Precision feeding for finishers can cut feed costs

Pig World editor Graeme Kirk reports from France, where the country’s Institute of Pork (IFIP) is looking at how tailoring a pig’s diet to its sex and growth stage can not only reduce the industry’s environmental impact, but increase production efficiency as well

Climate-change research is a hot topic across Europe and is even making an impression on the pig sector. BPEX, for example, is managing a project that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the overall environmental impact of the industry in Britain.

For researchers looking for funding, tackling climate change can present an opportunity to secure cash to carry out projects that could directly benefit pig producers. An excellent example of this is Project RERALIM being carried out by the IFIP at its Romillé research unit in Brittany. Co-funded by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency’s REACCTIF initiative, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and forestry, this particular project is looking at the opportunities for reducing emissions by feeding finishers on an individual basis to match the diet more closely to the pig’s needs.

The project is based on work from Canadian researchers who suggested that the precision feeding of grower/finisher pigs could result in savings of eight to 10% in feed costs by matching protein supplied in the feed to the pig’s requirements. But that’s only half the story; these savings also translate into a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact. You’re not only looking at a reduction of nitrogen in the pig slurry, but savings in greenhouse gases from reduced soya shipments across the world.

The IFIP project is looking at whether individual feeding for finishers can be successfully implemented in a commercial setting. Automatic sow feeders are now commonplace, but these are relatively straightforward compared to units for finishers that will need to be able to weigh the pigs as well. And then there’s the fact that a much larger number of automated feeders will be required to deal with the number of finishers on a unit.

The first phase of the project was to design the finisher room and feeding system. IFIP was fortunate to have a large 12m x 10m slatted room (that used to accommodate 12 pens of 12 pigs) at its Romillé site and this has been adapted to hold 100 pigs for individual feeding. Half the room is now allocated as pig accommodation, while the feeding system takes up about a quarter of the space and a sorting pen takes up the remainder.

The feeding system has three main sections: a single sorting-gate entry point; five feeding stations (one station is recommended for every 25 pigs); and an exit passage back to the pig accommodation.

The key element here is the sorting gate that has three roles: it identifies the pig via an RFID tag that each of the finishers has in its ear; it then weighs the pig; and it sends it one of three ways. If the pig has already eaten its full allocation of feed for the day, it’s sent straight back to the accommodation area. If it hasn’t eaten its full allocation, the pig will be allowed to access the feeding stations. And, if the pig’s ear tag is missing (or it has reached finishing weight and is highlighted for shedding), it will be routed to the sorting pen. Importantly, the pigs are only allowed to access the sorting gate when at least one feeding station is empty.

The whole feeding system and its control systems have been built for IFIP by French feeding equipment company Asserva. One of the most complicated parts of the system to get right was the sorting gate, which in its current version pivots at the rear and uses pneumatic rams to turn the pig towards the exit in the direction it needs to go. The crate is also fitted with four weigh cells – one at each corner – and an antenna to pick up the pig’s RFID tag.

The actual feeding stations are relatively straightforward and consist of a closed crate that the pig enters from the back and exits at the front. Feed is deposited into a shallow trough at the pig’s head that includes a sensor to tell the system when all the feed is gone.

The process for feeding the pig the required ration is remarkably simple and works from a two-hopper system – one containing a high-protein feed (typical of an early finisher diet) and another containing a low-protein feed (typical of that fed close to slaughter).

When the pig is identified by its RFID tag, the control system interrogates a database that uses the pig’s weight and sex to determine the exact proportions of each feed that will provide it with an ideal ration. Electric augers below each feed hopper then meter out each feed into a weighing point, from where it’s dropped into the feeding trough. The system will continue to dispense food until the pig stops eating or has consumed its daily ration.

The second phase of the project saw an initial batch of pigs put through the system in late 2013 to test it and ensure that everything worked as expected. When Pig World visited the site in mid-June, phase three was underway and a second batch of pigs was in the system and – with an average weight of about 85kg – was about four weeks from finishing. Another batch will go through the automated feeding system before the first results are released towards the end of this year.

The results from both these experimental batches will be compared to pigs that are being finished at the unit on a standard dual-phase feeding regime. As all the pigs are from the unit’s closed 160-sow herd and have similar genetic potential, it should provide a valuable insight into the advantages and practicalities of individual, multi-phase feeding.

Early observations from the work suggest that about 3% of pigs just won’t use the system and have to be switched to conventional feeding. It’s also been noted that the pigs will lose between 1-2kg in weight when they’re initially introduced to the system at about 25kg, although they soon compensate for this loss once they get used to this sophisticated feeding set-up.

Records from the system show that the pigs use the system around the clock, with many taking their first feed just after midnight when the system resets. The majority of the pigs, however, will have eaten their whole ration by about 7.00pm. Real-time access to the feeding information is available to the stockmen on the unit, and this can be used to look out for early signs of possible health issues in the pigs.

IFIP

Headquartered in Paris, the IFIP is a private research and development association that’s funded by a levy on pig farms and pork processors, the French government and income generated from projects carried out for public and private bodies across the EU.
With about 100 staff and a budget similar to BPEX’s £8 million, the organisation’s mission is to help the decision-making process throughout the pork chain, “from genetics to sausages”. It carries out this work with facilities that include two research pig units and a food microbiology laboratory.

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