What can pig producers do when feed prices increase and impact their cost of production to the extent seen this year? A series of suggestions has been offered in the UK, by the industry agency called the British Pig Executive.

Increasing feed prices bring a need for improved efficiency, it declares. Within Britain, feeds represent nearly 80% of the variable costs of producing a pig and 50% of total costs. Feed price increases therefore have a major influence on profitability. Responses by producers could include changing to a cheaper type of ration or purchasing feeds in larger quantities to obtain an extra discount, but more often can involve finding improvements in the unit's technical performance.

Checks on efficiency

Start with feed efficiency. Checking feed intake on a regular basis will help in optimising diet formulations and will enable fluctuations of intake to be detected, say the agency's bulletins, assisting the identification of likely causes of reductions or increases. Therefore try to devise a way of measuring the feed intake of the whole building or of individual pens.

Too often, expensive feed is wasted by being spilled onto the floor. The spillage is either lost through the gaps between the slats or it forms a residue of spoiled feed around the trough. The cause of the wastage needs to be identified. Ask if the hopper design is correct for the size of pig. Look whether overstocking means crowded pens in which feeding is uneven. Possibly the feeder flow rates require adjustment or the feed distribution system is in need of repair.

Routine checks should include the feeding space you provide for your pigs. The accompanying Table 1 from welfare codes supplies a guide. Any signs of the pigs crowding around the feed hopper or trough may mean there is insufficient feeder/hopper space for the number and size of animals in the pen. For example, evidence of ear biting or fresh shoulder scars in the group from fighting at or around the feeder would indicate either that there was not enough feeding space or that hopper placement/access was inadequate.

Obviously the feeders must be clean, without caked feed or fouling in the trough area. Troughs should be cleaned out on a daily basis, to reduce wastage and to encourage intake. Make sure that the hoppers are working correctly. Adjust the feeder flow rates to maintain intake while reducing wastage. Depending on the hopper, flow rates may need to be adjusted as the pigs grow. Examine each hopper to ensure that the feeding system works.

Feed quality also enters the equation. The presence of dust, fine particles or lumps of clogged feed will reduce the amount eaten. It is possible the hopper or auger mechanism is crushing particles or affecting pellet size and so increasing wastage.

Inspect the feed storage bins or silos. Any sign of mould and mites should be followed by a prompt search for the source. Perhaps there is clogged feed in the hopper or storage conditions are poor by being damp. Mouldy feed must be discarded immediately. Look again at rodent and bird control, perhaps the bait needs renewing. Vermin are more than a health risk, they can also lead to expensive feed waste.

Then there is the question of diet specification. A review of your feed strategies should aim to ensure that the composition of the feeds and the timing of diet changes match pig flow, age of pig and actual growth rates. A fixed policy on changing diets needs to be reviewed regularly to reflect changes on the unit that may have affected growth rates.

Water availability

The pigs' intake of water is crucial as it drives the amount of feed they eat and therefore their growth rate. The British bulletins point out that good management on the unit should always include a check on water availability and flow rates. It is simple to measure the rate of flow, they add. All you need is a measuring jug and a stopwatch. See in Table 2 how flow rates compare with the pigs' daily requirement for water. The recommendation is to have at least one nipple drinker for every 10 pigs, functioning correctly so that it supplies them with a ready source of clean water. These drinkers have to be at the correct height for the production stage or pig size and they must be positioned correctly to allow ready access. Ensure that all water systems are part of the pen cleaning routine, that waterers are flushed to clear them on a regular basis (at least between each batch) and that header storage tanks have intact covers.

Hygiene has an important part to play in keeping costs down. Valuable improvements in growth rates and efficiency related to health and hygiene from cleaner systems have been demonstrated on many units. Follow an all-in/all-out policy wherever possible, say the bulletins, with correct cleaning and disinfection of pens and houses between the batches. Review your cleaning policy with your veterinary adviser to ensure that cleaning is effective, with the appropriate disinfectants used at the correct dilution rates.

Controlling temperatures

With production costs in mind, look also at the opportunities to reduce energy usage in climate control. For example, the agency advises, many nurseries have the minimum ventilation set at or above 20% of the installed capacity. Yet a nursery that is clean, dry and ready to stock should not require its fans to run at more than 5% of ventilation capacity at the start. This lower setting offers a reduction in energy uptake of up to 75%.

Remember how high temperatures within buildings reduce the pigs' appetite and growth rate while cold causes them to use energy to maintain body temperature rather than for growing. Lighting is another area worth investigating. Turning off the lights in a single room or house for 12 hours daily can save money, but 10 times the saving is achievable by installing a timeswitch to turn off all unnecessary lights on the unit for 12 hours per day. As far as heating is concerned, the obvious place to look is in the creep area of the farrowing pen. Enclosing the creep with walls and a lid keeps in the warmth. Using a simple dimmer switch and thermostat to control the heating system can save up to 50% of energy compared with a manual method of heat adjustment.

Unit management might also benefit from a review. Moving and mixing of pigs can be counterproductive if the extra stress depresses the speed and efficiency of their growth. Re-examine your current pig flow with the aim to reduce moves and minimise mixing, in order to keep variation to a minimum and enforce all-in/all-out policies.

Finally, according to the bulletins in the UK do not overlook the contribution obtainable from an investment in the training of workers. British producers have already seen their cost of labour reduced by about 27% through improved output and more efficient methods of working.  PIGI