Measuring Backfat is ‘Objective’ Way to Feed Sows

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Kansas State University researchers have found a way to help swine producers take the guesswork out of feeding pregnant sows.
calendar icon 2 June 2003
clock icon 3 minute read

The findings, they say, could help producers save $6 or more per sow each year. Depending on the size of the operation, that could add up to several thousand dollars saved in feeding costs.

"What we’ve done," said graduate student Malachy Young, who has led the K-State trials, "is developed an objective way of feeding gestation sows based on their backfat thickness and weight."

The researchers are using ultrasound to measure a sow’s backfat, determined by the distance to lean muscle behind the sow’s last rib. During pregnancy, the sow’s feeding level is set according to that initial measurement.

That’s similar to how it’s been done in the past, except that farmers previously have trusted their eyes to determine how a sow would be fed. Simply, most swine producers look at the sow, and base the feeding program on that fairly-quick judgment of its body condition ‘score.’

However, by using ultrasound to measure the sow’s backfat, K-State researchers have been successful in increasing the percentage of sows with ideal body conditions – not too fat, not too thin at the end of their pregnancy – compared to visual body condition scoring.

Young said ultrasound measurements of backfat also save time for the farmer. Once the feeding program is established, it’s not necessary to visually inspect the sows every couple weeks and adjust their feeding level.

"We might walk the sows at seven weeks and do a visual inspection, but overall this will reduce labor for the producer," he said.

The research supports K-State Research and Extension’s push to develop feeding programs and nutrition guidelines that help producers raise livestock more efficiently – and save themselves money. For the swine industry, Young says this study also can help curb the high turnover of sows on farms.

"Modern sows are younger and leaner at the time of mating, have poorer appetites, are more fertile and produce more milk than sows five or 10 years ago," Young said. "Our challenge is to develop feeding programs that support this new level of performance."

The backfat meter K-State has used to measure sows costs between $400-$500, and Young says most producers or their assistants need "a couple hours of training." K-State also is developing a chart that will outline specific guidelines for feeding pregnant sows based on backfat measurements.

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