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Paul Groenewegen: More pigs, more problems

September 15, 2017
With litter rates increasing, it's even more important for the sow and piglets to receive the nutrition necessary for optimum sustainability and quality.
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Tom:                            Paul Groenewegen is the director of innovation and nutrition at Masterfeeds, Inc., an Alltech company. He’s joining us for a look into the question: more pigs, more problems? Thanks for joining us.

Paul:                            Thanks for having me.

Tom:                            What would you identify as the current big disruptor in the swine industry?

Paul:                            The big disruptor right now is keeping as many piglets alive as possible and getting them to market quickly. Our genetics companies have done an incredibly good job at allowing us to have prolific animals. Sows can now have lots of baby pigs. The key is how we get those pigs to market and how we make sure those pigs are of the best quality for consumers.

Tom:                            What does increased pork production mean for the global industry in 2017?

Paul:                            Increased pork production means a greater supply of high-quality protein in the form of bacon, ham, sausage — anything you can get from a pig — for an ever-increasing population and a more affluent society.

Tom:                            Are more piglets per sow sustainable?

Paul:                            Absolutely. When I started in the industry 30 years ago, if you could wean 20 pigs per sow per year, you were doing an excellent job. You were an industry leader.

                                    Now, if we look at countries like Denmark, their industry average of pigs per sow is in the mid-30s. Suddenly you’re producing 50 to 60 percent more pigs per sow per year than were produced a mere 30 years ago. So, that is extremely sustainable. Where the end is, we’re not quite sure. As of right now, it’s very sustainable, and it is an industry necessity to continue producing more and more pigs per sow per year.

Tom:                            What are the consequences of more piglets per litter?

Paul:                            Variability. One of the largest challenges we have in animal agriculture today is variability of animals within a group. So, if you have 16 to 18 piglets in a litter, you’re going to have ranges in weight from 500 grams to about 1.5 kilograms. The average may be 1.1 kilograms to 1.2 kilograms, but you have some very small pigs.

            The real challenge is not only from the survival perspective of those piglets, but also how we allow those piglets to survive and make it to market economically.

                                    We are also concerned with how the piglets are raised in utero, making sure that muscle fiber development is ideal for product quality when they go to market.  

Tom:                            How do producers find a balance between quantity and quality?

Paul:                            It’s a fine balance. As management and nutrition have continued to improve along with genetics, producers are learning ways to increase the number of piglets weaned per sow per year. They are always driving for more piglets, obviously, but the key is management, housing, sanitation and the health of these animals. Improving on those attributes is key to allowing those piglets to survive.

Tom:                            Why is weaning such a critical time?

Paul:                            Well, it’s a critical time because you’re going to change the diet of the baby pig from a milk-based diet to a dry feed-based diet. And there are big implications on the gut of the pig and the gastrointestinal tract. We get villous atrophy. We get different things happening as feed intake drops.

                                    It’s a whole social order as well. So, you have 12 to 14 piglets in a litter. Everyone knows one another. They get weaned. They get taken to a facility where all of a sudden they could be with 30 or 40 others. They’re mixed by size because it helps from a production perspective. So, there’s a whole new social order that’s required.

                                    Mom is no longer there. It’s a fact of life. And they have to learn to eat out of a feeder. They have to learn to drink out of a water bowl. They have to learn to do things differently, and that’s why it’s such a huge challenge for these pigs. In some cases, they’re trucked a long way. In the old-fashioned farrow to finish operation, you would run the piglets down the hallway to the nursery. Now, you put them on a truck and you may truck them one or two hours to the barn. That’s a huge stress on those pigs. But, from a nutrition management, health and welfare perspective, farmers are doing an excellent job to make sure all those pigs survive and do the best they can.

Tom:                            What should producers be paying attention to during this critical time?

Paul:                            I would say one of the most critical things is making sure mom is looked after. Everything that you want the piglet to receive comes through mom in the first three to four weeks of life, before weaning. Make sure the sow’s nutrition program is fully implemented and that the sow can transfer trace elements like selenium to the baby pig, which they really require around weaning time.

                                    Make sure technologies in the feed increase immunoglobulins in the colostrum. As litter size increases, we want mom to produce more colostrum so that all piglets get the same amount and quality. Start with how the sow is treated, from gestation to lactation, to give the piglet the absolute best start. Look after the other details once they get to the nursery.

Tom:                            What lessons can we learn from human infant formulas for pork feed formulas?

Paul:                            That’s a great question because pigs have been used as a model for human infants for years. In fact, I worked with a university professor who spent his whole career using baby pigs as models for human infant formula development. As we enhance human infant formulas and look at technologies such as different types of structural carbohydrates or DHA and selenium, we can learn from those formulations and apply them to baby pigs.

                                    We want the diet that piglets receive after weaning to deliver nutrients in the most bioavailable form, enhance gut development and overall performance, and to increase survivability.

