Scientists Explore Advantages of Automated Systems for Tracking the Weight of Pigs

CANADA - Farm-Scape: Episode 2151. Farm-Scape is a Wonderworks Canada production and is distributed courtesy of Manitoba Pork Council and Sask Pork.
calendar icon 29 May 2006
clock icon 10 minute read

Farm-Scape, Episode 2151

In an effort to help swine producers better utilize available labor, while at the same ensuring larger numbers of market hogs reach the processing plant at core weight, the Prairie Swine Centre in Saskatoon has kicked off a three year study which will explore the use of autosort weighing systems.

Autosort technology has been around for about ten years and there are currently about a dozen commercially available systems on the market. Dr. Harold Gonyou, a research scientist in animal behavior, recalls, “Ten years ago we were working on scales, developing the ability for them to open, let a pig step in and then to sort them one direction or the other. The new technique or the new application is that the scale is permanently set up within the pen for the pigs. They pass through the scale on a regular basis in order to access food or water and when they do that it sorts them automatically.”

Project Now Underway

The research, which began about two months ago and involves approximately 18% of the animals at the Prairie Swine Centre’s Elstow facility, will include a series of studies, some of which will conclude at different times throughout the project.

Dr. Gonyou explains, “We’ll be looking at a number of features trying to relate how pigs interact with the system to see how we can manage it better.”

He notes, “The current project that we have going right now is that we’re looking at whether keeping animals in these systems make them more easy to handle when it comes to marketing them and reduces the stressfullness of being marketed.”

Success Rates Variable

He points out, “Not everyone is having a great success with them [autosort systems]. We find a lot of variation in terms of the response that producers are having. Some find them very easy to use. Others find them very difficult to use. “

Dr. Gonyou suggests, “There are a number of different factors involved in this. Some of it may be design features of the scale itself but we think there's a lot of management issues as well. One of the things that we’re looking at is how you design the food court, the area that they eat. We’re looking at it to try to reduce congestion around feeders so that pigs have good access to the feeders and continue to perform well.”

Sorting Offers Economic Benefits

The ability to sort pigs according to weight has long been recognized as a key factor in profitability. Currently the bulk of the pigs produced at the Prairie Swine Centre are sorted for market manually.

Brian Andries, the Prairie Swine Centre’s manager of operations explains, “What we’ll do is we’ll start weighing rooms of animals at a set period of time that they’ve been in grow-finish.”

He says, “The animals that are heavy enough to go that week are marked a certain colour. Then, we know what our average daily gains and growth rates are on these animals and we know how much they’re going to gain every week, so we’ll mark the ones that will go next week to market a different colour. Then, once those animals go the following week, we’ll re-weigh the whole room again and do the same process.”

Window of Opportunity for Weight Premiums Small

Andries notes, “We’re looking at about 113 to 115 kilograms live weight as an average, plus or minus a few kilos. That’s where we found that our animals grade out the highest to hit the core grade that is put through at Maple Leaf Foods [Mitchell’s] here in Saskatoon.”

He continues, “What we’re looking to hit here is somewhere between probably 96 to 98 kilograms dressed weight. We’re hitting that with about 95 percent of our animals.”

Andries concedes, “We are shipping a little heavier than most producers and it just depends on the farm and what the producer wants to ship his animals at, how much room he has to hold them. If he can hold them a little longer he might want to ship them a little heavier, get paid a little bit more but it basically depends on the producer and his individual situation.”

He stresses, “You have to look at it on a farm by farm basis, basically see what weight you should be shipping at, how long you can hold these animals to specific dressed weight and then ship within that core percentage.”

Manual Sorting Requires Increased Labor

Andries admits, “There is a fair amount of labor involved in this. But, it doesn’t really take that much time to weigh a room of animals when you’re looking at the groups that we work with. There’s about 280 animals per room. It is labor intensive but I think the benefits you get back from weighing these animals individually is a little more substantial than just kind of guessing on the weight and shipping them.”

There is no arguing, hitting core weight with larger percentages of pigs will dramatically impact profitability.

Failing to Hit Core Weight Potentially Costly

Andries estimates, “We run around 94 to 97 percent within core and, with penalties now with grading systems, we are making a fair amount more money per hog.”

