Frequent weighing of pigs may seem laborious and unnecessary, but it can be a highly cost-effective practice on the finishing site. In fact, a unit that weighs a sample of pigs on a regular basis will be laying the groundwork to achieve a valuable increase in its average growth rate due to improved feed specifications.

That was the view put forward to Pig International recently by nutritionist Dr William Close, who heads The Close Consultancy based in the UK. He wants to see more grow-finishers adopt a check-weighing routine in order to establish better information as the foundation for improved nutritional management.

Now that feed prices are so high, he insists, there has never been a stronger argument to begin performing the checks on weight. The measurements will give a target for the rate of weight gain that should be achievable by your own pigs at different ages during the growing and finishing cycle. Their feed requirements can be worked out more precisely from that, so it becomes possible to customise their diets to suit each part of the production period.

"It is all about benchmarking," Dr Close commented. "Good information on weights is extremely helpful by showing what growth rates are being achieved currently. Units today may weigh their pigs at weaning or reception and when preparing to market them, but they should think about checking on the intermediate stages as well.

Checks on weights

"When you check-weigh, typically it means taking the pigs from 3-4 of your pens and weighing them every 2-3 weeks. You weigh the same pigs every time, usually starting at 25-30kg until they are marketed at 100kg or 120kg.

"A pen average is enough for benchmarking purposes. You do not have to weigh the pigs individually. So the job is easiest if the unit has the type of weighbridge that can provide the total weight of the group. The people I advise tell me they need only about 10-15 minutes to find the information when using such a big group weigher. With a smaller scale it takes about an hour each time to weigh the 4 pens."

Do not think you will have to do this continuously throughout the year, he continues. Check-weighing can be stopped once the necessary information has been found. The only proviso is that it is done at least twice per year, to be sure the information is up to date and to take account of seasonal variation.

"Growth rate has links to the amount the pigs eat and their feed conversion efficiency, as well as the nutrient composition of the diet. Ideally when advising on the diets for a phase-feeding programme, I would also like to have an idea of feed consumption over the period during which weights were checked. That is why I ask that units try wherever possible to weigh feed to those sample pigs. The quantity consumed will then be known more accurately, as will the nutrient intake per kilogram of gain or carcase weight.

"The ultimate benchmark in terms of physical performance is the herd's feed efficiency, meaning the total amount fed to the breeding and finishing sections divided by the weight of the pigs sold. This whole-herd feed conversion rate (FCR) is the over-riding performance factor.

Benchmarking targets

"Every unit should be able to say what their figure is, because they know how much feed they purchased as well as the number of pigs sold and the sale weight. The herd FCR can be improved by management, by better feeding and by genetics. Targets for it must depend on the pigs' exit weight, but I would suggest aiming for 3.2 to 100kg and 3.4 to 110kg. Let me emphasise, this covers all feed usage including the quantity wasted, which can be quite high in some cases.

"We have already produced benchmarking targets for the sow and piglet stages of production, in modules of an advisory package called PIPPA (Premier Interactive Pig Program Alltech) that has been developed for Alltech to assist its clients. A grow-finish module is under development and should be ready by the middle of 2008. The difficulty with this, however, has been that producers do not normally weigh their pigs on a regular basis and therefore they do not have a target weight for age. In fact, the work of developing the module has shown more clearly where the information is lacking and areas where research may be needed."

The programme at sow level was rolled out initially in Australia and New Zealand about 4 years ago, working with bigger producers in those countries to support them technically. In its original form the package was for the advisers of those enterprises. It included a technical manual which has provided a general reference on nutrition, management, housing and healthcare; a producer's manual has been added to give more practical information. The manuals and accompanying workshops took information from all over world, Dr Close remarks, and put it into a user-friendly form.

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A computerised version of the sow and piglet modules for PIPPA has since been made available by Alltech offices in the Asia-Pacific and Latin American regions, as well as Europe. The modules are interactive by taking the recorded performance figures of the enterprise and assessing them automatically against commercial benchmarked targets. Herd data is flagged up as low if below target and high if a figure, such as for mortality, is considered excessive.

"Where the data and benchmarking reveal limitations in the unit's present level of performance, the computer program sets out some solutions available through management, healthcare, nutrition and housing," Dr Close explains. "The whole point of the benchmarking exercise is to identify areas in which output may be increased. The difference between current figures and targets are seen easily, but then the program offers additional help in deciding what may be the nature of the problem causing the difference, what has caused it and how it might be solved. Among the reports it generates is a series of progress charts to supply a checklist for following up later (after 3-6 months, for example).

"However, there is another way of using the program. That is to treat it like a computer model of the herd. For example in relation to nutrition, the producer or adviser can ask what performance to expect from the animals when a specified type of feed is provided.

"The principles of nutrition are always the same. The pig's requirements for nutrients relate to reproduction, body maintenance and growth. The genetics of the animal together with its environment define those properties and therefore the input of required nutrients. Comparing that assessment with the quantity actually consumed by the pig from the diet and feeding system indicates where nutritional manipulation could bring better performance.

"What is different today is the quantity of new information available to help fine-tune diets. We have been able to incorporate this information into the interactive program, but there is still a need to have a better idea of pigs' weight for age during growing and finishing on a particular unit. The only way to find this is by weighing pigs more frequently. This should not take too much time and it will certainly be cost-effective."PIGI