International commodity prices were setting the news agenda as visitors and exhibitors assembled at Zaragoza in Spain for the 2007 edition of the livestock production show called Fima Ganadera. Most talk of the commodities market still related to feed grains, but the equipment makers added a warning about stainless steel.

Suppliers of pen furniture to the pig sector placed the blame squarely on a handful of big nickel-producing corporations for the sharp rise seen in the price of stainless steel over the previous 12 months. With nickel currently trading at around US$50 000 per metric ton, they reported, grade-316 sheet stainless steel had risen by almost 60% in a year from US$4590/ton to US$7300/ton.

The speed of further increases was in itself creating unusual effects in the market for pig equipment, with one European manufacturer acknowledging that its quotes for new projects were being issued with the stipulation that the price could not be guaranteed for more than one month from the date of quotation.

The challenge for all supply companies, said industry insiders, would be to find alternative and more affordable materials in which to make the products they offered at present in stainless steel. Feeders and drinkers were called the primary targets, with a suggestion that troughs in both plastic and glass-fibre were likely to appear shortly from sources with fast access to the appropriate moulds.

Feeder design gave a theme of the pig equipment displays through the Fima this year, as illustrated by our accompanying photos of a selection of products. In the ones for finishing feeds and piglet diets the twin points of emphasis focused on avoiding wastage and optimising hygiene. Where those had universal overtones, however, the main drivers for the Spanish marketplace specifically highlighted liquid feeding in the grow-finish stage and group feeding of gestating sows.

In the words of one exhibitor active in Spain, little by little the enquiries nationally about wet-feed projects have been growing until they point to a major change in demand. Receiving only 2-3 such enquiries at any time would have been normal in the recent past, whereas today they often number 10-12. An example described from near Lerida, in the heartland of Spain's pig production, has a finishing enterprise doubling its size and simultaneously switching all the places to liquid feeding. This typifies most new Spanish installations for wet feed by starting with a relatively simple mixture of complete diet and water, although the users soon begin to investigate the possibilities to cut costs by including some by-products.

From a supplier's viewpoint the breakthrough seems to have been in attitudes to feed hygiene. The producers previously hesitated to adopt a liquid feeding regime because of their concerns that pipeline residues would become stale or ferment in the heat of the summer. Modern systems that address the hygiene issue appear to have overcome that objection.

Hesitation remains locally over the use of wet feeds in ESF feeding stations for grouped sows. Producers apparently dislike the complexity of having separate computerised controls for liquid-feed preparation and for sow feeding, plus they have been advised that the pipeline would need daily flushing for hygiene purposes. However, the basic principle of keeping the sows in groups for gestation is becoming accepted in Spain under the pressure of the European Union regulation that will ban individual stall housing for pregnant sows.

There were reported to be 6 suppliers of ESF stations now active on the Spanish market and a constant stream of enquiries to them from herds wanting to invest in the system. One dealer alone has sold 150 of the stations in the past 2 years.

Future sales projections remain positive, especially in dealing with the new generation of big units although even relatively small herd operators (with just 1-2 groups of 70-75 sows) were said to be changing to ESF. The advice in most cases seems to have been to form dynamic groups for gestation, on the basis that a stable group with a single feeding station risks dominance and bullying by boss sows.  PIGI