Trends in US swine production: feed costs, sow management, going beyond litter size, the use of AI and growing welfare concerns

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/DarcyMaulsby
© GettyImages/DarcyMaulsby

Related tags: grower pigs, efficiency, sow management, welfare, artificial intelligence

Challenges from the past year have changed the focus in US swine production. Priorities have moved from increasing performance to optimizing performance through more efficient and sustainable cost of production strategies, say three US industry insiders.

“That’s especially true with feed prices on the rise,”​ said Sergio Canavate, technical services manager at swine genetics company, PIC.

Focusing on cost of production puts more emphasis on enhancing foundational management practices, said Canavate.

Fred Kuhr
Fred Kuhr, production supervisor for sows and finishing at Dykhuis Farms, Michigan, US

“We need to ask ourselves, are the right feed management strategies in place? Is body condition scoring accurate and consistent? How can we manage sow body condition better through feed?”​ remarked Fred Kuhr, production supervisor for sows and finishing at Dykhuis Farms, a pork production operation in Michigan with 19,000 sows, and marketing about 450,000 pigs per year.

Feed is a producer’s largest cost so grow-finish feed efficiency must also be a focus, according to Mark Knauer, associate professor and extension swine specialist at North Carolina State University.

He said US swine producers should find ways to influence grow-finish feed efficiency prior to weaning.  “If you can wean a quality litter, it’s going to help pig survival, performance, and ultimately, throughput. One way is to maximize weaned pig quality using known practices like increasing weaning age, batch farrowing or improving gilt acclimation into the sow farm.”

Gilt and sow management, litter size

Gilt management isn’t a new conversation, but it’s more relevant now than ever before, said Canavate. “Breeding gilts at the right age and weight and keeping them in optimal body condition from the start will increase lifetime productive performance and retention in sow herds.”

Increasing litter size has been a primary focus for North American operations over the past decade. But Canavate said the focus on litter size will likely evolve to include more factors like piglet quality at birth and weaning.

“What does an optimal litter size look like for an individual operation?” ​asked Knauer. “Unless US producers use more nurse sows, provide supplemental nutrition for piglets during lactation or bolster sow lactation feed intake, litter size may need to plateau at some point.”

Reduced emphasis on litter size would allow for increased emphasis on other traits, such as progeny feed cost, he said.

Artificial intelligence  

Strategies to reduce labor needs while maintaining productivity and sow well-being are and will continue to be necessary, said Knauer.

Feeding pre-farrowing to reduce the need for farrowing assistance is one example. Smart barns and leveraging artificial intelligence technologies are another example and will go a long way to help control barn environment, organize pig flows and manage data.”

The sow business is going to experience a huge upsurge in technology predicted Kuhr.  “Employees are going to be exposed to more data, quicker. And decision-making will get easier because new technologies will help employees make more informed decisions on the spot.”

Sow farm data has been highly underutilized, but that could change with more advanced technology.

“Artificial intelligence algorithms will help get real-time answers to find more value from existing data,”​ said Knauer. “Five years ago, there were hardly any swine-oriented companies looking at artificial intelligence technologies. But now we’re seeing new companies move that direction to help manage farms more efficiently.”

Paperless technology, like handheld scanners, will be more common on sow farms. They’ll speed up data capture and information management, forecast Cavante.

Animal welfare

The industry is evolving with initiatives like California’s Proposition 12 and consumer concerns over antibiotic usage, he said.

“I'm seeing more group housing, less antibiotics and enhanced biosecurity protocols. These evolutions will require unique management strategies to keep pigs healthy and stay profitable.”

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