The science of precision pig feeding has come along nicely, but the manufacturing industry has been slow to climb on board, according to the project’s lead researcher.
Candido Pomar, of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was set to bring his pig-specific feeder to commercial trials in 2016 at Prairie Swine Centre, the Manitoba Co-operator reported in mid-2015. Since then, however, he says there has been little industry movement.
“The research is going on very nicely,” he said. “We are improving the system… new concepts and so on. This part is going quite well.”
It’s the technology transfer to industry Pomar describes as “… going very slowly.” They’ve had a hard time convincing feeder manufacturers to take the project on.
The research aims to cut out extra feed cost and reduce the amount of manure in Canada’s hog barns by tailor mixing feed for each pig, based on a history of feeding habits and growth. In 2015, the project promised to lower feed costs by 10 to 15 per cent without lowering carcass performance or size.
Farmers feed to the highest common denominator, Pomar said, a method that ensures that no pigs are underfed since the herd’s heaviest feed users set the standard, but also overfeeds other pigs.
His research, out of AAFC’s Sherbrooke Research and Development Centre, uses a computer model to collect information on body condition, weight gains and growth and feed intake to determine the most efficient feed amount and quality for each individual pig.
Each animal is marked by an electronic chip implanted in the ear. The feeder is then able to identify each animal approaching the feeder and dispense the right amount and mix of feed.
Feed data is taken from the feeders themselves, while several scale configurations are being considered to track the pig’s progress, including a scale in front of the feeder to weigh the pig as it feeds, or a scale that animals must pass over to reach the feeder, Pomar said.
Automatic systems would take daily weight measurements, although the researcher argues that once a week should be enough for commercial operations.
The system is not yet sophisticated enough to measure individual ingredients, but combines two feed mixes, a low-nutrient mix and a higher-nutrient mix, which includes higher soybean protein, minerals and vitamins.
“What we call the ‘rich’ feed is similar to a feed that the industry formulates for young pigs at the beginning of the growing period, so around 20-20 kilograms,” Pomar said.
Pomar estimates his system will save producers $8 per pig in feed, equating to 23 kilograms of soybean meal and 0.6 kilogram of phosphate over the growth period.
More efficient feed also leads to less manure that must be stored or spread, the project argues. Trials have shown up to 40 per cent less nitrogen excreted and Pomar expects a similar 25-30 per cent drop in phosphorus.
For Manitoba’s hog industry, which has taken both regulatory and public opinion hits based on nutrient load in Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, those numbers may spark interest.
The Manitoba Pork Council said only that precision feeding is still in its early phases and that there are “some glitches being worked out,” according to a spokesperson.
Pomar has yet to confirm a manufacturer for the feeder, but change to the industry may be another hurdle, since the feeders would require farms to shift feed compositions and overcome logistical problems.
“The industry would need not just to buy the feeders. It will need also to find the optimal way to use all these feeding approaches,” Pomar said. “It’s not just adding something to what it is doing. It is going to have to change the way it is feeding pigs.”
So far, there has been little interest in bringing the feeder to market in Canada, Pomar said, although his research has gained more traction in Europe. Pomar says three European companies have shown interest and he expects them to start applying his concepts by as early as next year.
“I think we need to make an effort here in Canada to further develop this approach and especially in applying this technology in commercial farms,” he said. “Otherwise, we are going to see other countries applying this concept before us and I think that we are going to be able, with this approach, to be able to improve the economics of production, but also, I think, in terms of environmental impact, this might be improved. I think there’s a clear interest and I’m quite sure that in five to 10 years, this technology is going to be applied somewhere.”
Crossover from dairy
Individualized feed is old news for the dairy industry, where a concept similar to Pomar’s has been on the market for at least a decade. The technology appeared alongside robotic milking, something that has since become common.
“The robots are able to identify, of course, the cow and how much milk it’s producing and puts the appropriate amount of feed in front of the cow and gives the cow access to the robot to be milked based on their productions,” Bruce Grewar of the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba said.
Nico Vos, president of the Tristar Dairy Centre in Grunthal, is among those to sell precision dairy feeders. Like Pomar’s feeder, each animal is fitted with a transponder (as a collar rather than an implant). Information can then be taken on feeding habits, animal health, lactation cycle and milk production.
“We feed the cows according to milk production, so if you have a really high-producing cow, in order to maintain its body condition, again, we have to feed more grain and additives to that cow,” he said. “She breeds a lot easier and gets pregnant a lot easier.”
The equipment takes a significant chunk out of feed costs, Vos said. Also, like Pomar, experts have argued that the technology can be used to better monitor animal health.
Currently, Vos said equipment measures bulk milk output rather than fat content or other quality considerations.
“It’s fairly basic yet,” he said.
What’s the cost?
Without industry partners, it is hard to say how much a precision pig feeder will cost the average farmer or how long it will take for efficiencies to offset equipment cost. Precision feeders in Europe cost well into the thousands of dollars, Pomar said, targeted for niche research use rather than the commercial product he expects to eventually see.
“For commercial purposes, I expect that the feeder itself should be much, much lower than that, but we don’t have it, so I don’t know how much it may cost,” he said. “That’s maybe the difficulty today.”
Some benefits, however, may not appear in a straight cost analysis, he added.
The technology might offer an early warning signal for disease, something that’s been of particular concern in Manitoba this year with the most recent PEDv outbreak in the southeastern part of the province.
“For me, I think it’s going to be an instant reduction of feed cost, but we are going to see also important benefits on having the information about what each pig is doing every day,” Pomar said. “A pig that is getting sick, that is going to change his pattern of feed intake.”
That same data may translate into better planning, including forecast performance to plan transport and slaughter, as well as less time spent monitoring herds, he added.