31 March 2015 | Online since 2003

27 January 2009|News

United States-Increasing Pig Production.


An Indiana-based gilt multiplier remains focused on more pigs per sow each year by improving genetics and sharpening management skills.

Increasing pigs numbers is a worthwhile goal as it translates to more pigs out the door, lowers cost of production and drives profits.

For Jon Hoek, director of production strategy for DeMotte, IN-based Belstra Milling’s swine division known as the Belstra Group, increasing litters also means increasing the potential for gilt sales.

The Belstra Group is comprised of 11,500 sows, producing gilts at five multiplication farms in Indiana and Illinois. About 65% of total available gilts produced are available for sale to PIC as Camborough gilts to clients in North Carolina and throughout the Midwest. The "non-select" gilts and barrows are shipped to the IPC packing plant in Delphi, IN.

30 pigs per sow Goal, Challenges

As the first decade of the 21st Century nears an end, the Belstra Group closes in on its goal of producing 30 piglets. The poster child for achieving this goal has been Max-L Farms near DeMotte, a 1,950-sow, breed-to-wean farm built in 2002 that produces the PIC Camborough-22 gilt line.

"Max-L Farms has been at 29.1 pigs per litter for the last three years and averaged 30 pigs for about 45 of the 52 weeks between June ’06-May ’07," Hoek reports.

But he emphasizes Belstra’s 30 pigs goal doesn’t come easily.

"That goal comes with challenges that means it may not be right for everybody to pursue," cautions Kurt Nagel, former manager of the 1,150-sow unit known as Iroquois Valley Breeders, a Belstra gilt multiplier. He now serves as finances/production and environment director for the Belstra Group.

"Some of the challenges stem from the fact that when you start to build a farm, you don’t normally build the nursery-finishing flow for 30 pigs," Hoek explains. "Therefore, once you’ve got the numbers higher than you ever dreamed — it can cause an issue downstream in finishing with crowding and growth challenges if you do not react quickly enough," he adds.

Belstra has avoided increasing finishing space for the additional pigs produced as they continue their drive to reach the 30 pig goal.

"We have negotiated long-term relationships for weaned gilt and feeder pigs to avoid major off-site finishing building projects," Hoek remarks. "You have to remember with multiplication you can’t just throw a finisher down anywhere. There are strict requirements for biosecurity and health when planning a new building site."

"You have to have the confidence that you can maintain that level of production because you surely don’t want production to slip after paying for additional facilities," Nagel warns.

Producers need to think about the health and the quality of pigs they are weaning, too. "You can get to 30 pigs per litter by weaning marginal pigs," Hoek points out.

"But why pay for survival of non-Grade A pigs that won’t make you any money just to play the numbers game?" Nagel asks.

Some have questioned whether having a 30 pig target is practical or sustainable. Litters with 15-18 total born will often have some non-viable runts that are intentionally euthanized to prevent suffering. This increases preweaning mortality by 3-4%, but allows the rest of the viable pigs to express their genetic growth potential.

Nagel says PIC genetics are doing their job, with some of the farms averaging near 14.5 total born and 13 born alive, meaning efforts to consistently hit 30 p/s/y are within reach.

"We are in a continual process to improve the health of our farms for our customers’ sake," Hoek says. Circovirus has challenged most U.S. farms, and Belstra has responded by instituting a preventative vaccination program on the farms producing replacement gilts.

"It is a program that measures our internal and external risks for attracting PRRS based on various production and management techniques," Hoek explains. External risks include things like neighboring pigs, highways and transport to packing plants. Internal risks cover how pigs and supplies are brought onto the farm.

"We have been monitoring our PRRS risk with this program for 4-5 years now. We have successfully quantified through statistical analysis that our farms have reduced our risk of PRRS infection significantly," Hoek remarks. "It is our desire as a breeding stock supplier to deliver healthy gilts to the customers’ farms so they can properly customize the acclimation of that animal to the health of the receiving farm," he observes.

"PRRS is a problem in the industry, and we sell a lot of gilts to both PRRS-positive and mycoplasma-positive farms, providing the customer flexibility by varying the times of isolation and acclimation, and size and age of the animal any way these customers would like to receive them," Hoek continues.

To farrow and raise large numbers of viable piglets also requires that many other reproductive parameters must be running on all cylinders, including farrowing rate, lactation length, preweaning mortality, non-productive sow days, parity distribution and sow mortality. Management and facilities must also be fine-tuned.

In order to provide better tracking of numbers , Belstra switched to MetaFarms’ recordkeeping programs. Hoek and Nagel believe the Minnesota-based service does a better job of tracking 20- and 40-week production periods and in annualizing the data.

MetaFarms also is a leader in data mining technology that allows the Belstra Group to customize data analysis of particular farms or barns. This information system has played a key role in strategic decision-making processes that allow Belstra to throttle these farms forward to maximum sustainable levels of production, according to company officials.

It All Starts with Gilts

Strict standards are used for gilt development. No gilts are bred until they reach 210 days of age, weigh a minimum of 300 lb. and are provided regular boar exposure.

Gilts receive periodic boar exposure in isolation to ensure they are coming into heat and to speed up maturity. The goal is to breed gilts on the third or fourth heat cycle.

"I think gilt development starts with isolation, making sure those gilts are first isolated for a minimum of eight weeks in a separate facility to assure that we are not going to bring something into the herd, healthwise, that we don’t want. And we can use that time for the gilts to get acclimated to whatever is in our herd," Nagel says. This also allows time for gilt vaccination and titer stabilization before entry into the breeding herd.

During acclimation, sow fecal material is used to expose the gilts to the gestation barn health challenges.

One area of concern for the Belstra Group is "tabletop parity distribution," which is how Hoek describes Max-L Farms’ leveled-out 3rd to 5th parities. To develop a more traditional parity curve and retain sows longer, Belstra has begun looking at management techniques with PIC researchers to further enhance sow longevity and minimize any negative production parameters on parity zero through parity two. (See Figure 2 to review 2008 parity performance.)

Even so, Hoek proudly points to Belstra Group’s sow mortality figures at less than 4% for the last three years.

Breeding Efficiency

An average farrowing interval of 142 days is achieved through farrowing rate improvements and deliberate management decisions at the multiplier farms, Hoek stresses. It’s monitored closely and breaks down averaging 115 days of gestation, 18 days of lactation, six days wean-to-first service inte



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