This looks like it will be a good summer to be a hog farmer, as an unexpected drop in sows in the United States is driving up hog prices.
Other commodities have been rising in value over the past eight months and it looks like hog farmers will get some of that momentum.
Why it matters: Hog farmers have had a rough year, as pandemic-related shutdowns at pork processing plants and sluggish trade movement put a damper on what could have been a healthy 2020.
Tom Stein, senior strategic adviser with Maximus Systems, took attendees of the London Swine Conference through some of the most important innovations he sees happening in the swine sector.
He recently saw lean hogs listed as the world’s top-performing major asset, as prices jump.
“We know it doesn’t always continue this way,” he said. “Almost all the profit over the past few years has come from hedging and risk management.”
He said there’s more understanding in the U.S. that piglets born need to have a processing destination, after shutdowns in processing due to COVID-19 last year meant that some hogs had to be euthanized and prices dropped.
Ontario producers understood that reality years ago as processing spaces have been tight here for years. American producers have had more choice, but Stein said there won’t be as many who assume that they can find a processing space for their pigs when they are ready for market, after 2020’s tribulations.
In 2021, however, Stein expects that hog prices could hit a record. What will happen when people return to restaurants? he asked.
Most hog farms continue to run their pig flow weekly, although the batch farrowing system has become popular in Ontario. For those farrowing and weaning weekly, the number of pigs weaned weekly is an important key performance indicator, says Stein.
If sows on a farm are producing 28 to 30 pigs per sow per year, a multiplier of 0.55-0.6 can be used to figure out how many pigs need to be weaned to maintain pig flow. For example, in a 1,000-sow operation, with a multiplier of 0.5, 500 piglets should be weaned per week.
Stein, who has been involved with benchmarking for most of his career, says he’s seen farms as low as 0.3 and as high as 0.58.
Limiting variability in pig flow is important to maintaining efficiency.
Manage targets, not performance, he said.
“You have to go in and look for opportunities if your actual isn’t near the target.”
Farmers who allow piglets to suckle from more than one sow are finding their pre-weaning mortality decreases when the practice is adopted. Stein said Mark Schwartz, of Schwartz Farms in Minnesota, is working on a master’s degree in which he is studying the multi-creep, multi-suckle system. Shortly after farrowing, after the piglets have had their supplemental iron, dividers are removed in the farrowing room and the piglets have their choice of where to get their milk.
Tagged piglets show that they do mingle. Cross-fostering, where farmers move piglets to other sows who might have excess milk capacity, is a common practice. The multi-suckle, multi-creep system allows the piglets to do that themselves. Less-healthy piglets are moved to their own group of four sows and crates, so they don’t have to compete with all the rest.
Schwartz has found that pre-weaning mortality has declined by 36 to 43 per cent in three trials, and six per cent lower in one other trial.
Feeding sows more frequently
Smaller, more frequent meals before farrowing have been shown to reduce stillbirths in pigs from nine per cent to 5.6 per cent, said Stein. An American production group cut their stillbirth levels by that much by shifting to more frequent feeding for three or four days before farrowing and then for a week into lactation. The practice increased the amount of milk the sow had available and the average daily gain of the piglets.
The value of play for piglets
Providing stimulation for piglets is connected to better eating. Researchers measured the per cent eaters for piglets and it was found that adding rope or canvas to feeders enticed more of them to eat. The type of feeder matters too, said Stein. Researchers found that 70 per cent of pigs were eaters on feeders with rotary feeders with hoppers compared to rotary feeders without hoppers at 47 per cent and pan feeders at 41.5 per cent.
“It’s not about how much creep feed they eat…it’s that they do eat,” said Stein.