Feeding Pigs in Extensive Production: Part 1

Complete feed rations are Important for the nutrition of your pigs


Extensive pork production is often driven by the objectives of a market niche, what may be easiest to do when beginning to farm, and what generates some profit, rather than what is most efficient and costs the least.  Extensive farmers may be willing to accept biologically inefficient production methods and costlier inputs compared to commodity producers, and consequently seek markets willing to compensate them for the unique product they produce.  Their farms are not large enough to take advantage of economies of scale.

In this case, “extensive pork production” refers to niche, small-farm, backyard, local, heritage, out-back or part-time producers who want to do it themselves on their own property. Typically, the numbers of growing and reproducing pigs are 3-100.

Like in the mid-20th century, today’s extensive pork producers are raising pigs outdoors or in low-cost buildings.  Initially, they manage feeds and feeding in those settings. New farmers are excited and may be willing to spend extra money if needed for the principles and beliefs they adhere to. They successfully sell to like-minded consumers.  The excitement begins to wear off if customers stop buying because products are too expensive. If this happens, the new farmer must find ways to reduce costs or find customers willing to pay more in order for the farm business is to be profitable. They ask how they can decrease cost of production, and they search for the most valuable change they can make to their current feed procurement plan; realizing that feed is the most expensive input.

In this two-part series, several management and procurement approaches are discussed relative to feeding pigs in extensive settings.  Feed is available in ready-to-feed bags, ready-to-feed bulk, or one can purchase ingredients and formulate their own.  Generally, the cost of feed decreases with increasing responsibility for grinding, formulating, mixing, storage and quality control. Taking on responsibility for devising the nutritional program and making the feed must result in equivalent or improved production and a cost improvement that accounts for the added time and knowledge (more time formulating, buying individual ingredients, more automation for bulk procurement of ingredients, equipment and power to manufacture feed, automation for delivery to bins, and delivery to feeders).

Meet Nutritional Requirements

Desirable growth, animal health and product quality are most readily obtained by providing pigs their daily nutrient requirements, each day.  Daily rations should be specific to the stage of growth and (or) reproduction, and they should provide minimum daily requirements suggested by the National Research Council (NRC)2. Understand that NRC guidelines are aimed at the majority of pigs, more of which are higher lean growth than most heritage breed pigs, and more often raised indoors.  Because extensively reared pigs are typically outdoors for part each day, the requirements of NRC, which are minimum requirements, are sufficient because feed intakes are generally greater in extensive/outdoor situations.  Further discussion about the basics of nutrition, ration formulation, intake allowances, and the contribution of grazing may be found Swine Nutrition and the National Swine Nutrition Guide, and a review about feeding swine in niche situations by Dr. Allen Harper (2012).

Buying Complete Feed

Feed that is ready to be fed to pigs is referred to as a ‘complete feed’, as it contains all required nutrients.  The ingredients may be grains, grain by-products, forages, dried animal products, minerals, and vitamins.  These complete feeds are made at a feed manufacturing facility; which is sometimes a local grain elevator and sometimes a regional commercial feed mill.  Complete feeds may be purchased from the local elevator, farm stores, or from an area feed dealer.  Local elevators will provide feed in bulk or bagged.  Feed from farm stores or dealers is typically in bags and referred to as ‘floor stock’.  The potency of vitamins and minerals in a complete feed decreases with time, exposure to heat and moisture, and sunlight if in clear plastic. This is referred to as ‘shelf-life’, and the sellers and buyers of complete feed share responsibility for the quality of feed presented to the pigs.  When you purchase a complete feed, you are buying their expertise in knowing the dietary requirements, nutrient availability in the feedstuffs used in the mix, grinding and mixing, and quality control. With the purchase of the complete feed, you do not grow or buy the feed ingredients. You do not have to store feed ingredients and be concerned about loss of nutrition, pest infestation, and spoilage.

The complete feed made by small local grain elevators is typically in meal form.  Larger commercial feed mills often make feeds in pellet form.  Pelleted feed is more expensive. The first advantage of pelleted feed is that pigs cannot sort through their feed, so each bite represents the balanced diet as designed.  The second advantage of pelleted feed is that the pigs waste less feed and the feed-to-gain ratio is more desirable. With a well-designed feeder, more frequent small meals, and less feed wastage, the feed-to-gain ratio of pigs receiving feed in meal form can be equal to those received pelleted feed.  Taking measures to minimize feed waste, regardless of feed form, may have far greater economic payback than changing your procurement approach from buying complete feed to some degree of at-home mixing.  If you see feed on the ground around a feeder, you know you are wasting over 10%.

