Five Key Changes to Modern Management Practices Necessary to Improve Profitability

Nutrition, Improvest (vaccine against boar taint), biosecurity, vaccination and management protocol review and gilt pool management are the key issues identified by Dr Jeff DeMint of Bern-Sabetha Veterinary Clinic in the Jack and Pat Anderson Lecture in Swine Health Management at the 2013 Kansas Swine Profitability Conference.
calendar icon 10 May 2013
clock icon 12 minute read

During these times of high feed costs and negative profitability it is difficult to find management practices to propel a swine farm to profitability. However, it is possible to implement many different practices and get a positive return. The author remembers from physics class that acceleration can be expressed as a positive number (profit) or as a negative number (deceleration/loss), so sometimes implementing new technologies will only slow your deceleration (less negative profit). The following five sections have the potential to increase profit with the possibility to cross into positive income territory.


Typically feed cost on a swine farm account for more than 60 per cent of the farms expenses, but with the increase in feed cost the last year, it is approaching 70 per cent. Most swine producers are very well educated in feeding swine but because of the relative expense of feed it also has the greatest opportunity to return the largest savings with the smallest percent change in costs. The author says he is probably the last person to be here at Kansas State University to speak about nutrition, but with the importance, he touched on a few key points. The following graph illustrates the potential savings by increasing feed efficiency.

Average wean-to-finish cost, $/ton

There are many resources to aid in diet formulations. In the past, dried distiller grains have been a cost saving ingredient to substitute for high cost grain, and 'A Guide to Distiller’s Dried Grains with Solubles (DDGS)' from the US Grains Council, is a great resource for their usage. However, DDGS relative cost has risen greatly over the past seven years as presented in this table:

The Animal Science and Industry at KSU has many tools and recommendations at the web site to serve the do-it-yourselfer. The author recommends the instruction and guidance of a trained nutritionist. At Kansas State University, there is a world-class group of swine nutritionist and education system to produce many nutritionists for private industry.


What would the savings per pig be if a sow farm did not have to take the time to castrate the boar pigs? The savings potentially could be much more than a labour savings. Additional savings could be realized by lower pig mortality, lower castration complications (infections and hernias), and increased feed efficiencies. Improvest (Gonadotropin Releasing Factor Analog-Diphtheria Toxoid Conjugate, 0.2mg per mL, Pfizer Animal Health) is an injection that eliminates the necessity to castrate boar pigs. By retaining the functionality of the testicles for more growing time, it allows the pigs to grow with benefits of a boar pig until the second injection of Improvest. Literature from Pfizer Animal Health suggests the benefits of the Improvest regime can be six to 10 per cent increase in feed efficiency, 4.2 per cent increase in average daily gain, up to 2.5 per cent increase in cutout yield, and a decrease of 1.6 per cent in mortality.

Improvest is a FDA-approved, veterinary prescription that has a flexible but strict procedure. The boar pigs are injected, subcutaneously, after nine weeks of age, usually around 120 days of age with today’s market weights, with a primary dose. This dose by itself has little to no effect on the pig’s behaviour or growth. The second injection is given at least four weeks (150 days of age) after the primary dose and within three to 0 weeks of marketing. Within seven days after the second injection, the pigs tend to behave, temporarily, like barrows instead of boars. Two weeks after the second injection is given, the pigs need to have a quality assurance exam to identify any pigs that still look or act like a boar to ensure the pigs at market time will not have an off odour (boar taint) caused by the chemicals, androstenone and skatole.

With new technology, there is a learning curve with the correct timing of injections, feeding requirements (increased lysine), stocking of buildings, packer and consumer acceptance. Kansas State University has done feeding trials with Improvest pigs for the correct lysine feeding levels, some of which were in the 2012 Swine Day proceedings. A food taste test of pork from Improvest-treated pigs has been similar to conventionally produced pork products. Meat packers have been slow in accepting Improvest injected pigs, so the number of pig injected in this area of the country has been low. Additionally, there is a human health concern if either a male or female would accidentally inject themselves with Improvest. The effect of physiological problems is large enough that once a person has been injected with Improvest, then that person is not allowed to use or handle the product again.

