NORWICH — Knowing what each sow in his herd needs to be in peak condition has dramatically shrunk Graham Learn’s annual feed costs.
“There is money to be gained by being more precise.” says the Norwich pork producer. He feeds about 200 to 300 kilograms less feed per sow per year than the herd in his regional benchmarking group that has the highest feed usage.
With help from the swine team at Shur-Gain, Learn started measuring sow back fat when he built a new hog barn in 2007. Learn weighs sows before they head into the dry sow barn and about a week after breeding, he measures back fat with a laser probe called a Lean-Meater.
“That back fat basically tells us how much condition that sow has lost in lactation,” he says.
Research indicates there is a 35-day window for sows to put weight back on before all nutrient intake is used by gestating piglets. The back fat measurement and sow’s weight help to create custom feed programs for each sow during that first stretch.
“The first 35 days are critical to get her back in condition,” says Learn, who runs a 350-sow farrow-to-finish operation with his brother, Adam, his parents, Richard and Marlene, and his wife, Allison.
With piglets weaning above seven kilograms at 21 days, the feed savings are well worth the extra hour or two per week and the roughly $700 cost of the probe.
“Our total feed tonnage comes down, but if we aren’t getting milk capacity or kilograms weaned, it’s all for naught. Ultimately, we’re being a bit more precise in how we do things and still able to get healthy, heavy pigs at weaning,” says Learn.
Herd health is also on the rise. Sow mortality has held steady at under four per cent for the last five or six years and conception rate has gone up five to 10 points. Average pigs weaned per sow has increased from about 20 to 27 last year — the equivalent of a possible 2,450 more piglets per year.
Learn doesn’t know of any other Ontario farms using the system, but there are many that customize rations by giving sow condition a visual onceover.
“We’re just doing a little more math and looking at the science behind it to take it a bit further.”