Feed prices remain volatile with sharp increases followed by temporary decreases, depending mostly on global crop forecasts, level of speculation interest in the agricultural market, biofuel production, and worldwide financial uncertainty. Most experts agree that feed prices will remain high for the foreseeable future, and as such, we need to ensure all possible measures are taken toreducethe impact of nutrition on overall cost of production.
When we discuss feed cost we focus mainly on how to reduce the cost per kg of feed and (or) improving the efficiency of converting feed to sellable products, such as meat, milk, and eggs. But, there is another area where we could anticipate substantial savings if a long-term strategic plan of feed use is considered; always with the help of a qualified nutritionist. This area is ‘feed management’, or more correctly, ‘feed budgeting’.
Feed budgeting refers to the combination of two things: (a) which feed to use for a specific class (by live weight or age) of pigs, and (b) how much, or for how long, to feed this feed. For example, a first-age piglet feed, that is designed to be fed to piglets immediately following weaning, can be used at 0.5, 1.0, or 2.0 kg per piglet, or for four, seven, or ten days, post-weaning. Each regimen gives different results, both in terms of growth performance and financial outcome. In some cases, it might be beneficial to use the maximum allowance, but this must be reconsidered if the conditions enforce a more judicial use of expensive feeds.
Below are four major areas where feed usage can be re-evaluated towards reducing the overall feed bill by switching to a less expensive feed sooner. In some instances, especially where safety margins in designing the nutrition program have been generous, performance and profitability will not be noticeably affected. In other cases, the reduced animal performance should be weighed against the reduced feed cost, and the least ‘damaging’ scenario should be selected. In other cases, a complete lack of financial liquidity might be the enforcing factor towards a less expensive feed program, despite any losses in animal performance and even long-term profitability. In such cases, we need to know where we can ‘cut corners’ causing the least possible damage.
1. Piglet feeds
Piglet feeds are the most expensive diets, when discussing cost per kg of feed, but their contribution to overall feed cost is usually less than 10%. Still, we can consider a number of ways to reduce the use of these feeds without losing much in terms of performance.
The first intervention regards the use of the first diet post-weaning. In this case, it is advisable to make small reductions in the amount or time this feed is used. So, if the first diet is fed at 1 kg per piglet, it would be interesting to observe what would happen if only 750 g of the same feed were offered. Or, if this diet is being fed by days, say seven days post-weaning, it would be again interesting to observe results with feeding it only for five days. Of course, the remaining amount or time should be compensated with the following second-stage diet. The same action can be followed for the second diet, but the most dramatic impact can be achieved towards the end of the nursery period. In fact, about two thirds of overall feed cost and use occur in the third and final phase of the nursery, see Figure 1. Here, instead of reducing the nutrient specifications of the final nursery diet (the most common approach), it could be considered beneficial (if practical) to introduce the grower diet, first for the final week before moving the pigs to the grower house, and then perhaps extending this period a little further. This method, apart from the obvious cost saving effects, has the added benefit of ‘acclimatizing’ the pigs to the new (and often quite different) post-nursery diet while they are still in familiar (lack of moving, mixing, and novel pathogenic stress factors) surroundings.
2. Gestating sows
The most common observation in visiting sow farms is that most gestating sows tend to be overweight. If this happens to be the case, then feed allowance can be reduced by 250 g per sow per day until sows achieve a desirable weight (see Table 1). Perhaps more aggressive feed cuts can be implemented, but care should be taken for a gradual implementation avoiding sharp decreases (or increases) of feed intake. Here, it is highly recommended to employ the services of a qualified nutritionist to design a nutrition programme that will allow gestating sows to be fully productive while remaining lean and healthy. Avoiding overweight sows, brings not only substantial feed cost savings, but reduces birth problems, and enhances feed intake during lactation (resulting in heavier piglets).
3. Lactating sows
There is not much that could be done here. Sows are very efficient in converting feed into milk and consequently into piglet body weight gain. Thus, the highest feed intake is considered desirable because low-weight weaned pigs are very costly to feed and raise. But, there is a small opportunity in controlling feed use even with lactating sows. It regards the time from the entrance to the farrowing room until birth. For practical reasons, some farms use the lactation feed during this period (which can be from a couple to up to seven days). But, if the gestation feed is used instead, some small, but not insignificant, savings can be realised. The same gestation feed can be used right after weaning, and until the first service, in those cases where the lactation feed is still used as a means of improving sow body condition.
4. Growing pigs
As in the case of nursery pigs, growing pigs can be challenged with the next diet in sequence earlier than anticipated. Again, in some cases performance will not be affected, but in others, performance will be reduced, especially in terms of feed efficiency. However, this drop in performance should be weighed against the cost of achieving higher performance results.
In the growing phase, the number of diets used can range from one (single
-phase) up to ten (multi-phase). There is considerable debate which is the best, with most nutritionists and producers preferring an intermediate solution, with three to five diets being the norm (for dry feeding, because with liquid feeding systems it is easier to have more frequent changes). When feed cost savings are sought, reducing or increasing the number of diets should be considered. In most cases, it will be revealed that in small operations reducing the number of phases brings the best results, when the cost of feed mixing, handling, storing, and other logistics are considered. In contrast, in larger operations, increasing the number of phases can bring the best financial outcome. In either case, changes should be implemented gradually, usually by going one phase up or down, not only to safeguard against severe loss of animal performance, but also to get the staff in the farms and feed mills accustomed to the new programme.
In theory, each nutrition programme is designed by the nutritionist in charge to maximise profitability; by achieving the least cost-per-kg-gain on a whole-farm level. In practice, however, and especially when the nutrition programme is designed ‘gratis’ by a supplier as part of being a customer for a specific product or service, generous safety margins are included. This is understandable, to a degree, as the highest profitability was commonly associated with highest animal performance. In modern times, however, this ‘rule of thumb’ no longer applies, and common productivity indexes are not sufficient alone to predict profitability. A re-evaluation of these ‘older’ nutrition programmes usually reveals areas where savings can be enjoyed without sacrificing performance. Even reduced overall productivity might be deemed more profitable when the cost of feed is exceptionally high. Finally, it should be kept in mind, that challenging the feed budget is only one area where savings can be realised. Challenging the feed nutrient specifications matrix and implementing measures for improving feed utilisation efficiency are also meaningful ways of reducing feed cost. Ideally, all three areas should be considered together.