In an article (Agri-view, Nov 3, 2011), Dr. Steve Dritz said, “the income over feed costs ends up being about $5 more per pig than comparative barrows and low lysine Improvest hogs … can save about another $0.75 per hog if you feed a combination of medium and low lysine throughout the feeding program”. With the increase of feed costs, the author expects this benefit to be closer to $7.00 to $7.50 per pig today.


Biosecurity to a swine operation is the protection of your pigs from harmful biological agents (bacteria, virus, etc.). Most of the biosecurity threat comes from the agents that are in other pigs: breeding stock additions, neighbouring pig sites and pigs that are transported by or near a swine facility. Some diseases can be carried on people or equipment and others, like influenza can be directly transmitted from people to pigs.

The major biosecurity threat that swine producers face is Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PPRS). It has been estimated that PRRS has an annual cost to the US swine industry of $664 million or about $6 per pig marketed. By practising correct biosecurity procedures for PRRS, it is possible to prevent the introduction or spread of other diseases in the swine herds. The best source of PRRS biosecurity for the author is 'Biosecurity protocols for the prevention of spread of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, ' by Andrea Pitkin, BS MS, et al., Swine Disease Eradication Center at University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. I have an “O” biosecurity chart that helps to decide how much of a concern a disease is to a swine operation. The chart is based on the first reaction the veterinarian or swine producer has to the notification of disease outbreak on a farm.

Vaccination and Management Protocol Review

A significant amount of money is used to raise pigs in a healthy and appropriate manner. These fixed input costs are usually listed in a standard operating procedure known as a vaccination and management protocol. The author believes that many swine operations continue to add procedures and vaccinations that may not be necessary at this time but continue to be done “because that’s the way we have always done it”. He would recommend at least an annual review of your protocols or every time a significant health challenge occurs in your herd. It seems that on some farms he works with, protocols are changed every few months. The changes include the addition/removal or timing of vaccinations and medications as health changes occur or availability of items fluctuate.

The author has seen figures that state that 97 per cent of the pigs in the US are vaccinated with a circovirus vaccine. If there are 120 million pigs produced annually, then there are still about 3.6 million pigs that are not vaccinated. One item that he does not recommend dropping to save money is circovirus vaccine for pigs. He made this statement now because some of his clients and clients that he has started working with, have not been vaccinating because of the cost of the vaccine and the perceived lack of benefit received.

With the disease associated with porcine circovirus, type 2, the majority of pigs do not show clinical signs of the disease. It is reported that only five per cent of pigs in a group are clinical (signs of disease) while the other 95 per cent appear normal but infected. The cost of vaccinating is a significant cost ($1.50-$2.00 per pig) but is a cost that returns much more than that.

From the beginning of circovirus vaccine usage, it has been shown to be financially sound. Dr. Steve Henry wrote in the November 15, 2008 issue of 'National Hog Farmer', “return-on-investment for circovirus vaccine has never been lower than 2:1 and often reaches 4:1 to 7:1. In infected herds, we have not had a trial where there wasn't a good response”. The research has continued to support the vaccine usage in a paper by Malachy G. Young, PhD, et al in the May and June 2011 issue of the 'Journal of Swine Health and Production', which reached the conclusion “vaccinated pigs delivered a return on investment of $5.90 per pig over the unvaccinated pigs”.

A question that continues to be asked is; will I see an advantage in vaccinating pigs that do not show any signs of disease associated with circovirus? The answer to this is yes, there is a clear return on investment from the circovirus vaccine and was answered by Dr John Waddell at the World Pork Expo 2009, where he found a 5:1 return in sub-clinical pigs.

Using circovirus vaccine is a standard protocol for raising pigs in the US for the foreseeable future.

