The grow-finish phase is the most expensive phase of pig production, making it a critical period of a commercial swine farm operation. López-Vergé et al. (2018) suggests that this period represents 65% of the total cost of a pig with 110 kg / 220 lbs body weight. Managing costs, especially feed and facility expenses (the first and second-largest costs/pig, respectively), while simultaneously improving feed efficiency and reducing body weight variability, can be challenging for many swine producers around the globe.
In that scenario, monitoring and assessing any critical point is necessary to improve the success of growing hogs. Considering those, this article highlights five key principles for swine producers to consider when managing their wean-to-finish operations. Going from nutrition to environment, the practices reported in this article are not organized in order of importance. However, they are interrelated.
1. High-quality feed matter
Feed costs represent approximately 75% of the total cost in production, representing a major influence on profitability (Van Heugten, 2010). Thus, achieving optimal diets for pig performance at minimal cost is an approach equation that is well known for pork producers and swine nutritionists. In addition, no single diet formulation will work perfectly for all farms. That is why a clear understanding of the farm goals and objectives, aligned with the basic knowledge on how pigs grow, is critical when considering the best growing/finishing pig diet. Simple diets with higher quality ingredients may work better than expensive complex diets.
The Swine Nutrition Guide from Kansas State University suggests a systematic approach to designing a nutritional program for grow-finish pigs. It starts with determining the most economical energy level, then the lysine:calorie ratio, the ratios for the other amino acids, the standardized total tract digestible (STTD) phosphorus level, and finally, the levels for trace minerals, calcium, vitamins, and other ingredients. After that, monitoring the success of the diet formulation is important to make sure that projected growth performance targets are being achieved.
Particle size and the feed form are also important characteristics that can affect feed efficiency that must be taken into account. The size of the grains and cereal particles can influence nutrient digestibility and can potentially cause ulcers, which may affect the development and growth of the pig. Altering the feed form by pelleting the feed has been shown to improve the feed efficiency and average daily gain in grow-finish diets due to the improvement in nutrient digestibility and consequent decrease in feed wastage (Jo et al., 2021).
Another area to be critical of when considering feed quality is the quality of the raw ingredients used to manufacture feed and the potential existence of mycotoxins in grains. It is always good to test raw materials before placing them into a storage bin and when removing them from the storage bin to manufacture feed. Mycotoxins can negatively affect sows in breeding and farrowing, and affect growth and feed conversion of growing pigs.
2. Water management should not be overlooked
According to Patience (2012), 85% of a newborn piglet is comprised of water, which falls to just over 50% at market weight. Water is an essential nutrient for grow-finish pigs, as it regulates temperature, transports nutrients, excretes waste, lubricates, and participates in nearly every metabolic reaction in the body. Water deprivation also affects feed consumption, growth, and feed efficiency. Brumm et al. (2000) and Patience (2012) highlight that water:feed ratios decrease as pigs grow: an estimated water requirement for growing pigs would be 2.5 L/kg / 0.3 gal/pound of feed, and for finishing pigs is 2.1 L/kg / 0.25 gal/pound of feed. Further, the optimal water flow rate for growers and finishers is 0.750 to 1.0 L/min / 0.20 to 0.25 gal/min. However, additional water from the drinker must always be available, since water deprivation affects feed consumption, growth, and feed efficiency.
Water quality is another important factor to consider. In many cases, water evaluation is only based on subjective assessments of its physical characteristics (such as smell, color, temperature, taste, and composition). Water evaluations must also include the chemical parameters (which refers to mineral composition, conductivity, and pH) and microbial parameters (the number of coliforms per milliliter of water and presence of pathogens in the water, such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella sp., Cryptosporidium sp., and Enteroviruses). It is recommended that producers perform chemical and microbial analyses once or twice a year (Carroll et al., 2003), and during this interval, they should keep their water lines and equipment clean and functioning properly.
