The storm that has gripped Mzansi’s pork industry is still in full, dramatic swing, warns Dr Pieter Grimbeek, head of the veterinary team at Agri FARMACY SA. He explains the immense pressure the industry is currently under and provides insight to what can be done to withstand the pressures.
In many ways, the pressure facing the pork industry can be described as the perfect storm. It is as if everything came together at once.
- domestic maize stock prices that are being forced upwards by outside forces;
- the drought that has hit countries such as Argentina, the USA and European countries, which caused not only maize but also soybean prices to skyrocket;
- the unexpected Russia-Ukraine war that negatively affects sentiment;
- uncontrolled expansion in the local pork industry;
- the above-normal availability of pork due to the excellent improvement in reproduction and production parameters of pig herds as well as the marketing of heavier carcasses;
- reckless meat imports of especially chicken from many overseas countries;
- talks that the European Union could again dissolve due to the bankruptcy of several members and Brexit which still lingers as a bad aftertaste;
- the United States owing the World Bank more than twenty-seven trillion dollars, by far the highest debt of any country in world history;
- a declining growth rate in China coupled with unexpectedly high inflationary pressures; and
- local consumers struggling with unusual electricity, fuel, and mobile phone expenses, and therefore having very little income left to spend on food.
There is no doubt that many pork producers, not only in South Africa but in many other countries around the globe, are experiencing exceptionally trying times. Older and smaller producers are ready to throw in the towel.
Ironically, the widespread liquidation of herds may lead to a short-term abundance that could put the market under even more pressure and then lead to serious shortages again in eight to ten months from now. The highest peaks and lowest troughs of pork prices remain, and are too volatile to predict.
The fruits of patience
Producers who are able to withstand the onslaught will, as in the past, reap the fruits of their patience. They are, once again, looking at each expense. There are basically two important aspects to remember, and that is to make optimal use of farm production and discover and implement ways to negate the extremely high feed costs.
Let us consider farm production first. Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Are all the available buildings on your farm fully utilised?
- Does each room have ceilings and are the correct temperatures maintained for each phase of production?
- Has a consultant or expert recently visited you and examined every facet of the production chain?
- What does your sow culling policy look like and what is the herd’s parity structure?
- Is feed wastage kept to an absolute minimum?
- Have the right genetics been purchased? There are so many choices for every discerning producer.
- Do you understand the possibilities and potential of the animals you farm with?
- Is there a clear gilt replacement policy with the necessary structures and buildings and staff who understand it? There is no reason why first parity sows cannot have figures of more than 14 live births and maintain a farrowing rate of more than 90%.
- Are the staff on your farm regularly trained, motivated, and tested? Do they meet the standards you expect from them?
- Are consultants constantly challenged to bring new ideas and expertise to the farm?
Shocking feed costs
When we look at the current feed expenses, we gasp for breath. Feed prices have risen dramatically leaving almost all producers in uncomfortable economical positions.
As a result of these feed price increases, very few producers are currently showing positive margins.
The smaller producer, and especially emerging producers who have to feed their animals out of bags have almost no chance against the established home mixers and even the very best of the latter group of producers currently only show break-even scenarios.
It is therefore important to realise the following:
- In South Africa there is little (to no) replacement for maize as an energy source.
- From time to time, feed-grade wheat, sweet grain sorghum and other sources may replace all or part of the maize component of the diet, provided that prices are competitive.
- Replacement of cheaper, inferior components in place of ‘expensive’ maize in pig diets is not always a wise decision.
It is important that the feed is ground correctly and finely. Research has shown that the grind should be at least between 700 and 900 microns fine. The fineness of grinding promotes absorption and thus feed conversion is improved.
Creep and weaner diets
Although modern complicated creep and weaner diets are expensive, the correct and controlled application of these diets in younger animals is strongly recommended so as to fully unlock the genetic potential in young animals.
- The use of feed additives should be reconsidered in these situations. At times of expensive feed, the use of certain growth stimulants can be very cost effective.
- Specific and controlled application of in-feed or water-additive medications can be discussed with your veterinarian in order to improve the health status of the herd. Superlative animal health should never be underestimated as a component of intensive farming.
- Regularly measure the mass to age performance of the grower herd and compare it to expected bench-mark standards.
- Improving ADG by 50 grams per day between 70 to 150 days of age reduces the cost of production by about 80 cents per kilogram. In the same way each facet of the production chain can be measured.
- Limit the unnecessary movement of pigs. Each time pigs are moved; it takes them one day longer to be ready for slaughter (and up to three days if the practice is poorly performed).
- Test the market regularly – talk with the person or institution that buys your pigs. Although the supply of heavy carcasses often shows the best yield, in times of surplus, niche markets may develop for lighter animals.
- Feed waste remains one of the biggest evils on many farms. Look at and reconsider many of your clumsy practices. The use of automatic feeders remains every modern producer’s first choice. No producer should feed any pig by hand. It is speculated that producers who feed by hand can waste up to 6% of the feed due to poor handling.
Sow production is of cardinal importance
The sow herd is considered a fixed asset and the more we can produce from sows, the lower the fixed cost of production of every animal will be.
Weaning pigs 100 grams heavier means that we can market such an animal one day faster.
- How is sow production measured?
- Are litters per sow per year more important than piglets weaned per sow per year?
- What about kilograms weaned per sow per year versus kilograms of meat produced per farrowing crate per year?
- How important do you consider herd parity to be? How many piglets did each sow produce that left the herd — regardless of the reason for attrition?
A basic question is: what does it cost to wean a piglet? How many piglets would you like to wean from each farrowing crate on the farm? How many times would a farrowing crate accommodate a sow in a year?
What do consumers want?
We also need to consider whether we address the needs of the consumer closely enough.
The consumer is the person who stands in front of the freezers at the supermarket, choosing whether to buy pork, or not. These are the people who want peace of mind, who trust pork, and buy it regularly without hesitation.
Historically, we realise that there are three main issues with the marketing of pork, namely:
- that pork has always been considered too fat. Modern genetics has dispelled this myth and ironically the meat today may be to lean for many consumers;
- the colour of the meat being unpredictable, especially when pigs present with pale, soft exudative muscle (PSE); and
- the smell of the pork, especially from male animals and known as boar taint, has curtailed the preference to purchase pork.
The fact that certain male animals are older than 22 weeks when marketed increases the risk of boar taint. This is happening more and more in our industry as the need for heavier carcasses increases.
South African pork producers do not practice castration as in other countries where pork is enjoyed. The introduction of a vaccine that negates boar taint has great benefits for our industry. Vaccinated male animals perform better than barrows and they lose a lot of their hormonal aggression while still growing positively.
Producers who market heavy carcasses and are concerned about pork quality and long-term acceptance of our product by a discerning consumer should most certainly consider vaccinating against boar taint.
Dr Pieter Grimbeek is a renowned veterinary consultant in the swine industry. With more than 35 years’ experience, he is also the head of the veterinary team at Agri FARMACY SA.
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