Feeding Finishing Pigs - The importance of regular meal times

By Nick Bird, FarmEx - This article looks at the effect irregular and missed feeding times has on the production of finishing pigs. As far as can be determined, every missed meal is lost growth. Lost growth means feeding a pig to keep it alive, but it's not putting on the weight that makes the money, so the farmer is effectively giving it room and board for no profit.
calendar icon 2 December 2003
clock icon 20 minute read


A question for all finisher producers - "Do you feed your finishing pigs?" Well, what can you say to such an insultingly bloody stupid question? "Of course I do." It's like asking if a pub serves drinks, or a restaurant serves food !

Ok, lets tighten it up a little - "Do you always feed your finishing pigs?" or "Do all your pigs get a meal every time they need it?" If - hand on heart - you can still say "Of course, without a doubt" then congratulations. You are one of a tiny chosen elite, and you deserve all the rewards that are coming to you.

If, on the other hand, you are like every farm that I have monitored - and I have no reason to suppose these are worse farms than the industry as a whole - then, sometimes, some pigs miss a meal.

Contrary to many people's hope, desires and expectations, it does not appear that pigs make up for lost meals. If they miss lunch, they don't eat two dinners, and that ever popular myth "compensatory growth" is just that - a myth. It's a story you tell yourself so it doesn't seem so bad like "never mind, we'll win next time". For growing pigs, there is no next time, they only have one shot at it. You can grow as many pigs as you like, but any one pig goes round the block only goes around the block once.

The vast majority of pigs are auger fed, and nearly all systems are automatic to some degree. Either entirely automatic - running as and when required - or semi-automatic - manually triggered, but stopping when full. It's not exactly rocket science!

But it goes wrong. The amount it goes wrong by varies a lot - from sometimes (on "better" or, perhaps, luckier farms) to nearly the whole time. Sometimes, there is no feed in the trough when the pig expects a meal.

It would be nice to think that pig farms were divided into those that have the problem - of sometimes not feeding pigs - and those that aren't. All the monitoring so far shows that this is not the case. Pig farmers are actually divided into those who have the problem and know they have the problem, and those who have the problem but don't know it.

There are many more of the latter than the former. Even those who know they have the problem do not, so it seems, have any idea how much it costs them. I say this because, if the worked out how much it costs, there is no way that they would let the problem persist which, in practice, they do.

According to the monitoring, the feed loss problem - missed meals - is, like disease status, a one way street. It only gets worse. And, usually, worse and worse. And then still worse. In this article, it is only possible to look at a couple of tiny pieces of the data - individual cases studies, but I'll try to use them to illustrate some general points.

Case Study of Progressive Problems

The following chart shows a comparison of auger operation on a new 7 room finishing site over a 30 month period. It's a relatively conventional system, set to run so many times a day, until the feeders are full.

The blue line shows a rolling average - how much the augers should be running. It's about 400 hours a month for all seven augers in total - a couple of hours a day for each auger, on average. This varies a little according to the age of the pigs in the individual sheds. The red line shows how much the augers actually run.

At the beginning, the two lines are pretty close together. The augers run pretty well as much as they are expected to run - that is, as long as necessary to deliver the feed that is being used. There is an occasional blip - such as due to a bin bridging. You'll notice that this occurs right from the word go!

As time goes on, it happens more and more, for longer and longer. After a couple of years, it shoots up. Increasingly, augers are grinding away for long periods. The exact reasons are not the point. The fact is, it starts off with a reasonably regular and consistent feed delivery system, it changes over a couple of years into something else.

The interesting thing is that the unit manager didn't report any particular problems with it. He said he had the odd problem with a level switch, or whatever, but nothing out of the ordinary. He wasn't particularly aware that anything had changed.

The crucial question is - were the pigs missing any meals? From simply monitoring auger motor run times, we don't know. (The data we'll look at later shows a way of finding out.) But, for the moment, we can at least guess that if the auger system seems to be acting erratically, it's likely that - sometimes at least - some pigs don't get the meal they were expecting. It would be entirely understandable if, at this point, you were to say - sure you can pick out any old data you want, analyse it as you like, and prove the point you're trying to make. As they say, "there are lies, damn lies and statistics".

The fact is, yes, I've picked out data from a particular farm and treated it in a certain way. I haven't done it for all farms (I'll come on to that later), and issues don't present in exactly the same way in all cases. But, so far as we can make out, it is "typical" - feed delivery becomes rapidly less consistent within a short time of the systems being installed.

How common is the problem?

Monitoring suggests it is a universal problem. All farms we have looked monitored with feed delivery monitoring appear to show that some pigs have lost meals at some time or another.

How recognised is the problem?

