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Paying the Price of Hungry Pigs

Published on 1 October, 2006, Last updated at 05:20 GMT

By Jane Messenger

In a perfect world, your pigs would never run out of feed. However, out-of-feed events are a growing problem in nursery and grow/finish facilities.

"One of the main issues deals with feed delivery. As feed is increasingly made off the farm, getting feed delivered to bulk bins in a timely manner is a problem," says Mike Brumm, pork industry consultant, Mankato, Minn.

This responsibility falls back on the person who orders the feed, as well as the challenges of managing feed mills and trucks.

"Much of the challenge is in ordering feed," says Brumm. For example, in the case of contract growers, they are supposed to call the feed mill and order feed when needed. But he says there are horror stories of individuals not being able to order feed correctly, and the out-of-feed prospects are particularly a problem on weekends.

"For some reason, whether it involves owners or contract growers, many people have an inability to anticipate running out of feed on the weekend," he notes. "In general, producers vary in their abilities to anticipate an outage."

It's important to emphasize to employees and contractors that even if they call the mill on Monday to place a feed order following a weekend outage, they may not be able to get a delivery for a day or more because of full schedules.

"Producers need to make a conscious effort to place orders and get feed delivered before it runs out," says Brumm.

Still, there are a lot of pork producers who struggle with the out-of-feed issue. That's why there are products available to monitor feed bins, and remove some of the guesswork.

Several systems available for electronic monitoring attach to a phone line, so when the feed reaches a pre-determined level, the system automatically sends a fax to notify the feed mill. You can set the feed level that triggers the fax.

The challenge, Brumm says, is that these electronic monitoring systems can cost you $400 or more per bin. But that may ultimately be a small price to pay given the consequences of running out of feed. Check with your local equipment supplier to determine what a monitoring system would cost for your operation. Brumm expects several more monitoring products to surface in the coming year as more producers become aware of the severity of running out of feed.

"Keeping feed in the bin is clearly the responsibility of the animal caretaker," says Brumm. "But the responsibility of keeping feed flowing with limited bridging events, goes back as far as the nutritionist - in terms of choosing ingredients."

To measure the effects of repeated out-of-feed events, Brumm conducted a study on barrow performance in a wean-to-finish facility, beginning 37 days after weaning. There were four pens of pigs per treatment, and the treatments involved zero, one, two or three out-of-feed events every two-week period during a 16-week grow/finish trial.

The out-of-feed events consisted of researchers closing the feed-delivery device at Noon, and reopening it at 8:00 a.m. the following morning. This created a 20-hour period when there was no feed available. Researchers randomly selected the out-of-feed days from Monday to Thursday for each two-week period.

During the study's first eight weeks, increasing the out-of-feed events from zero to one, two or three times during each two-week period, caused declines in daily gain and daily feed intake. Average daily gain decreased from 1.85 pounds per day to 1.66 pounds per day, and daily feed intake dropped from 4.1 pounds per day to 3.7 pounds per day.

For the second eight-week period, there was no effect on daily gain or feed intake. Brumm doesn't have an exact answer why that happened, but thinks it's partially due to the fact that as pigs get bigger, they are able to eat more feed at a time, leaving them with more in reserve.

During the study's first eight weeks, in the 24-hour period after feed became available, pigs with an out-of-feed event ate 12 percent more feed than the control pigs. During the second eight weeks, these pigs ate 25 percent more feed than the control pigs. It appears that during the second eight-week period, the out-of-feed pigs modified their eating behavior to eat more feed when it became available.

In total, there was a decline in overall daily gain when the out-of-feed events increased. (See table for more information.) But there was no effect on feed conversion or on the severity of scratches and lesions on individual pigs. Brumm scored pigs for scratches, cuts and bruising every two weeks as an indicator of pig welfare, but found no difference in tail biting or lesions.

These recent results support Brumm's previous studies that conclude repeated (one random day every week) 20-hour, out-of-feed events result in a decline in daily gain, especially during the animal's growing period (from 40 pounds to about 140 pounds).

This study is a follow-up to last year's work that found if you run out of feed once a week (for a 20-hour period that began at noon) it is detrimental to the herd's feed performance. Out-of-feed events seem to be more critical during the day than at night, but researchers are still looking at this.

Fact is; pigs simply don't make up for out-of-feed events.

The second reason why out-of-feed events occur is that once feed is in the bin, it doesn't flow out because it bridges. Brumm says this issue has increased as producers strive to improve feed efficiency and change feed ingredients.

The finer the feed grind, the more likely it is to bridge. According to Kansas State University researchers, if you use roller mill and high-fat feed, you can't grind feed to less than 600 microns. If you use hammermill-ground feed with added fat, you can probably grind feed closer to 700 microns before it starts bridging. It all depends on your ingredients and the amount of fat you add to the pig's diet.

While adding fat to swine diets improves feed efficiency and energy utilization, you can't get carried away. Some producers can use 5 percent to 6 percent added fat in meal diets without too many problems, while others can't use more than 3 percent to 4 percent. Increasing amounts of distillers dried grain solubles further increases feed-flow difficulties.

As for feed grind, Kansas State researchers suggest monitoring feed-particle size at least daily or weekly. They also suggest that you have an on-site monitoring system and send a sample of feed to a commercial lab for particle size analysis once a month to verify that your system is working properly.

"Bridging is tough," says Brumm. "We grind feed fine to increase feed conversion, but that causes more problems getting it out of the bin." There are several products to add to bins that supposedly help address feed bridging, but the jury is still out on how successful those products are and some are expensive," he adds.

Some of the products include screens, a vibrator or mechanical hammer for the feed bin, and an inverted cone that changes how feed flows out of a bin. These devices cost anywhere from $125 to more than $1,500 per bin. Check with your equipment supplier for a cost estimate for your operation.

Something of a hidden price to feed interruptions is the prospect of increased morbidity and mortality rates from gastric ulcers.

"Finely ground feed is more fluid when mixed with digestive secretions in the pig's stomach and causes higher acid secretion compared to a more coarsely ground feed," says Mike Tokach, Kansas State animal scientist. "As a result, more acid in the stomach comes into contact with and irritates the esophageal region of the stomach. Ulceration frequency increases when particle size drops below 600 microns."

Then there's the welfare issue that out-of-feed events present. "We tell critics of our industry that we house pigs indoors to better provide for their needs, but how good of a job are we really doing?" asks Brumm.

Your best option for the health, well-being and productivity of your pigs and your business is to make sure your pigs don't run out of feed. Otherwise, you'll have long-term economic consequences that will add up over time.


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