Gilt Pool Management

How profitable a swine farm is, is greatly dependent on how well the gilt pool is managed. An active gilt pool of animals between 200 and 300 pounds of body weight will make up 12 to 15 per cent of the target herd size. A well managed gilt pool will allow about 25 per cent of the breeding group’s target to be met with bred gilts. Dr Foxcroft et al., showed in paper (Advances in Pork Production, 2001) that the relative importance of factors influencing the number of pigs wean per week was greatest for numbers of females served (60 per cent) with farrowing rate (30 per cent) and born alive and pre-weaning mortality accounting for only five per cent each. Keeping the farrowing crates full (on farrowing targets) is probably the most important factor in a sow farms profitability.

In order to achieve a well managed gilt pool, many things must be accomplished before the thought of breeding can occur:

  • Choosing the correct genetic supplier with adequate supply of gilts and good health
  • Isolation (quarantine): to prevent new gilts from passing diseases to existing breeding herd, monitor for disease outbreaks
  • Acclimation: time to get the replacement animal’s immune system familiarized with existing breeding herd, by exposure or vaccination

Now that your replacements are placed, healthy and vaccinated, you need to bred them and get them into the herd in a steady, predictable and profitable way. This period of time employs many different techniques to manipulate and stimulate the oestrus cycle of the gilt. These techniques will include herdsmanship, environment, nutrition, boar exposure, and exogenous hormone manipulation.

Every breeding manager has to decide when it is “time” to breed a group of animals. So are the animals chosen by size, age or need? If the gilt pool is running ideally, then the need should be more of the exception than the rule. So this leaves us with the selecting of animals by size or age, and both are right. Generally data indicates that breeding on the basis of weight and recorded heat-no-serve (2nd or 3rd oestrus) is the most cost-effective strategy. Dr Levis showed that a group of gilts can show their first oestrus over a long time span - 135 to 276 days of age with an average of 180 days. Gilts initially bred at over 10 months of age were less efficient, produced fewer pigs born alive per sow lifetime, were culled sooner, and showed a negative economic return over their economic lifetime (Culbertson and Mabry,1995).

If weight at first oestrus was equal for all these gilts, then we would know that the faster maturing animal also had the higher growth rate. This selection of the early maturing gilts would allow gilts to be bred on the second or third oestrus without adding non-productive days to the breeding herd, while enhancing performance. It has been reported that having breeding gilts on second or third heat can increase pigs born alive in the first litter.

As you read the literature, you can find many different and conflicting results and recommendations. Every sow farm is different and has its own unique bottlenecks but with that in mind, these are the author's current recommendations for breeding gilts:

  • Start boar exposure when gilts are 135-150 days of age, 20 minutes of direct contact once or twice a day with morning exposure having the most influence
  • Get vaccinations or disease exposure done early in the growing phase, prior to boar exposure
  • Give gilts 12 to 15 square feet of pen space, with three to 50 animals per group
  • Keep temperatures between 45-70 degrees Fahrenheit; reproductive heat stress starts above 80 degrees
  • At least 10 hours of light, type of light not that important
  • Breed at 300 pounds and 7.5 to nine months of age, with at least one skipped heat

There are currently two hormone products on the market that are widely used in the swine industry, PG 600 and Matrix (Merck). PG 600 is used to stimulate oestrus in gilts that have not cycled. Matrix is progesterone product used orally in gilts to synchronise heat cycles. Another lesser used product (Ovugel, Pennatek) is beginning to show promise in synchronising the ovulation of gilts, and thus reducing the number of inseminations. Ovugel has had positive results when given to cycling gilts on the final day of Matrix feeding, by allowing all to be inseminated at the same time 80 to 96 hours later and the use of only one insemination per gilt. The research of Ovugel’s correct dosage and timing is still needed but is tool that needs to be watched to see how it can affectively be added to a gilt management protocol.

Further Reading

You can find other papers presented at the 2013 Kansas State University Swine Profitability Conference by clicking here.

May 2013

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