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20 Years: Research Keys Advance in Swine Industry
Kansas Ag Connection - 05/18/2017

A Kansas State University swine scientist says that advances in how pigs are raised have led to enormous improvements in pork production over the last 20 years.

Mike Tokach, university distinguished professor of animal science, said that research has allowed the swine industry to safely increase litter sizes and growth rates of finishing pigs.

"It is quite amazing when you look at where we were 20 years ago," Tokach said. "The average sow in the mid 1990s produced about 14 pigs marketed per sow, and today we are over 22 pigs marketed on that same sow base.

"Pigs grow about 30 percent faster than they did 20 years ago. That's fairly amazing if you ask me in terms of how fast an improvement we've made in the industry. And they do that with about 20 percent less feed per pound of gain than we did 20 years ago."

Tokach noted that in the 1990s, the average litter was 7 to 10 pigs. "Now we have a lot of farms that are weaning over 15 pigs per litter," he said. "That allows you to achieve some very high targets."

What it means is that for the average sow in the United States, "we get about 80 percent more pork produced for each of those individual animals," Tokach said.

Advances in genetics, artificial insemination and feed nutrition are key factors in the success of the swine industry, according to Tokach. Geneticists have filled an important role in selecting for breeding success and in reducing the mortality rate of newborn pigs.

"Using artificial insemination, we have been able to spread high-quality sires and high-quality pigs over a much larger population," he said.

Kansas State University's swine nutrition group is renowned for research that focuses on converting feed to energy in the most efficient way possible.

"You have to have the capability with genetics to be able to do it, but we've learned a tremendous amount about nutrition and how to feed these pigs in order to achieve these growth rates," Tokach said. "It used to be that we would formulate diets to a digestible energy basis, but now we get down to where we are very much formulating on a productive energy -- how much energy those pigs will truly utilize for lean deposition and put it to productive uses."

Researchers also now are capable of adding amino acids to the swine diet to target the pigs specific needs for growth and health. That helps to improve production and money-savings on the farm.

"One of the biggest drivers in terms of feeding the pig is the feed costs, so anything we can do to reduce the feed costs is going to be beneficial," Tokach said. "We certainly do that by watching how we put the diets together and minimize excesses and waste.

The other side of it, he said, is the improvement in genetics to be able to convert feed into protein as efficiently as possible. That's where geneticists have come in and improved the quality of pigs.

Tokach noted that farmers' key role in the growth of the industry has included "having the right equipment, the right facilities, to be able to take advantage of the research breakthroughs that we've been able to come up with."

"The confinement facilities we have today allow us to capture not only the waste of those pigs, but also capture the gains that these pigs are capable of because they're not wasting a lot of energy in fighting the elements," he said. "They have a controlled environment where they always have the temperature that helps them maintain their growth as efficiently as possible, and we have a lot less feed wastage that occurs in these facilities.

"Our old feeders that we had, especially in those outdoor lots, it was not uncommon to have 25-30 percent feed wastage, and today we know that these feeders are capable of being down to under 10 percent, most of them 5 percent wastage of the feed that's put in front of the pigs."

History suggests that recent years' growth in market weight won't slow down. Tokach said that the industry has increased market weight every year since 1930. Packing plants in the U.S. are being built anticipating pigs at heavier weights than the industry has today.

"When I say we're going to see heavier weights, it's usually between three-quarter to one and one-half pounds per year, so it takes 10 years to go another 10 pounds in market weight," Tokach said. "But we will probably be another 10 pounds heavier 10 years from now if we look at history."

Tokach said this all speaks to an increased emphasis on science.

"The things that we've done in the research side, we used to have just a few research facilities at universities, now we have a lot of research facilities in production systems across the United States," he said. "Our ability to have breakthroughs on the science side continues to improve, but we certainly need the support of all of our taxpayers and all the people out in the state to keep supporting agriculture and agricultural research so that we can bring food to the table as we have in the past."

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