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Will a pig grow on NO feed? Let's find out

Not every company with a booth or exhibit at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines this week claims that their product can save feed. But, a lot of them do.

Signs in the exhibit aisles scream out to the hog farmers: "Cut feed costs!"; "Get more efficient!"; "Let us help you save on the feed bill!"

These exhibitors aren't dumb -- they know that the first question on every pork producer's mind these days is how to survive with six-dollar corn.

I wonder, as I wander those aisles, if I put enough of these products to use, could I get so efficient that my pigs would grow on absolutely NO feed, just breathing air? OK, let's see what we can do.

My first stop is at the A.J. O'Mara Group, LLC. There, John A'Mara explains their line of stainless steel hog feeders, called Feed Ease Equipment. The Cadillac of the lineup is a grow-finish feeder that has a water nipple right in the feed trough. To get a drink, the pigs have to run water onto the feed, which encourages consumption of both. They waste less of the liquid feed, partly because when the pigs step back from the feeder, there's less dry feed stuck to their mouth that can drop into the manure pit. The result is a 5% to 7% improvement in feed efficiency, says O'Mara. I decide on the spot that when given a range, I'm going to take the high end, in this case, 7% better feed efficiency. Great, one stop and I've saved seven percent of my feed bill.

Next stop is just across the aisle at the booth of IFA Roller Grinders of tiny Stanley, Iowa. Lee Drewelow of the company says his feed grinder is actually a roller mill, with two rolling drums that turn at different speeds and crush the corn into finer particles than the other kind of grinder, a hammermill. The finer particles (650 microns versus 1,000 for the hammermill) means there is less dust, less feed separation, and more efficient conversion in the pig's gut. The sign on Drewelow's booth says it saves 50 pounds of feed per pig finished. "We normally think it takes 10 bushels of corn to finish a pig, but we can reduce that to 9," he says. By my math, that's a 10% savings. Add that to the Feed Ease feeder, and our combined savings are now 17% -- we're getting there!

A little farther down the aisle is the display of Genetiporc, a breeding company that sells boars and gilts. Dr. Dan Hamilton, their technical services manager, tells me that they have a new terminal sire line that is bred just for feed efficiency. Combined with their most feed efficienct female line, the offspring will consistently use .15 pounds less feed per pound of gain than other genetics. In other words, if your current feed conversion is 2.75 pounds of feed per pound of gain, you might reduce that to 2.60 with Genetiporc's G Performer boar, and it's Fertilis 25 sow. That's nearly a 6% gain in feed efficiency.

Add it up: We're saving 23% of our feed now! No time to stop here.

Kevin Curry at Alpharma tells us about their BMD feed additive, active ingredient bacitracin antibiotic. It's almost never used in humans, so this antibiotic gets less grief from those who worry about bacterial resistance from animal use. It's typically used from 50 pounds to market weight at a low level to ward off harmful microbes, there's no withdrawal period, and it will save 30-35 pounds of feed per hog with 3% better feed efficiency. Curry even finds a way to tout the "green" benefits of this product: "There's less manure to spread."

At Ralco Nutrition, national sales manager Tom Lattimore tells me about a feed ingredient product called EnMax, which lets them formulate pig feeds on net energy, using more crystalline amino acids and enzymes, less soybean meal (100-150 pounds less per ton), and more corn. Pigs get more energy from the feed, plus some enzymes that "unlock" all of the ingredients. "We can take a conventional feed, and with EnMax, save $30 to $40 per ton," says Lattimore. "That's $10 per pig." Great, but what about improved feed efficiency? "We don't really have any claims on that," he says. Nuts, let's keep moving.

Farther down, Olmix is a French company with a couple of products, one of which is a feed ingredient called MMi. This natural product promotes hygiene of the pig's gut, explains Alain Reocreux, the international development manager. "When a pig eats, he not only gets the feed nutrients, he also gets some pathogens and toxins," explains Reocreux. "MMi neutralizes those things in the gut, so he can make more efficient use of the nutrients." Net result: 4% better feed efficiency, bringing our net gain to 30%. We've got a ways to go to get to complete feed-free pigs!

