Sights set on the finishing line

While observing Monitor Farm the key focus has been predominantly on the breeding herd. Now attentions are turned to the finishing herd and how to increase production efficiency and the “pig quality” both supplied to and sold from the enterprise, as Jane Jordan reports

Weaning weights are good at Monitor Farm, and continue to be a significant production barometer. As the business aims to produce a 100kg weaned litter, this realistic target will help to drive down total herd FCR.

In 2004 the average weaning weight was 7.62kg per pig, with litters averaging 65.27kg in total. In 2014 the weaning weight was 8.32kg with an average litter weight of 91.80kg. During the past 10 years, sow productivity, in terms of “pig weight” produced per breeding cycle, has increased by 26.53kg as result of higher numbers weaned and heavier weaning weights. The total weight weaned/sow/year has increased by 77.75kg during the past decade (the equivalent of an extra litter).

The weaners delivered to Monitor Farm’s rearing herd are nutritionally transitioned and good quality. Piglets are currently coming off the field at more than 8kg liveweight, are healthy, vigorous and have a genetic capability (on paper) to grow in excess of 950g/day. Current records show that the four-monthly average for growth rate on one contract site is 720g/day (from 7.9kg to 52.2kg liveweight). Also, the last two batches of finished pigs from three production sites have achieved 827g/day from 49.7kg to 107.4kg.

This performance is good by any standards, but it’s clear some elements of the production process are compromising performance. As a whole, the herd is missing out on a significant chunk of genetic potential – 123g/day at the top end during the final stage.

Collective obscurity
Unlike the breeding herd, rearing pigs are viewed collectively, as batches or groups positioned at various stages in the production process. Targets are set for each stage, but “variability” factors mean these figures can only ever be average expectations. The key to improving finishing herd performance and efficiency is to be more specific; to recognise where potential is hiding or where it is being undermined. By breaking down elements of the production system, and analysing how it might be curtailing growth and/or masking opportunities for better productivity, finishing herds would get a better understanding of loss and how to reduce it, says independent pig business consultant Stephen Hall.

The first consideration is litter weight. At Monitor Farm, 100kg will be achieved this year. However, the variability of individuals within each weekly batch of weaned piglets, in terms of size and conformation, is wide-ranging and unpredictable, and varies from week to week. Consequently, the product supplied to the finishing enterprise is inconsistent.

The team has made changes to the service/mating routines to further alleviate any potential stress in the critical period immediately after mating – particularly in the 21 days post-conception. This will hopefully optimise implantation rates and the even distribution of embryos in the uterus, and help maximise foetal development.

Research suggests that a more even spread of embryos throughout the uterus benefits placental establishment, which in turn improves the supply of nutrients to every developing piglet.

“Birthweights do benefit when embryos share an equal amount of uterine space,” Mr Hall says. “Foetal growth is more uniform, so logic follows that tissue development will be more uniform too. And that muscle fibre will ultimately become the pigs’ lean meat output.”

At Monitor Farm, served sows have some boar contact, but the sires don’t run freely with them. The paddocks are spacious and positioned away from busy areas of the unit, and an extra hut has been added in each paddock, so there are copious indoor lying areas offering shade and/or shelter. Every sow has “personal space” – with room to avoid trouble – and the atmosphere is calm. This stress-busting concept appears to be paying off.

The first batch of sows managed under the new regime farrowed litters of evenly sized pigs. Numbers born seem to have benefited too, as almost 10% more of this batch have produced litters in excess of 13 born, with more than 7% of them producing litters of between 14 and 16 pigs. The litter birth-weights of these sows are good too, with robust piglets of uniform size and minimal competition at the teat. Managers are now investigating how factors such as nutrition and condition scores might influence birth weight rather than litter size.

“Many factors influence conception, implantation and foetal development – they are interrelated,” Mr Hall says, “but studying the outcome of management changes made at service and through gestation might provide further insight into achieving a more consistent foundational birth weight across all parities.”

Onward journey
The rearing herd at Monitor Farm is fed ad-lib using a range of compound diets. Piglets are fed creep from 10 days of age and this diet is continued for the first week post weaning. A second-stage diet is introduced gradually during the second week, depending on piglet size and development; this is followed by a grower ration given between 25 and 40kg liveweight, followed by the final finishing diet.

Records show that growth seems to plateau while pigs acclimatise to a new ration and the merits of a two-diet regime (late-stage nursery to finish) is under review. This strategy means pigs would only be subject to one diet change (excluding initial creep feed) during the rearing period and it might alleviate the flat-line periods in the growth curve. If managed well, it could access more of the potential available in this genotype.

“Data shows that the genetic response expressed in growth rate in UK herds appears to be at its best in the grower stage,” Mr Hall says. “Sadly, most finishing pigs don’t appear to capitalise on the earlier growth momentum.”

The stockmen at Monitor Farm also feel the straw-based production system could be managed more precisely.

The recent introduction of split-sexing at weaning – following discussions at the BPEX Innovation Conference in June 2014 – is proving both physically and financially worthwhile. Boars appear to be growing faster, are less aggressive and exhibit reduced riding behaviour. FCR is also slightly better. Gilts, although achieving lower growth rates, seem to be responding well in terms of FCR and carcase uniformity.

With no “boar” contact, their reproductive urge is quashed, so energy supplied is used for lean meat production rather than building fat reserves and reproductive tissues.

Other areas under review are environmental controls and health status/welfare. The team feels a greater understanding of how inputs – namely feed and water – are being used will allow improvements to the production process, cut costs and enhance the pigs’ health and well-being.

Investment in a part-slatted, fully controlled, continually monitored production system is being considered for one finishing site. The economics appear very favourable, but it’s not an option elsewhere due to contract obligations and financial constraints. However, the team believes improvements could still be made to the naturally ventilated buildings to improve management of the production process. Environmental monitoring would allow better control of internal temperatures and ventilation. Installing fans to improve air quality, especially during the summer months, might also improve respiratory health.

Upgrading the insulation of these buildings would improve thermal efficiency and less bedding would be needed. Muck disposal isn’t an issue, but handling straw/manure does incur considerable costs (fuel and time), so reducing the volume of straw used has significant economic implications. Also, straw is becoming more expensive and there have been quality issues in recent years due to wet harvests. This has influenced pig health, and mycotoxins remain a concern.

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