, says a FeedSaver-M series unit installed in a 2,000-head nursery comparable to Schaefer's would cost about $34,000 today. A FeedSaver-S series, with feed blending capabilities similar to the Thomes' 2,400-head, grow-finish unit, would bid out at roughly $21,000. Additional operational and contact information is available.