Evidence Based Pig Production

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This framework uses data, people and technology to drive financially sustainable pig operations.

By Fredrik Sandberg

Raising livestock as part of a business can be challenging in volatile global markets. Many external and internal factors affect income and expenses.

In this environment, how can you most effectively control your system through captured data and the key people who operate your enterprise? The best approach, I argue, is to track performance and profitability in as close to real time as possible, and to be able to forecast future performance and revenue.

In this short article, I will describe a general, and on the surface very simple, framework for setting your farming operation up for a powerful and robust system using data and key influencers for your business. The system is simple in principle, but as you sit down and review every aspect in light of your farm, it requires significant commitment.

We can describe this system as “evidence-based pig production” following the model of evidence-based medicine. In the latter system, research or data is “pre-screened” by specialists in a given field, before your family doctor uses this information to decide on medical treatments.

The key paradigm is organized data and information, which is then reviewed by an expert, before the producer uses any of that information to make management decisions. This approach is hard because it requires discipline. In animal production, we also need input from many individuals with a range of expertise, including veterinarians, geneticists, nutritionists, risk managers, ventilation experts, farm staff, bankers and audit managers, to make successful and fast management decisions.

The stakeholders in your business

In modern agriculture, we seek financial sustainability and stability. For your business to be stable and capable of withstanding either internal (e.g. disease outbreak) or external (e.g. trade embargo effects on meat prices) pressures, effective communication and teamwork are critical.

What we see with many successful producers is that they quickly and effectively share relevant information with the different stakeholders in their businesses. Stakeholders include nutritionists, veterinarians, bankers, genetic suppliers, farm staff, growers and feed mill staff. Producers and stakeholders need to share, review and interpret this information on a frequent basis. The timeline for review varies by parameter – daily for mortality, for example, and monthly or quarterly for close out.

Disseminating this information brings it into the light and allows the stakeholders (i.e. people who RELY on the stability and success of your business) to provide critical input to make improvements in the operation. The key, and greatest, challenge is the timeliness of this dissemination.

Knowing and maximizing the genetic potential of your herd

Regardless of the phase of production, your production data is always constrained by the maximum genetic potential of the animal you are producing. This limitation is the case for ALL physiological traits that you are monitoring: e.g. total born, birth weight, weaning weight, average daily gain, feed intake, feed efficiency or carcass traits.

Do not confuse “production potential” with “genetic potential.” The concept of “production potential” can be misleading as it refers to the “typical performance of an animal in a particular type of environment” – it does not refer to genetic potential.


The genetic potential means that the maximum growth rate is, for example, 2.0 lbs/day (or 0.9 kg/day) from weaning to market – and it cannot be exceeded. If a sow has a maximum genetic potential to have a total of 15 piglets, she will not lay down and give 16 or 17 pigs, regardless what we do.

It is critical to strive to know the genetic potential of your animals. Genetic and nutritional suppliers, as well as external resources such as universities, are key sources for this information.

Once you know the maximum potential of your animal, then you can decide how close to that genetic potential it is economically feasible to attain at any given time. For example, you can decide if you should feed low or higher energy diets, if you should invest in state of the art ventilation, or if you should increase space per pig. As we look to long-term performance data, genetic improvements have very large and long-term consequences.

Knowing, understanding and communicating your health status

Health status is critical to animal production. Our challenge is how do we effectively report that health status in a numerical and reliable way to our veterinary staff and other support staff (e.g. production managers or nutritionists) in as close to real time as is possible? These stakeholders can use this information to help us make any necessary interventions.

The use of cellphone applications, as well as cloudbased information sharing, has moved our ability for such communication forward extensively. Whether large or small, producers can easily afford to use these technologies with significant benefits.


Mortality and medical treatments occur on daily basis, across multiple stages of production – but how often do you review and communicate that information? As we look to track health, we need to look beyond simply death loss on a daily basis. We also need to begin recording and monitoring medical treatments, amount and level of medications we administer, as well as water consumption.

Effectively communicating and analyzing these key indicators of health information will arm you with the greatest level of management control. The fluctuations in health is undoubtedly the greatest internal financial risk factor of any livestock farm.


Knowing your production capability

Every system is set up to function at different levels. Some owner-operators are upset when nursery death loss exceeds 1 per cent. Other larger systems, due to external labor and/ or poorer quality facilities are happy with less than 3 per cent death loss for the same phase of production. Stakeholders must know what your goals are. This is where records and data become powerful as they are not subjective – rather, they are based in facts.

The physical aspects of production environments are hugely variable. I work with producers from North Carolina to northern Minnesota and most states in between. The variation in designs of feeders, slats, room dividers, hallways and ventilation systems still takes me back. Yet, all those factors will directly affect the final performance and data. Geographical aspects of the external environment, in terms of heat and humidity, are also critical.

Production records are about averages and consistency – it only takes one or two poorly producing sites in a system to pull the system average down. We need to identify these sites quickly, and either remedy the situation or remove these sites from the system. We need to know and communicate the limits in our production environments to our stakeholders so they can support our success. With the use of modern technologies, we can communicate water, temperature and many other aspects of the production environment in real time.

The final hurdle: the “average pig” versus a population of pigs

When we look at the average daily gain of a close out or the average weight of a load of pigs going to slaughter, these are all averages with no reference to the individual pigs represented by that value (the population). This level of information requires detailed research where producers track individual animals.

An exception to the focus on population-level data is slaughter records, where data can be available at the individual animal level. We may choose, for example, to use a lower level of medication or simpler rations in the nursery, and average daily gain or feed efficiency is not affected negatively on the close out. Yet, six months later, we have a much more variable group of pigs at slaughter and struggle to meet our marketing target weight.

Figure 1 on page 36 shows the results of a trial where pigs were either fed two standard phases from 200 lbs (90.7 kg) to market, or were fed those same diets containing a feed ingredient called Lean Fuel®.

Carcass weight was increased by 1.9 lbs (0.9 kg) by feeding Lean Fuel®, and the standard deviation was reduced greatly from 19.2 to 16.9 lbs (or 8.7 kg to 7.7 kg). The overall distribution of carcass weights shifted to the more favorable weights, together with a reduction in lighter pigs. A standard deviation of 19 lbs (8.6 kg) means that 95 per cent of the pigs will approximately be within an 80 lb (36 kg) range, and a standard deviation of 16.9 lbs (7.7 kg) means pigs fall within a range of 70 lbs (31.8 kg).

As packer matrixes have very high value areas in their grids, a reduced standard deviation can yield significant additional revenue. Without looking at overall performance TOGETHER with individual performances, we could not have identified this improvement. There are many such examples we could give. Working with your production data to monitor your ENTIRE population of individual animals as well as the averages of the whole, in light of your genetic, health and production environments, will improve your bottom line.

As a nutritionist, I have often seen one of the aforementioned factors alter animals’ response to a given feeding program because producers or stakeholders did not communicate something upfront. Without effectively communicating good quality records and data for ALL of the key components of your system that affect performance, you will not maximize the support of your stakeholders and optimize your system stability.

- Fredrik Sandberg, Vice-president of health and nutrition, Furst-McNess Company

Dr. Fredrik Sandberg is the vicepresident of health and nutrition for the Furst-McNess Company. He has primary oversight of the company’s swine feeding program, as well as its research and development program, with a heavy focus on antibiotic-free and ractopaminefree feeding programs for swine, poultry and ruminants. Sandberg completed his PhD at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, with a focus on computational modeling of growth and nutrient requirements in swine during periods of health and disease.

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