Probably, little to not at all - it's simply not on the map. It's interesting to note, for example, that a recent (and very good) producer's guide to problems in pig production - in a list of factors that may affect FCR mentions many things. On the feed side of things, it has all sorts of things such as energy or protein levels, dusty feed and so on, but doesn't suggest anywhere that occasional "failure to feed" is a likely cause of poor results.

This is not to criticise this particular book, merely to illustrate that it is not considered. As we'll discuss later, there are good reasons to suppose that occasional feed loss may produce undesirable effects in all kinds of areas.

It is not "on the map" because it is so obvious and easily dealt with. Clearly, any but the most ignorant and feckless producer feeds his pigs regularly, and also checks to see there is feed in the hopper. Seeing there is feed in the hopper is not exactly difficult! In most cases, the problem is easily and immediately fixed, as soon as it is discovered.

It is the "rapid cure as soon as it is discovered" that conceals the problem. Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that you find the phone has fallen off hook. Put the phone back on the hook, pick it up again - you've got a dial tone. Easy, we've all done it. When that happens, don't you wonder - just a little bit - how long it's been off? Do you think - I wonder if that's why I wasn't getting any calls? Do you make a quick mental check and say "Who did I call last - has it been on line to my cousin in Canada all that time?" If your last call was to your overseas cousin, you'll probably get a slightly sick feeling at the bill in prospect.

Exactly the same situation pertains in lack of feed. You can put the problem right, but you have no idea how long the problem was there. And unlike the telephone, you don't get a bill. Or at least, you don't seem to. Every hour the hoppers - any hoppers - are empty costs money in lost growth, but there is no bill, there is only lost growth and lost performance.

Case Study of a Persistent Offender

In one case, a contract grower unit repeatedly produced poor performance - FCRs often in the upper 4's or even higher. Not always, but often enough. Despite repeated visits by field supervisors, and fiddling with this or that aspect of buildings, no cause could be found. The pigs were reasonably healthy, and they looked quite ok - all the usual things were checked. Naturally, the hoppers were always full when anyone looked. And then monitoring was put in. Which revealed that loss of feed delivery was on a dreadful scale. Things came to a head when this happened.

This is part of a screen capture from Barn Report, showing about 8 days of feed and water intake in one of the buildings. The green "spikes" show auger runs (for two augers) and the red line above them shows the daily total auger run time. Pigs were without feed for nearly 3 days.

The blue line shows daily water intake pattern, and the red line above it shows daily water intake total. Water intake drops from around 1400 gallons a day to only about 300. As a matter of interest, the drop in water intake - when they had no feed - shows how much of the water intake is due to feed - in this case, nearly 80%. It may seem particularly surprising since this was hot weather. Daytime temperatures were peaking at over 30ºC. Many people think pigs drink more in hot weather. In practice, net intake may be down because the high temperature (and difficulty in losing heat) suppresses appetite.

Note that pigs set to - eating and drinking as soon as the feed was delivered. But, though intake was higher on the next day - they got a gut fill and more - the intake subsequently was down as compared to before the incident. It took some days to recover appetite fully. These pigs were close to finish weight and, at a conservative estimate, this individual incident cost several thousands pounds. Not that the farmer responsible lost this. It seems to have been due to failure to order feed. Being a contract grow-out unit, the farmer is effectively a unit manager (though he owns the buildings). He got paid whatever, for use of his buildings and labour - though, clearly, no performance bonus!

An isolated incident, surely, everyone makes mistakes? Further examination shows how often this farm had "isolated incidents". Here's the same building a fortnight earlier.

In these two feed losses, the problem seems to be bin bridging. Times are not shown on these charts, but in both cases, feed stopped at mid morning, and didn't run again until around 7:30 the next morning (when presumably the pigs were checked again).

These two feed losses would probably not even have "registered". They were out of feed but, so what, it just ran out during the night - no problem.

Contract production - why no monitoring?

When you see data like this, it suggests that producers who contract growing and finishing to other farms show a touching faith. They give a contract - of various sorts, but often simply a "bed but no breakfast" arrangement - to a farm who has the right kind of buildings and are assumed to know what they are doing.

But the actual checks on what they do are, to say the least, rudimentary. Mostly, it amounts to no more than the farm's own reports - do you check the pigs? "- "Oh yes". Now that remote monitoring is relatively easy to achieve (through such as Barn Report), and performance relies so much on what the farm does, one wonders why contract producers are so slow to put such measures in place.

But contract grow-out is only a particularly extreme example of the way production runs. On owner-managed farms, the owner assumes he knows what is happening, because he (or she) does it. On farms with a unit manager, the owner tends to assume that he can get a good enough picture from his regular (or less) visits, and that the unit manager will tell him whatever he needs to know. And so on down the line.

