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Still a lot to learn about hog nutrition

Ideas for small but significant changes may be difficult to incorporate into large-scale operations

As the hog industry becomes more integrated, small changes in nutrition can have significant financial impacts across large systems.

That means that swine nutritionists and academics are challenged to think about what level of proof is needed for changes to be implemented in the barn.

John Patience.
photo: Supplied

That is one of the conundrums facing swine nutrition, says John Patience, a professor in the department of animal science at Iowa State University. Patience was raised in Ontario, completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Guelph and was a research leader at the Prairie Swine Centre before moving to the United States. He was the presenter of the Kees de Lange Memorial Lecture at the university’s Swine Research Day held recently in Guelph, Ont.

De Lange was a well-respected swine nutritionist who died in August 2016. Patience called him the “global thought leader in swine nutrition.”

The university also announced at the research day that a scholarship will be created in de Lange’s name.

The manual gets longer

Kees de Lange’s work in fact shows how much has been learned in swine nutrition over the past 50 years. The National Research Council (NRC) based in the United States sets the global standard for animal nutrition with its guidelines, which are the manual for livestock nutrition. The first one in the 1960s was about 80 pages. The latest update, led by de Lange in 2012, was more than 400 pages.

“It needed greater detail because fundamentally that was the level the industry was operating at,” says Patience.

Despite those 400 pages, Patience says there are significant limitations to what nutritionists can do, and the future of nutrition will be to overcome these challenges:

  • Feed mills are based on high throughput, especially those in the U.S. Midwest. Patience says a nutritionist might have a great idea to save $2 per hog, but there may be no way to get that ration change through a feed mill.
  • Nutritionists need better information about what is going on in barns in real time. With tight biosecurity and farmer concern about information sharing, it is difficult to have the information to make nutritional changes quickly on farms.
  • Energy systems have significant practical and technical limitations. Digestibility requirements change with age. Net energy is a measure used in feed formulation, but it can be calculated in several ways.
  • Pigs vary greatly in their biological capacity, and nutritional models have challenges taking that into consideration. Does a ration aim at the average, the top, or the bottom performers?
  • Academics define successful experiments by their repeatability. How much can the results be trusted? Academics talk about P-Value, and an experiment with a lower P-Value than 0.05 is usually considered not repeatable enough. However, Patience says he’s had to challenge his own assumptions about repeatability in the real world of hog production in Iowa. A P-Value of 0.02 means something will still be right four out of five times.

“If the payback is in dollars per pig, I can’t ignore it,” says Patience. If an employee tells their boss they can save $1 to $2 per pig, and the repeatability is four out of five, the boss will want to know why they shouldn’t do it.

Ten cents per pig saving is worth a lot of money to farms selling hundreds of thousands of pigs per year, he says.

  • The rapid growth of feed additives makes for more decisions by nutritionists, some that have to be made with scant research available. As the use of antibiotics for growth promotion becomes limited, the need for understanding novel additives will be increasingly important.
  • Improving feed efficiency means pigs that need to use less energy for maintenance. As unhealthy pigs need more energy to fight infection, the value of maintaining a healthy herd will only increase in the future, when less energy goes to maintenance.

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