Now we're outside the main exhibit hall, talking to Joe Slager of Key Dollar Manure Separator. This machine puts manure over a fine screen, which separates most of the bigger solids from the brown liquid. Slager tells me about one of their farmer customers in Illinois who feeds those screenings back to his gestating sows as 60% of their ration. That saves two pounds of feed per sow per day, 700 pounds per sow per year. Spread over the 20 pigs she produces, that's a net gain of five percent in total feed efficiency.

Next, Scott Schneider of Aova Technologies tells me about his product, called, simply enough, Big Pig (their motto: Big is Better). Big Pig is a natural egg powder antibody that is added to nursery and finishing feeds at 1.5 pounds per ton. It targets an enzyme in the gut, which in turn reduces inflamation there to allow feed energy to go towards growth, he says. Their research shows a 3.5% improvement in feed efficiency. Since I don't deal with decimal points, I round that up to four percent. Now we're at 39% cumulative improvement in feed efficiency. Not even half way to 100%!

Now I'm hearing about MorindaMax, a feed additive for just-weaned pigs only and fed for those early weeks. Daryl Hammer gives me the brochure, which says: "MorindaMax's active ingredient is Morinda citrifolia, which comes from the fruit of a tree native to the Pacific Region. Morinda c. consists of phytochemicals which are known to have protective or disease preventative properties." OK, but what about the feed efficiency? The brochure says it gives 10% better efficiency in the nursery. I know that's only for the short nursery period, but if I'm going to get to feed-free pigs, I'm going to have to cut some corners. Let's just add it in, now we're up to 49% improvement.

Feed Logic employees show me an incredible feed mixing machine that mounts on a ceiling rail inside a pig barn. That machine picks up feed ingredients at one end of the barn, than rolls along the rail to automatically dispense the feed into feeders in each pen. It mixes a slightly different feed formulation to each pen, depending on the size of the pig and the computer instructions that you, the operator, have given to it. In theory, this lets each pen of pigs get a different feed formulation each day as they grow up to market weight. Alas, I'm told that although this "smart" feeder saves $4 per pig in feed costs, they can't show an improvement in feed efficiency.

At Lallemand Animal Nutrition, they tell me about their probiotic products, which promote the "good" bugs in a pig's gut. They are getting ready to do a trial with one product, Bactocell, fed with distillers' grains from ethanol plants. The Bactocell will help pigs better digest the fiber in the DDGs. They get a five-percent improvement in feed efficiency, bringing our net gain now up to 54%.

Schauer is an Austrian company that makes pig feeding equipment. One product is an individual sow feeder that, by reading an ear tag, feeds each animal exactly what you have programmed into the computer. It lets you house sows in a group situation, but feed them individually. Franz Bauer tells me that if I'm a poor manager (how did he peg me?), I can save at least 10% on sow feed. I know, that's not the whole herd, it's just the sow feed. Still, I'm going to add it in, and now we're up to 64% better feed efficiency.

And we're running out of options. I stop and visit with a half dozen companies that make automatic pig sorters. To get to the hog feeder, the pigs have to walk through a scales. Depending on their weight, it sorts them off into a feeder pen with just the right feed for their size. And when they're big enough to sell, it puts them into yet another pen. The result is that pigs of various sizes can be kept in one big pen, and each gets just the feed he (or she) needs. In theory, this should give a good savings in feed efficiency, and keep pigs moving out to market before they get too big. But, nobody can give me hard (or even soft) numbers.

One more chance. There's a booth at the far end of the exhibit hall, with nobody there. But it says it is the booth of the Northern Pulse Growers Association, promoting the feeding of peas. I pick up the brochure, and read the flyer called "Field Peas in Diets Fed to Swine." Inside, it tells me that peas are about 23% crude protein, and higher in energy than soybean meal, almost nature's perfect hog feed. Feeding peas rather than soybean meal might give a 3% boost to feed efficiency, it says. I'm going to add that, and get 67% improvement in feed efficiency, using all of these products that have been pitched.

Nope, hogs apparently won't grow on air alone. It takes about two-thirds air, and one-third peas. Still, that's not bad. You can now smugly tell your grain farmer neighbors, "If you think your corn is worth $6 a bushel, you can just keep it."

Not every company with a booth or exhibit at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines this week claims that their product can save feed. But, a lot of them do.

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