Just 12 months ago, pig producers were experiencing a long-awaited period of strong profitability on the back of the brightest outlook for the sector in decades.
Having endured a prolonged period of sluggish pig prices and high feed costs well into 2019, which saw the lowest margin over feed in 20 years, this upturn was just what the doctor ordered.
Few could have foreseen the tumultuous year that lay ahead.
However, by early March, the anticipated record breaking year was already starting to unravel.
When domestic prices eventually stabilised in mid-May, the sector had already sustained a significant hit with a price drop in excess of 30c/kg within this time.
Having sustained a number of periods marred by low profitability within the last five years, producers are thankfully in a much needed position to reinvest in their businesses.
Most of us have heard of the popular proverb “your employees are your most valuable asset” and given the critical role farm staff play in animal production and welfare, this is true of any pig unit.
Facilities such as toilets, shower areas, changing rooms and canteens are high traffic areas on farm with staff spending at least an hour here during their working day.
Furthermore, with a renewed awareness around farm biosecurity in recent months, now is an opportune time to ensure your facilities are fit for purpose and complement good biosecurity particularly in the area of changing rooms and showers.
The simplest and most effective designs include a pressurised washer for boots contained under a covered area outside the staff entrance, a rack for boot storage away from shower areas to avoid cross contamination, handwashing facilities immediately inside the main entrance to the building, warm changing and shower rooms with distinctly separate “dirty” and “clean” areas, and laundry appliances to allow farm clothes and used towels to be cleaned and dried regularly.
The farrowing house is the engine of any pig unit and older farrowing accommodation will benefit from investment. As litter sizes have progressively increased in recent years, soon farrowing pens may no longer be fit to comfortably handle additional numbers.
Pen dimensions installed 15 or 20 years ago were designed to cater for born-alive figures of 10 to 12 piglets.
With litter sizes increasing and the average born alive in Ireland surpassing 14 for the first time in 2019, traditional farrowing pens can increase the incidence of young piglet overlays and animals may become tight for space at nursing time as weaning approaches.
Revamping older farrowing houses to allow for increased space per pen will reduce mortality associated with overlays and leave more space for larger litters to grow.
Take, for example, a 500-sow unit with farrowing rooms comprising two rows of six pens 5.5ft wide each.
Revamping the houses to two rows of five pens 6.5ft wide, plus 20 new farrowing pens would cost roughly €100,000. With a 2% saving in preweaning mortality the payback on this investment at current prices is just shy of three years.
Finisher performance is one of the key drivers of profitability and improvements here affect the bottom line.
In wet feed scenarios, Teagasc researcher Peadar Lawlor recently investigated the difference that exists between the feed conversion efficiency (FCE) achieved on dry- versus wet-fed pigs. This difference can be attributed to physical and microbial loss associated with wet feeding and a number of changes can be made on farm to minimise this loss.
Microbial loss on the other hand occurs as a consequence of spontaneous fermentation
Physical loss occurs when pigs spill or drag feed out of the troughs and this can be reduced by installing trough dividers and/or a step to raise troughs off the floor making it more difficult for animals to waste feed. It is important not to raise troughs to a height where feed access may be hindered for younger animals.
Microbial loss on the other hand occurs as a consequence of spontaneous fermentation where bugs such as yeasts and moulds habitually found in rations grow and proliferate once the feed is mixed with water.
These bugs feast on the expensive amino acids and energy sources in rations thereby reducing the nutritional quality of the diet and it is estimated that fermentation can reduce the lysine content of the ration by as much as 20%.
Residual feed in short troughs is of particular concern as this will freely ferment in warm finisher houses.
Reducing the drop and increasing the frequency, for example from 15kg to 10kg per circulation thereby feeding less more often, or dropping the sensor level in the trough, are ways to avoid a buildup of residual feed.
Microbial fermentation, however, will also occur in the mix tank and lines when feed is left sitting for periods of time. Ideally, a fresh mix should be prepared for each feed on long trough systems and on short troughs, fresh feed should be mixed frequently throughout the day to reduce this loss.
For dry feeding scenarios, access to feed is hugely important
The installation of additional equipment may be required to allow for increased mixing frequency with a new tank, pump and associated fittings costing in the region of €10,000. The payback on this investment will be realised with an improvement in FCE.
For dry feeding scenarios, access to feed is hugely important. An old rule of thumb was one wet/dry feeder to 13 pigs but that was based on a sale weight of 95kg. With sale weights in Ireland averaging closer to 115kg at present, the recommendation is now one feeder per 10 pigs. This will reduce competition, queuing at feeders and increase access to feed thereby improving intakes and growths.
Energy costs represent 9% of the total non-feed costs involved in pig production. As a society we are moving more towards green or renewable energy sources and not to be left behind, there are a number of incentives available to pig producers to reduce the reliance on non-renewable energy sources and help lower energy costs.
The SSRH provides an installation grant of up to 30% on the boiler and ongoing operational support for a period of up to 15 years for eligible applicants
Supplementary heating of farrowing rooms and weaner housing is one of the most energy expensive activities on farm and the installation of a biomass boiler through the Support Scheme for Renewable Heat (SSRH) is an effective way to reduce associated costs and move away from a reliance on fossil fuel heating. The SSRH provides an installation grant of up to 30% on the boiler and ongoing operational support for a period of up to 15 years for eligible applicants. The scheme is currently open and accepting applications on the SEAI website.
TAMS II provides 40% grant funding via the Pig and Poultry Investment Scheme (PPIS) on a number of investments aimed at improving energy efficiency at farm level. Eligible investments include roof and wall insulation, ventilation systems, heat pads, LED lighting and the installation of solar PV panels.
Reinvesting on the farm will yield dividends
Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue recently announced the ceiling for TAMS funding under the PPIS will be raised to €200,000 in the next tranche, which is likely to open in mid-April. While 2020 did not pan out as expected for the wider pig industry and the lost opportunity is bitterly disappointing for producers who have weathered numerous challenging storms in recent years, the profitability, albeit modest, is welcome nonetheless.
Reinvesting on the farm will yield dividends and the options outlined in this article represent examples of real opportunities to enhance performance, profitability and resilience.