The impact of loss of feed

Data logging shows that loss of feed is a common - and as in the example just above - sometimes overwhelming issue. But what exactly happens?

To some extent, we're guessing, because - unlike nutrition (or rather, the nutrition which is assumed to occur!) - feed companies don't do trials aimed at finding out what happens when pigs don't get the feed that they have so carefully formulated. The research assumes the pigs get the intended feed. Since it is such a widespread problem, there seems to me a good case for the UK production-funded body to do some research on it. (A personal view, but it seems to me research into problems that most producers do have, rather than investigating methods that probably won't be generally adopted might be more worthwhile.) However, I think we can make some reasonable guesses.

The first is an overall simple and straightforward loss of growth. If - for any moment in the pig's production cycle, we assume a "normal" growth and a certain "maintenance" ratio, the impact of a loss of intake can be calculated. (Forgive me if the actual numbers and ratios are wrong, but just to illustrate a way of working it out.)

Suppose at a certain age the pig normally eats 2.8kg of feed - which is twice maintenance (2M) - and grows 700g a day. At, say, £100 a ton, that means 700g of growth (at this time) is worth 28 pence. However, intake on that day is down by 25%. Since half is maintenance, growth is -logically at least - halved to only 350g. Intake is down by 25% - saving 7 pence, but growth is down by a half - to only 14 pence worth. Hence, you just lost 7 pence per pig. Clearly, if the intake reduction is greater, and the "times maintenance" figure is lower, you quickly reach the point where the figures become very large since one days loss of feed can take a long time to make up.

The second impact is likely to be on the statistical spread. We know that pigs operate in social groups with some degree of pecking order. In most cases, all animals cannot feed at the same time, even if they want to. Feed will run out at some particular point in time, is it likely that the "first feeders" in a group will say "here, guys, there isn't much left - you'd better have some". Let's be realistic! Sp,. Whatever feed intake loss there has been, it won't be evenly spread. If it runs out after three quarters of a meal, that probably means three quarters have had a meal, and one quarter no meal at all.

When food is next available, is it likely that the first-feeder (dominant pigs) say "hey guys, you didn't get a meal last time, you go first". Yeah, sure! The differences will be unevenly spread, which expands whatever pre-existing differences still further. Data logging suggests that pigs feed as social groups, but there may be several social groups in a pen. (I.e. all pigs in a group feed, or try to feed, at the same time, but different groups may feed at slightly different times.) So, any differences created are likely to be different on different groups.

Thirdly, it is likely to create stress and exacerbate social disorder. Or, to put it another way - how likely is to have no effect? Like, the pigs say - let's eat… there's no food… oh well, never mind, it doesn't matter. Now, just think about it - with all the talk about causes of tail biting, how often does anyone think to check whether or not they are sometimes out of feed? I'm not saying it's the cause of tail biting, but equally, I wouldn't expect it to reduce the incidence.

Fourth, it is likely to increase the susceptibility to any other darned thing you can think of. For example, if the feed intake is down, the heat output is down. Which means they don't maintain room temperature so well but, at the same time, can't stand such a low temperature, which probably also means greater competition for the warm and comfortable lying spots, which increases stress, and so on and so on.

All in all, it seems likely that feed losses - and especially the erratic delivery of feed - could have far ranging consequences. However, it is something that producers really don't look for. Or rather, they do check to see if there's feed in the hopper - some more diligently than others - but it's not something they consider as such a major problem.

Pig Adaptation

We all know that pigs "adapt". But I'm not so sure we always understand what we mean by it. What it means is that pigs develop a strategy - a way of coping. Now, in some cases, this is a matter of learning - for example, they learn where the feeder is. Finding the feeder (in a small pen) probably isn't a major job!

More complicated things require more "adaptation" and - correspondingly - have a greater cost. For example, in hot weather, pigs may adapt by shifting feeding patterns to cooler times of the day. This is not really a cognitive adaptation - they don't work it out, their body does. But it doesn't happen straight away.

In the first instance, their body clock tells them to eat at the regular time, but their appetite is reduced. Hence, pigs tend to eat less on the first day of a warm spell than after a few days, when it may be much hotter.

Pigs can adapt to eating at different times - or even just once a day. It may take a while, but they can do it. One trial about 30 years ago even left feed out altogether one day a week with - so it is said - only a minor effect. (Whether this would still be the case with modern high yielding pigs is another question.)

But, what is difficult is "adapting to random". It is difficult to develop a strategy to deal with feed being there, or not there, at no particular time of day. Of course, they can do it, it's just that in the meantime, performance is likely to be hit quite badly. Loss of feed delivery is - by its very nature - a random, unexpected event. Quite possibly the impact on pigs on farms where things do usually work is more radical than on ones where there are lots of screw-ups.