He calculates, depending on weight, a producer can lose from $20 to $30 per hog marketed by sending hogs that are too light or too heavy, especially if they are too light.

Dr. Gonyou agrees, “We generally like to keep them down to within a range of about ten kilograms in body weight when we send them to market.”

He explains, “We are rewarded for that in two ways. One is we will receive a higher prices for pigs that are within a specific weight range. The second one is that we can look at our feeding programs, the price that we’re getting for pigs at that time and decide even more optimal conditions. We can say we want a very narrow range, perhaps five kilograms. To weight pigs often enough to keep them in that tight of a range is very labor intensive where as with this [autosort technology], the pigs are weighed everyday and so we can very quickly sort pigs out for market according to the specific weight that we want.”

Rimby, Alberta Operation Opts for Forced Sorting Systems

Rimby, Alberta-based Partners in Pork, first started using autosort technology five to six years ago and currently utilizes two different commercially available systems. The company, which began about 11 years ago with a twelve-hundred sow farrow-to-wean unit, has since added two more similar units and finishes pigs in either contract barns or lease barns.

Ciaran Ormond, a part owner with Partners in Pork, recalls, “Back then, about seven years ago, there was a lot of interest in people looking at larger groups for finishing pigs. Previous to that it had all been typically 15 to 25 pigs in a pen but it was very labor intensive and also costlier to build.”

He explains, “The original system we put in, we used it as a fully autosort, in a sense. We depended on the pigs to go through the system themselves and then come out but, what we found with that was we only had about 85 to 90 percent success rate, accuracy for weighing.”

As a result, the system was changed. “We did what we call a forced sort,” Ormond explains. “What I mean by that is that we actually physically put the pigs through the scale and then they’re weighed and sorted into three different groups and we’ve had probably 97 percent on average, 97-98 percent in the right weight range.”

He notes, “Right now our sweet spot, is between 85 to 95 kilos and we get paid our best dollar for the same pig if they're in that weight range.” He estimates missing that target can cost anywhere between 15 and 20 dollars per pig.

He suggests, “Really we’re losing that and by getting them in the right weight we’re not doing a heck of a lot of extra work. All the work is done. The genetics are all there, everything is there, so you can’t afford not to have pigs in that right weight range.”

Labor Considered Number One Advantage

Nonetheless, Ormond considers the number one advantage of the automated sorting systems to be labor. He explains the switch has allowed one person to do all of the weighing in a 5,000 head operation as opposed to one and a half people previously and with less effort.

“When there was two people doing it, putting it [the herd] through the old typical basket scale, at the end of two day they were just tired and worn out and aching. Whereas, with the new system we set up, one person can do it and at the end of the day he’s not tired or frustrated and worn out.

Additionally, he notes, “Our accuracy went up by about five percent, pigs in the right weight range, because we have a sweet pot of about 10 kgs that we want to get them in.”

He adds, “The other thing that happened too, when we did this, we were able to increase our stocking density by about 7 percent so then we end up getting more pigs through the barn. Our growth rates and feed conversion stayed about the same. We didn’t see any negative impact on that.”

Autosort Systems Offer Ability to Target Specific Diets to Specific Pigs

Dr. Gonyou suggests, “We haven’t started to use all of the potential advantages on it yet.” In addition to reducing the effort required to sort pigs and offering easier monitoring of weight, he notes, “We have the opportunity of sorting these pigs out according to their weight and feeding them different diets as they’re growing. For the last ten or 15 years we’ve been doing something called phase feeding and we start with a higher level of protein in the diet for the younger pigs and, as the pigs grow, they actually require a lower proportion of protein in the diet. It’s a cheaper diet to feed.”

“However, we have to feed just one diet to all the pigs in a pen. With this sorter system, as the pigs go through into the feeding area, they can be channeled to one feed side where they get a high protein diet or to the other side where they get a lower less expensive diet so we can save some money there as well.”

Dr. Gonyou concludes, “Essentially what this autosort allows us to do is, if for any reason we want to feed a pig differently based on its body weight, we can do it using this system because every time they go to eat the pig is weighed and can be channeled off to different feeders at that time.” The first results from the project are expected sometime in December 2006.

For Farmscape.Ca, I'm Bruce Cochrane.

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