Feed frenzy: curtailing your biggest cost

Industry stakeholders explore options to help curb rising feed expenses.

By Geoff Geddes

Unlike a barn upgrade or enhanced ventilation, feed for your pigs is not an optional expense. The right quantity and quality of feed is essential to proper growth, but as feed prices rise, so does the blood pressure of producers when trying to balance the books.

Given the importance of this expenditure, it is little wonder that scientists, industry members and producers continue to explore options for stretching their feed dollars.

“Because feed is our number 1 cost in production, anything we can do to reduce the amount needed has a huge impact on the producer’s bottom line,” says Dr. Daniel Columbus.

Columbus is a research scientist in nutrition at Prairie Swine Centre and adjunct professor in the department of animal and poultry science at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

While hog prices often rise and fall with no clear pattern, feed costs tend to follow a single trajectory: up. Fortunately for all concerned, the growing focus on feed has led to a number of novel approaches for cutting costs.

“Pork feed costs have gone through the roof of late,” says Dr. Malachy Young, president and manager of nutrition and research at Gowans Feed Consulting in Wainwright, Alta.

“In Western Canada, those costs have risen about $20 to $25 a head over the last year. As a result, we are working harder than ever to find alternatives and byproducts to lower nutrient levels while still meeting the pig’s requirements. At the same time, we must be careful not to underfeed nutrients that could inhibit performance, leading to lighter pigs and less revenue. It’s a fine line.”

Straddling that line is central to the evolution of feed research and development over the years.

Pig progress

“Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, we have a much better handle today of the requirements for modern genetics,” says Young. “Commercial research trials help us understand how animals respond to different levels of nutrients, and this knowledge supports more precise diet formulations based on net energy and digestible amino acids. In this way, we can feed much more closely to what the pig requires, rather than building in a buffer which adds extra cost.”

In one prong of current research, scientists are examining the effects of various processing methods on the nutrient contents of pulses, such as protein, amino acids, starch and fibre. Pulses are an alternative feedstuff that can be used to replace soybean meal, which is the most common protein source in pig nutrition.

As part of this exploration, researchers are investigating particle size, pelleting temperature and extrusion (a thermal processing method), and how these processing methods affect things like amino acid availability and fibre content.

“This work will compare different processing methods implemented by Columbus’s lab against a diet that is close to 100 per cent digestible,” says Dr. Anna-Kate Shoveller, associate professor in the department of animal biosciences at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

“We are always trying to find ways of helping animals get everything they can out of what they eat, while limiting what they excrete into the environment. To accomplish this, we need to process pulses so the protein is more digestible, the amino acids are more bioavailable (more of them are used by the pig) and less of these substances go to waste.”

The research focus in Eastern Canada is somewhat different, given the lack of alternative feedstuffs available in the region.

How the East was won

“We focus more on byproducts such as corn DDGS (distillers dried grains with solubles), canola meal and bakery meal,” says Dr. Marie-Pierre Létourneau-Montminy, associate professor in the department of animal sciences at Laval University in Montreal.

These byproducts are abundant in the East and have been used by pork producers in the region for many years, yet little was known of how the byproducts interact.

“We want to determine if we can put all of these ingredients together and, if so, what the optimal formulation will be that maximizes performance while minimizing cost,” she says.

Neutral detergent fibre (NDF) is the most common measure of fibre used for animal feed analysis.

“In a normal corn and soybean diet, the NDF is about seven per cent. By properly combining byproducts, we can go to about 18 per cent NDF, which may mean a 10 per cent reduction in feed costs without affecting growth performance,” Létourneau- Montminy says.

Another strategy in development in Eastern Canada is using cheaper cereals in pig diets. Some farms in Quebec are now incorporating fall cereals in their corn-soybean rotation, such as a fall hybrid rye that can be fed to pigs in place of corn and reduce feed costs in the process.

Dave & Lauren DeVries in swine barn smiling at camera
    DeVries family photo

As with many challenges, a multi-pronged approach may be the best strategy for reducing feed costs. In their 350-sow, farrow-to-finish operation outside Drayton, Ont., Dave and Lauren DeVries attack the issue on several fronts.

