Imagine what could be achieved in pig production with 1.4 million tons of extra pig feed globally. That's the impact a 0.01 reduction in feed conversion rate would have on the industry.  The pig industry already has made a gradual genetic improvement over time on feed conversion rates: 6:1, 4:1, 3:1 and now 2.7:1. 

As genetics continue to advance, the entire pig industry should be able to reach a feed conversion of 2:1 as soon as 2025. In a global context, this means we would be able to feed 5 million more pigs with the same feed or make pork more economical, ensuring its availability to an ever-growing world human population.

This may be difficult today to envision amid our current state of expensive feed costs and downward pressure on pig prices that are pulling profits down. But, pig operations are already efficient, but there are gaps between genetic potential and commercial pig performance. So, is reaching a 2:1 feed conversion rate by 2025 a dream or a reality? We estimate that today's producers are losing as many as 40 points of feed conversion through five barriers as highlighted at Alltech's 29th Symposium in May. 

1. Viral problems: PRRS, swine influenza, mycoplasma hyopneumoniae, and PEDV

A recent study estimated that porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) costs the pork industry US$664 million per year. This translates into $1.8 million per day or $114.71 per sow annually. The previous economic study in 2005 calculated PRRS losses at $560 million annually.

In another study, it was estimated that porcine circovirus type 2 costs the US swine industry $3 to $4 per pig and, in extreme cases, as much as $20 per pig because of increased mortality rates and reduced growth performance of infected pigs relative to pigs of higher health.

Mark Fitzsimmons, Swine Graphics, said in his presentation that PRRS is still 'beating us up' after 25 years of dealing with the disease. There is a need to retain the ability to use antibiotics therapeutically but also a need to reduce dependence on the use of growth promotant antibiotics. Achieving this will require learning how to better manage the health and nutrition of the pigs we are raising by looking at alternatives.

In another study, conducted by North Carolina State university, swine influenza, mycoplasma hyopneumoniae, and PRRSV were ranked the top three disease challenges in the finishing herd among US pig operations. Swine influenza was cited as a health challenge in the finisher for 18 of 19 companies surveyed with an average rank of 3.1.

Finally, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) is another virus that can often affect feed conversion rates in pigs. PEDV is most serious in neonatal piglets where morbidity and mortality can be 80 to 100 percent. 

"We continue to place pigs in situations where their health status puts them so close to the edge, all the time," said Fitzsimmons. "What we are missing is how to feed pigs when they get sick."

2. Feed:  Mycotoxins, NIR analysis, and enzymes

Increasing feed utilization and the use of NIR and chemical analyses of feed helps to more accurately target the pig's nutritional needs and improve feed conversion ratios. Enzymes may also allow reduction of nutrient levels fed yet maintenance of optimum performance.

In addition, mycotoxins often stand in the way of improved feed conversion ratio as they continue to plague pig producers globally by reducing performance and increasing resistance to disease challenges by compromising the immune system.  

In swine, there is a higher sensitivity to contaminated feed, and feed avoidance is a common symptom of mycotoxicoses. For gestating and lactating sows, where feed intake is compromised, symptoms such as immune suppression, reduced ability to absorb nutrients from the gastrointestinal tract and reduced utilization of proteins in the body are more common. Zearalenone, a particular concern in breeding sows, can result in abortions and an increased number of non-productive sows. The cost of lost productivity from this has been calculated to $4 per sow, per non-productive sow day.

Some mycotoxins -- for example zearalenone -- are transferred in milk and might affect the piglet. If quality of feed for sows is suspect, an effective mycotoxin absorbent should be added to the diet. 

"No matter what youdo to improve feed efficiency, gut health must be a a high level to take full advantage," said Dr. Max Hawkins, Alltech. 

3. Gut health: Salmonella, E.coli, Campylobacter, Clostridium

Gastrointestinal challenges can also affect feed conversion ratios and continue to pose a risk to not only animal, but human health. Some pathogens pose no risk to the animal but can pose a risk to food safety. The same can be said for some pathogens that do not affect human health but cause reduced performance or increased death loss in swine production. 

It is time to better understand gut health. Antibiotic usage has already changed, but what can be or should be used to promote outstanding growth during all health statuses? According to Tom Gillespie, Rensselaer Swine Services, the industry needs to look at incorporating more feed additives such as organic acids, essential oils and probiotics that improve gut health, improving stocking density and ventilation along with providing more training for employees to deal with health challenges.

"What you are finding is a change in attitude in practitioners," Gillespie said. "Today practitioners diagnose first, then try to use those tools to treat specifically."

4. Fixtures, fittings and buildings

Proper air flow, temperature control and barn design also play a role in improving feed conversion ratios, increasing performance and decreasing respiratory infection. Filtered barns have helped to reduce exposure to airborne diseases. 

Recently, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the American Society of Agricultural Biological Engineers developed a "green" pig barn to help save energy in the winter due to better insulation and environmental control; and reduce emissions due to the incorporation of cooling systems. The researchers found with the green finishing barn design, pigs had a three to seven percent increase in average daily gain and a five to ten percent improvement in feed conversion rate.

5. Management and people

Proper training for management and staff who are taking part in the daily activities of swine production can reduce variations in pig performance, due to real time adjustments in air and temperature. To improve feed conversion ratios in swine barns, operations should look for ways to reduce feed-associated heat increment in summer and reduce exposure to colder temperature in the winter. 

Optimization of air quality and temperature has a significant economic impact on pig production. Swine facilities should never underestimate the impact of attention to these details by their staff. Environmental impact on swine production is many times a hidden cost due to the fact that operations are often unaware of a mechanical malfunction at the upper management levels until far after the event has occurred.

It has been said many times before in the business world that setting low targets and achieving them is often less desirable than setting high targets and nearly reaching them. Increasing performance in modern pig production is full of daily challenges, but it is rewarding to the overall business unit as well as the employees within the operation.  

Achieving near-full genetic potential is influenced by disease control, nutrient quality and analysis, intestinal health, barn design, and employee training. Efficiency is also defined by superior management, and this is a prerequisite for success.  If 2:1 feed conversion ratio is our goal then we must also ask how much it will cost us to achieve that level of performance, while recognizing the interventions available today.