Pork producers ponder decreasing heat, increasing feed

BROOKINGS, S.D. -- Dramatic increases in propane costs have many pork producers wondering if it's more profitable to turn down the thermostat and increase available feed. This can be particularly true for early weaned pigs, which have the highest...

BROOKINGS, S.D. -- Dramatic increases in propane costs have many pork producers wondering if it's more profitable to turn down the thermostat and increase available feed. This can be particularly true for early weaned pigs, which have the highest temperature requirement of all pigs.

"Typically when we hear the phrase 'food vs fuel,' it's in regards to ethanol production," says Bob Thaler, South Dakota State University Extension professor and swine specialist. "However, with the recent increase in propane costs the same could be said for pork production. The pig is incredibly adaptive to its environment and can compensate for changes in thermal environ- ment by a variety of ways, the biggest probably being changes in feed intake."

Thaler explains how a pig's feed intake is directly related to the temperature of the pig's environment. He explains that as the temperature decreases, a pig will eat more feed to generate more body heat to stay warm.

"As long as gut fill isn't an issue, daily gains should be normal, but feed efficiency will suffer because the extra pounds of feed are going into heat production and not into body growth," he says.

Basically, Thaler says the choice comes down to whether the extra calories from feed are cheaper than the cost of the propane needed to keep the pig in its thermal neutral zone. With corn at $4 per bushel, soybean meal at $450 per ton and propane close to $4 per gallon, utilizing more feed calories is something he says producers should at least consider.


What the research says

A collaborative trial done by SDSU, the University of Minnesota, the University of Nebraska and the University of Missouri-Columbia, looked at the effects of reducing nocturnal temperature of early-weaned pigs (17 to 21 days) in colder months.

The first week post-weaning, both rooms were kept at identical temperatures. But one week after weaning, the temperature in the Reduced Nocturnal Temperature room was dropped 10 degrees Fahrenheit from the Control (CON) between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and then returning to CON temperatures from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Pig performance and utility usage were measured throughout the trial. There were no differences in pig gain, feed intake or feed efficiency for the 28-day period, but heating fuel use (BTU per pig) was reduced by 17.4 percent and kilowatt hour per pig was reduced by 10.7 percent for the pigs in the RNT treatment. Using $5 per gallon for heating fuel price and $0.08 per kilowatt hour, this equates to a savings of $2.90 per pig in heating fuel and $0.05 per pig in electricity. This results in a total savings of $2.95 per pig in utility cost without affecting pig performance.

Typically, room temperatures for early weaned pigs start at about 85 degrees Fahrenheit and then decreased to 72 degrees throughout the four to six week nursery period, so there's a good opportunity for savings.

The other area where temperature reductions could work is in gestation barns, Thaler explains.

"Sows are limit-fed during gestation to maintain proper body condition so dropping the thermostat slightly should not hurt sow performance as long as there is an increase in feed offered to the sows," he says.

Thaler references work by Verstegen and Curtis conducted in the late 1980s that demonstrated that decreasing room temperature by 4 degrees below thermoneutral conditions will require approximately an extra half pound of feed per day per sow.

With gestation feed at $200 per ton, that would be an increase in feed cost of $0.05 per sow per day.


"Producers would then need to balance that cost against the propane savings in their individual barns," Thaler says. "Management also plays a role in this decision. To properly adjust all the feed drop-boxes takes time, so that is an additional cost that also needs to be considered in the equation."

In general, he says it would probably make more sense to adjust feeding levels in November when winter begin than at the end of February when warmer weather begins for gestating sows.

"Higher propane costs do present a challenge to pork producers, but there are things producers can do to compensate for it," he says.

Thaler adds that management tools, such as reducing nursery room temperature at night, will not affect pig performance but can save producers almost $3 per pig in utility costs. Going into an extended cold period, producers should also weigh the costs and benefits of lowering gestation barn temper- ature while increasing feeding level.

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