How much does it cost?

That's the $64,000 question! So, we can see feed losses may occur, but is it merely an interesting academic point?

With no hard figures, and no solid research, we have to guess. Using the method suggested earlier, we might use the following estimate (US figures) :

Since most producers aim for a target weight, loss of feed intake can be expressed as "Extra Days to Finish" - for a range of "times maintenance" assumptions, a proportionate loss has the following result :

Why does it happen?

Assuming this being read by pig producers, I suppose it's hardly necessary to point out the different modes of failure - which range from not ordering the feed, through bins bridging, to motors failing, cables wearing out, downpipes being left off - a host of individual causes.

It's tempting to blame it on the equipment and say it's the feed system manufacturer's fault. I'd have to say that if our ventilation systems worked as unreliably and inconsistently as feed systems do we'd have been out of business years ago. But blaming the equipment is far too easy. And by no means all are of that nature - in our "persistent offended" case study, the 3- day loss of feed was because of a management error (though others were for other causes).

The real reason, I believe, is that it doesn't seem to matter. If you don't feed pigs for a while, nothing really bad seems to happen. It may, actually, have been quite costly, but there is nothing there and then to tell you that - there's no "negative feedback". Even if you were worried about it beforehand, the fact it is not as bad as you thought doesn't give a powerful motivation to stop it happening again.

In fact, there may even be a positive feedback from the affair. When you fix it - when you've got the hoppers filling up again - the pigs chomp away with never a care in the world. Most problems are not that difficult to solve - in the short term anyway.

As someone who spends his life solving (or trying anyway), I know only too well that solving them can give you a warm feeling - it makes you feel worthwhile. Easy, simple problems that you know how to fix are really quite satisfying. Given that so many of the problems pig farms experience are confusing and challenging, feed auger problems are quite "nice" ones, really.

The quick solution is easy, it's not obvious how to solve it permanently and - maybe - there's no strong impulse to.

Suggesting producers may - in a way - quite like having the problem is probably overstating the point. However, discussions with producers do indicate quite strongly a reluctance to take it very seriously. Although people are quite prepared to accept the theory - they don't dispute the calculations of the cost of feed intake losses, even though there is no solid proof they are true - there is, almost always, a sense of "let's move onto something else".

Author's Comment - Cost to the Industry

Based on monitoring so far, it seems unlikely that loss of potential production - on a "simple" basis is less than 50 pence a pig on average, though several times that is probably more realistic. Added to that are significant reduction in revenue due to extra variability in output, and so on.

For such a "simple" problem that is "not on the map", it adds up to - £5,000 to £25,000 a year for the typical 500 sow producer.- anything from £10m to £50m pounds a year for the UK pig industry as a whole.

This puts it in the same league as PMWS. The big difference being that many / most producers - and the industry as a whole - is putting a deal of effort into tackling PMWS, but virtually none at all into preventing loss of feed.

But, to be fair, it is only since logging has been done on farms - and analysed properly - that the problem has become clear in all its inglorious enormity. Having looked at, probably, more long term logged data, from more, and more different farms, than anyone, I have to admit it took me some time to realise what I was seeing.

At first, one more or less dismisses it - they seem like unconnected one-off events. And if you see an auger not running for a little while, you tend to think it's an aberration, and the pigs probably do really have feed in the hopper. But, what clinches it, is the water. If there is any change in the water, they have missed meals. And try as you might, you can't see the extra feed intake appearing somewhere else.

An Apology

In this article, I've used data from a couple of farms - but only because they illustrate some particular features. I've also made various comments - probably overly presumptuous - about how or why I think things have occurred. My intention is not to impugne the motives, care or diligence of any individuals. No particular criticism of individuals, bodies or companies is intended, but I apologise if the comments may be taken as such.

The only criticism I would reserve, however, is for those who - in the absence of any solid and thorough systems in place to prevent it - presume it doesn't or can't happen on their farm. Given the dire straits of pig production in the last few years, it's understandable if producers haven't leapt to their chequebooks to replace systems that have seemed to work well enough for many years. With all the problems there have been, one can understand a reluctance to seek out new ones.

But, so far as I can see, the problem is there, it's real, it's widespread, and it means a lot of money to the pig production industry - or, if it isn't, then it's doing a darned good impression. With an ageing building and equipment stock, but nevertheless a need to improve performance, I suggest that looking more closely at some of the detailed aspects of production - that haven't seemed so important in the past - may yield tremendous dividends.

Source: FarmEx - November 2003

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