Sharpen up and bear down

“As pig farmers, we are always trying to sharpen our pencils and find savings where we can,” says Dave. “We raise a portion of our own feed every year and buy a lot of corn from neighbours in the fall, getting it at a discount because we combine and do all the handling of the corn once it comes off the field. We keep the corn in silos at 22 per cent moisture so we don’t have to dry it down, and feed made with high-moisture corn is much less expensive.”

pigs feeding at feeder
    DeVries family photo

In the barn, the couple set the feeder gap to stop an excess of feed from being released and wasted. They also insert pads beneath the feeders to capture extra feed and prevent it from falling through the slats.

“We use different rations in the barn as pigs get bigger, tailoring the ration to the pig and not overfeeding,” says Dave.

“There is only so much you can do, as you need to feed a pig at certain protein and energy levels, but we try and find combinations that keep ration costs in line. At the end of the day, it’s about sharp management. To keep your costs down, you need to keep an eye on everything and continually adjust your approach.”

Even seemingly small details like barn ventilation can play a role in feed costs. If temperatures are too cool, pigs will eat more to get warm, but very hot conditions may reduce their consumption and limit gains.

Given the high cost of nursery diets, some producers are weaning a bit older than the industry standard of 18-21 days.

“We wean at 24 days, and I know some producers who go up to 30 days,” says Dave. “You can cut feed costs in the nursery considerably with just a few extra days on the sow.”

Beyond these tactics, producers can benefit from a simple act that rarely comes naturally: asking for help.

“Make sure you are in constant communication with your nutritionist or feed representative,” says Dave. “They are a wealth of knowledge and are always looking for improvements, so they can tweak your diet as needed.”

Dave hosts an online Zoom forum called “Swine Online,” where producers discuss what they are doing on-farm in a variety of areas, share tips and tricks, and even give a visual tour of their operations. Though it began as a forum for Ontario producers, it has since welcomed colleagues from Saskatchewan and the United States. Information on the forum can be requested by emailing swineonline2021 @gmail.com.

Even with the progress made to date around feed, there is more to be explored in the years ahead.

Big data a big deal

“We will continue to make refinements in the area of precision feeding and big data,” says Columbus. “The more information we can gather, the more precise we can be in feeding every animal to its specific requirements every day, factoring in their unique environments and stressors, and feeding for different reasons.

“I think the idea of focusing solely on growth will only bring us incremental benefits moving forward. In an age where there is increasing focus on social licence, we need to look at a range of options, such as feeding for disease resilience and reduction in antibiotic use,” Columbus says.

As with many aspects of life, genetics will play an increasingly greater role in addressing feed costs.

“These days when the revenue side of the pork business is brighter than usual, we are seeing more efforts to en-sure pigs are marketed in the right weight range,” says Young. “Some producers are targeting even higher weights so they can put more kilos through their barn with the same number of spaces and generate higher revenues.

“As genetics continue to improve, we must give credit to genetics companies that have done a great job in producing the pigs of today. These animals are fast-growing and efficient, allowing us to optimize performance in a more cost-effective way while continuing to produce high-quality pork products,” Young says.

Of course, with all the focus on ingredients, it is vital to ensure that we can access them as needed.

“Going forward, we are concerned with ingredient sustainability,” says Shoveller. “We can create excellent diets, but if we can’t get the ingredients for them, it doesn’t matter. Food and feed will continue to go up in price, so making sure we are able to secure good-quality nutrition on a massive scale, without seeing major price fluctuations, is critical.”

While there is still work to do, there are signs that industry is making inroads on the feed front.

“In 1951, swine feed conversion rates were 4.7 kilograms per kg of weight gain; a ratio of 4.7:1,” says Stacey Ash, manager of communications and consumer marketing at Ontario Pork, citing a recent report carried out by researchers at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown campus.

“Today, that ratio is at 2.7:1, which represents an improvement of 43 per cent since 1951. Apart from lowering feed cost, improved feed conversion reduces the amount of land and water required to grow feed,” Ash says.

Though Shoveller doubts that pork can compete long-term with chicken or fish in terms of maximizing feed efficiency, she still sees hope.

“If we can get pigs using their entire diet and excreting less, it will make pork a more affordable food source.

“Still, a lot of questions remain: What will happen with lab meat? Will we eat insects? Will our children all become vegans because of concern over the environment or animal rights?

“Societal expectations are getting very interesting, and we must meet consumer demands and expectations for high-quality, nutritious food, whether for our animals or ourselves. The global population is growing so fast, and we need to find vectors to feed the people and produce more food. What does that look like?” Shoveller asks.

While no research project or on-farm tactic offers all the answers, the efforts of science and industry to target feed cost should nourish the producer’s bottom line for years to come. BP

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