A swine herd is at its healthiest and most productive when animals live in conditions free of challenges that divert digestible energy away from weight gain or other production parameters, such as reproduction and nursing.
Maintaining those conditions requires attention to a lot of different components of production – facilities, feed and water availability and overall animal stress – that influence animals’ natural abilities to sustain weight gain, overall health and physical vigor. It’s an effort that encompasses just about every aspect of swine production, from labor management to disease prevention.
One key element to successful pork production is maximizing daily weight gain in a healthy environment free of factors that would otherwise cause weight gain to decline.
“When nothing is present to combat the animal and it has all its energy and systems in the body working perfectly, nutrient absorption should work perfectly with no adverse impacts,” said Tom Marsteller, Kemin Technical Service Manager. “But when you have disease challenges when pigs are trying to grow, it steals energy from growth and diverts that energy to the immune system support.”
Keep Your Eye on the Prize
It all starts by identifying the main goal. Healthy pigs that dedicate more energy toward feeding and digestion will see higher daily weight gain. Any decline – even by the smallest margin – can have long-term financial implications for producers, making it critical to find the ideal rate of gain and do what’s necessary to sustain it.
“If you have finishers from the same health status/sow herd and one barn or site has 1.95 pounds of average daily gain and the other barn or site has1.8 pounds of ADG with similar feeding program, that difference adds up to a lot of money for the producer,” Marsteller said. “And the difference in growth can have any of a number of causes.”
Finding the causes for those adverse health effects and acting to remedy them is the next step. That’s easier said than done. In the vast majority of cases when weight gain declines and digestive health suffers, there’s seldom one single cause, whether it be an environmental stressor or disease challenge.
“Environmental stressors are easier to determine than subclinical disease situations. Every time animals encounter heat stress, for example, they will respond similarly. But when you have disease, it may be something else entirely,” Marsteller said. “When you lower the immune system of the animal, you can have one disease making an impact, but another one can come in at the same time, causing a secondary effect. And those diseases won’t always be symptomatic at first.”
Find the Right Environment
Poor digestive health can be caused by a range of factors, including environment. In optimizing production systems and environments for a swine herd, ensuring the best conditions for pigs to grow and develop to their full potential starts before the animals are even on-site.
It’s important to identify animals with the genetic potential, disposition and health status to thrive on the farms on which they’ll spend their lives. Sometimes the highest priority is matching genetic potential to the locations that will help the animals maximize it; while at other times, it’s more a matter of ensuring disposition won’t impede optimal feeding and growth, according to Marsteller. Single sow herd sources are optimal for health reasons. Though it’s virtually inevitable that an animal will encounter disease or experience at least some stress at times that will impede optimal weight gain, matching the right animals to the right farms is the best way to minimize the impact of the environment and ensure animals will eat and gain weight at their optimal potential.
One example of animal stress stemming from environmental conditions is heat stress. Because it has a specific physiological effect, helping animals better cope with heat stress is a straightforward matter given the necessary products and time. Doing so can help mitigate any decline or interruption in feeding and weight gain.
"When you have heat stress, the animal is not able to optimally use the fat in their diet for energy. Instead, they use more glucose,” Marsteller said. “KemTRACE® Chromium potentiates the action of insulin in tissues by mobilizing additional glucose transporters to the cell surface, thus allowing for increased glucose uptake by adipose and muscle cells. When the animal is stressed, it needs a lot of glucose to maintain the immune response. KemTRACE Chromium allows the animal to utilize glucose more efficiently during stressful conditions thus allowing improved weight gains during those challenging growth periods.”
Promote Natural Disease Defenses
No farm environment will be free of the stress inflicted on an animal’s body by a disease or other condition that leads to a decline in growth rate. Changing the traditional approach to managing those diseases is one way to prevent illness-related production declines. In some cases, that means an altogether different approach to disease response. Instead of treating once animals are sick, a more proactive approach can help producers keep their animals’ defenses stronger as infection is prevented by a healthier animal status. This type of approach includes a focus on gut health – and the external and internal factors that impact it.
“With an illness like E. coli, you’ll have production of toxins by the bacteria, causing severe diarrhea, and once that happens, the animal is not absorbing any nutrients,” Marsteller said. “A product like KEM SAN® in the watering system can help improve the water quality and lower pH of the water consumed helping to prevent coliform challenges.”
Helping an animal provide a stronger natural barrier against conditions like Escherichia coli also closes the door to “secondary issues” that can sometimes worsen symptoms and complicate the identification and treatment of major diseases. Ensuring the necessary availability of feed and water, and adding products like ButiPEARLTM Z, an encapsulated form of butyric acid and zinc, can help sustain gut health and performance even in the face of conditions that would normally cause stress in the animals. “Since it’s encapsulated, ButiPEARL Z works differently and won’t be absorbed immediately when it enters the stomach. The encapsulation ensures slower release, which means it will reach all the intestinal tract regions we want it to,” Marsteller said. “Aside from in-feed solutions, however, it’s important to have team members who can recognize when animals are getting stressed and will take action to ensure stress is minimized.”
Manage Herds, Barns the Right Ways
The animals themselves make up just part of the equation. Improving overall gut health and sustaining optimal weight gain is influenced a great deal by how the animals are managed. Farm workers and managers have a major role in maintaining weight gain and ensuring strong gut health by minimizing stress for the animals. It starts by having well-trained team members working directly with the animals on a daily basis.
“You have to find someone in the production system who is a mentor for others, one who loves what they do and can teach others,” Marsteller said. “I’ve been to sow farms where you can walk into a room full of nursing sows and it is silent. It’s beautiful. And it’s all because the people were well-trained. When technicians are prepared and understand all aspects of their job, many issues reduce or disappear.”
Simple tasks like moving pigs from one pen to another, for example, can cause stress that can manifest itself as poor gut health and declining weight gain, making both awareness of that stress and ways to minimize it of utmost importance. Ultimately, don’t underestimate the power of observation among farm workers and managers. “Some people see what’s happening in the barn but won’t see the pigs. Paying attention to the animals, their behavior and any major variation in size,” Marsteller continued, “is even more important to know to determine when action is needed.”