Shop for Best Feed Price

One day in December of 2018, three elevators and one local farmer (with 6000 sows and an on-farm mill) were asked the cost of one ton of a 15% crude protein finishing ration.  The answers received were $251, $320, $256, and $141 per ton. Take time to call or visit elevators in your vicinity to shop for a less expensive price.  Investigate if it is possible to negotiate feed price based on a larger quantity and a commitment to buy for an extended period of time.  When buying from a mill or elevator that you have not used before, ask other customers how their pigs have performed on the ration you are considering.

Do your best to evaluate nutritional equivalency when shopping by comparing feed tags.  All commercially available feeds must be labeled, and that label must include a guaranteed analysis stating the nutrient concentrations guaranteed by the manufacturer. Nutrients which must be guaranteed are determined by each state’s government agricultural agency. Concentrations of all trace minerals (copper, zinc, iron, selenium, manganese, and iodine) and vitamins (A, D3, E, K, B12, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, niacin, choline, biotin, folic acid, and pyridoxine) may not be presented on the feed tag, but they are important and rations must be balanced for them.  The feed tag must also include the common name of each ingredient. Some states permit use of ‘collective terms’ for ingredients of similar type (common origin and similar function). This allows the manufacturer to substitute one ingredient for another as market prices fluctuate.  In contrast, some feed manufacturers use a locked formula where feed products are made using the same ingredients time after time.  Feed milled according to a locked formula may fluctuate more in price with ingredient availability.  Additional information needs to be included on the label if a medication has been added to the feed.

Bulk or Bagged

Swine Feed Lable
Figure 1 Example of Swine Feed Label

Feed bins, wood, metal or plastic, allow for the storage of ‘tons’ of feed.  The price benefit of buying complete feed in bulk may be significant.  The cost advantage may pay for a used or new bin in a few years if the number of pigs you feed annually is large enough. The price difference between bulk and bagged complete feed will be specific to the feed mill and the distance from the mill to your home.  The price advantage with purchasing bulk feed is obtained with quantities of one ton or more.  Many local elevators cannot make smaller quantities easily and accurately.  Most mixers are not made to uniformly mix 500 pound batches, and the charge to make a batch of less than one ton has either the same “mix” cost as one ton, or may even be greater. Building your own bins from wood may be cheapest.  Wood, however, is very difficult to sanitize if that becomes necessary following exposure to a pathogen, mold, mycotoxin or other anti-nutritional factor.

For an example, let’s say that the price of bagging is $15 per ton, and the price of a new galvanized steel bin is $1250, the purchase of about 84 tons of feed in bulk instead of bags would pay for the bin.  The cost of the bin may be spread over several years, making the prospect of payback achievable with even fewer pigs. Thus, the factor in making a decision to purchase a bulk feed bin, is having enough pigs to consume at least a ton of a specific diet. North Carolina State University in their Swine Nutrition Guide states that a sow and her 18.5 pigs will consume 7.3 tons of feed annually in a distribution (column heading “% of total”) as shown in Table 1. The right-hand column shows the estimated number of animals (pigs or sows) that need to be in a cohort to consume one ton of feed.  So it takes at least 254 nursery pigs to consume one ton of their first diet and it takes at least 5 nursing sows to consume a ton of lactation feed.  Likewise, only 20 feeder pigs will justify the purchase of bulk feed for rearing to harvest weights.

Table 1. Feed usage by stage of production.
Diet Typical weight, lbs. % of total Number of animals to consume one ton of feed
Starter 1 12-15 1 254
Starter 2 15-25 2 127
Starter 3 25-50 3 85
Grower 1 50-125 13 20
Grower 2 125-200 20 13
Finisher 200-mkt 45 6
Gestation 350-500 10 3
Lactation 350-500 6 5

Table 1 Example of swine feed by stage of production

If one ton of feed is too much for the number of pigs you plan to feed, then various consequences need to be considered.  With too few pigs being fed in a given growth period on the small farm, then you may feed them a diet longer, which is over-fortified for them.  Or you may feed an under-fortified diet early, as it is cheaper.  Underfed pigs grow more slowly and deposit less lean mass, particularly when 2 to 4 months of age.  This results in less product, and the butcher or customer saying that the hogs are “too fat and there is not enough ham.”  Overfeeding is a waste of money and a greater environmental responsibility as excess nutrients are excreted.  If one ton of feed is too much, consider whether it may be possible to split orders with other farms in close proximity.  Many small farms will need to purchase starter feed in bags but may be able to take advantage of bulk pricing for feed for market hogs or sows.