Tom:                            You’ve brought up colostrum. How do we ensure for piglets that they receive an adequate supply?

Paul:                            There are on-farm techniques that can be used such as split-suckling, analyzing litter size and the duration of farrowing time. Obviously, the first pig born has a better opportunity for receiving colostrum than the last pig born. But, there are management techniques that ensure each piglet gets the same amount of time with mom to access as much colostrum as they can.

                                    Also, technology can be used in sow feed to enhance colostrum production. Research shows that by using some Alltech technologies, we can increase colostrum production and also increase immunoglobulin concentration of that colostrum. We’re ensuring that even in bigger litters, all piglets are getting the same amount of higher-quality colostrum, which leads to increased survivability and increased weaning weights.

                                    Pigs never overcome a bad start. If we can get the baby pig off to a good start with colostrum via the mother sow, then we’re off to the races!

Tom:                            What is lactoferrin, and why is it important?

Paul:                            Lactoferrin is a protein that’s required for iron absorption and gut development within the baby pig. It’s one of the proteins found in milk.

                                    New research shows that when lactoferrin is available in the post-weaning diet, it continues to enhance gastrointestinal function. When you enhance gastrointestinal function and development, the baby pig will absorb more nutrients of high-quality feed.  

Tom:                            What about DHA?

Paul:                            Again, since baby pigs are used as models for humans and vice-versa, we know that human infants and baby pigs both require DHA for overall health. DHA enhances the function and development of central nervous system tissues and promotes the general welfare of pigs.

Tom:                            We’ve talked about colostrum. We’ve talked about lactoferrin. We’ve talked about DHA. What about nucleotides? Why are they important?

Paul:                            Nucleotides are the building blocks of DNA. We know that the baby animal already produces some nucleotides. But to support fast-growing intestinal cells, we should also provide nucleotides.

                                    As intestinal tissue grows very rapidly in a young animal, we need to supply enough nucleotides to build the DNA, to build the tissue, to build a more functional gastrointestinal track so that the pigs can absorb more nutrients from their diet.

Tom:                            What would you say is the ideal starter diet for piglets?

Paul:                            The ideal starter diet is high in digestibility, contains functional proteins and contains nutrients like nucleotides and glutamic acid, which is the primary energy source of the developing enterocyte. We want to make sure we support gut development as quickly as possible. We’re looking for diets with highly palatable ingredients and diets that contain other functional nutrients like lactoferrin to drive absorption and the development of the gastrointestinal tract.

                                    An overall ideal diet should improve intake and digestibility while reducing nutritional inadequacies and disorders.  

Tom:                            Given everything that you’ve just discussed, can producers continue to decrease production cost without affecting performance?

Paul:                            To a point, I believe we can. As we increase pigs per sow per year, our cost per piglet weaned will go down. You’re going to spend more money to have a better sow diet, but your overall cost of production per sow or per piglet weaned per sow will go down.

                                    Then, as we enhance the starter diets post-weaning, we are going to improve nutrient absorption. It becomes a cycle: As we provide functional nutrients in a diet to drive gut development, that enhanced, developed gastrointestinal tract then absorbs more nutrients out of the diet.

                                    Subsequently, we know that the faster a pig starts post-weaning, the faster they go to market. That will reduce cost of production overall.

Tom:                            Based upon that, as the global population increases and as parts of the world such as India and Africa enter the middle-class, how are we going to meet the increased demand for pork? You’ve addressed efficiency. Are there other ways to meet that demand?

Paul:                            When you think about it, there are approximately 100 million sows globally. If a sow has two litters per year and we save just one pig per litter from dying of inadequate nutrition, we’re talking about 200 million more pigs available to consumers.

                                    By enhancing nutrition to allow for increased survivability of piglets, those 2 million additional pigs provide high-quality protein to the ever-growing population.

Tom:                            Bringing this home and considering all the aspects of the life cycle of a pig, how do these changes affect the average consumer’s kitchen table?

Paul:                            What we’re going to have is high-quality pork raised with the utmost humanity at a very affordable rate for our consumers.

Tom:                            Are there any other trends, any other things that we should be paying attention to in the swine industry?

Paul:                            I think the big trend to focus on is the advancement of nutrition, management and genetics. We have to make sure nutrition management keeps up with the ever-changing acceleration of genetics. By utilizing technologies like we’ve discussed today, we’ll provide the nutrients required by faster-growing, more efficient pigs and continue to produce that high-quality protein that the consumer demands.

Tom:                            Paul Groenewegen, director of innovation and nutrition at Masterfeeds, Inc., an Alltech company. Thanks for joining us.

Paul:                            Thank you.


Paul Groenewegen spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE17). To hear more talks from the conference, sign up for the Alltech Idea Lab.

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