3. Biosecurity protocols are very important
Maintaining a good health status in finishers can be easier than in nurseries, as they have a better immune system by that age. However, farm managers need to remain vigilant, especially with the emergence and global spread of pathogens of swine, including porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) and African swine fever (ASF) (VanderWaal and Deen, 2018). Checking the health status of the herd on a regular basis is critical, since sick animals have a less desirable feed intake, feed efficiency, growth rate, and carcass composition.
The health status of pigs will only be as good as a farm’s biosecurity protocols; it’s not so much about treating them in a way that boosts their health, but rather preventing infection before it begins with appropriate biosecurity protocols. A good biosecurity program must include regular visits from the swine veterinarian; controlled movement of pigs, people, vehicles, and feed; a distance of at least 5 km / 0.6 miles from other farms; and a well-designed routine for cleaning and disinfection of facilities and materials. Swine producers must also monitor all the elements in the biosecurity protocol and always have a contingency plan in place.
4. Pigs are resilient, but only to a certain extent
Although grow-finish pigs are very adaptable, investments in genetics and nutrition can be rendered less effective when those animals are housed in uncomfortable environments. An ideal temperature would be somewhere around 18 ºC / 65 °F. When temperatures drop below a pig’s LCT (lower critical temperature), which is 14 ºC / 57 ºF, feed intake increases by 1.5 % per °C, and feed efficiency worsens (Renaudeau et al., 2012). In colder months, it is important to pay particular attention to the pens closest to the air inlets because they may be much colder than what the thermometers are reading, depending on where they are placed in the barn. Hot environments are also detrimental to a pig’s performance. Growth rate is expected to decrease in hot environments, approximately 0.03 to 0.04 lbs./day for every °C above 23 ºC / 75 °F (upper critical temperature) (Noblet et al., 2001). Although very important, monitoring temperature is not enough, since heat stress is also affected by relative humidity, air velocity, floor characteristics, and ceiling and wall properties.
5. Making correct decisions on marketing pigs
One of the key concepts in decision-making is marketing pigs on a fixed time or a fixed weight basis. A fixed time strategy is employed when space is a limiting factor in pig barns. Therefore, from an economical perspective, diets that are more expensive may need to be fed in order to deliver heavy animals to the market. On the other hand, a weight-fixed marketing strategy can be used when swine producers are able to wait until the animals reach the recommended target weight. For this scenario, they need to have facilities that allow them to keep the animals until they reach the desired weight, demanding more investment in facilities due to variations in performance of the different batches. Both of these two strategies require a professional team in the field to help determine the economic optimal strategy to maximize the profit margin.
A good swine producer is a good decision-maker. In other words, they are aware of the economic implications of all the topics discussed above, as changes in diet and management may influence the economic output. Moreover, seasonality plays an important role in pig performance, and there are economic implications to be considered here. Applying a seasonality curve to predict ADFI and ADG should be considered in order to develop marketing projections throughout the year.
Swine producers and managers must consider these recommended practices to ensure that their grow-finish operation is on track. With that guidance, it is possible to determine where the main issues are in the pig farms and prioritize certain management procedures. However, it is important to point out that many other factors must be considered in order to deliver the best pigs to the market. It is worth noting that all those practices can affect and interact with each other. Therefore, swine producers must apply a holistic approach with their operations to ensure that everything functions properly.
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Carroll, C., & Teagasc, M. (2003). The importance of Water. In Proceedings of the Pig Farmers Conference.
Jo, Y. Y., Choi, M. J., Chung, W. L., Hong, J. S., Lim, J. S., & Kim, Y. Y. (2021). Effects of feed form and particle size on growth performance, nutrient digestibility, carcass characteristics, and gastric health in growing-finishing pigs. Animal bioscience, 34(6), 1061.
López-Vergé, S., Gasa, J., Temple, D., Bonet, J., Coma, J., & Solà-Oriol, D. (2018). Strategies to improve the growth and homogeneity of growing-finishing pigs: feeder space and feeding management. Porcine health management, 4(1), 1-9. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/s40813-018-0090-9
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