Performance and longevity in your gilt herd: a nutritional point of view

Written by: WJ Steyn, SwiNE Nutrition Management

β€œThe livestock feed industry is facing a lack of supply of vitamins A and E due to 2 recent incidents, warns the Agricultural Industries Confederation. Fefac, the European trade body for animal feed has warned that as stocks are not sufficient to offset the deficit of production, feed manufacturers globally will have no choice but to reduce the inclusion rates in feed. (All about Feed, 2017-12-15)

β€œAround the world, we see that demand is not being sufficiently met because of a lack of shipping availability, increased cost of available freight, and the looming Chinese holiday. (All about Feed, 2021-01-27)


Livestock production will increasingly be affected by external factors. These include surging demands for animal products and struggling supplies of feed raw materials, resulting from the competition for natural resources and trade barriers. Optimization of productivity and efficiency within such constraints are important objectives, as well as maximization of the profit for all stakeholders.

It may be expected that volatility in food and feed commodity prices and even struggling supplies due to scarcity will continue in the coming years and, as a consequence, affect livestock production.

Productivity and efficiency in livestock production have increased tremendously in the last decades. In the Netherlands, for instance, milk production per cow has increased by over 65%; the number of piglets raised per sow per year increased by more than 65%; the feed conversion ratio of fattening pigs improved by 20% (Hartog, 2013).

Over the last 10 years, Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR) in maternal genetic lines has improved between 8 – 10% and growth rates are up more than 20% (personal correspondence with major genetic companies). In simple terms, our rearing/replacement gilts are eating less and less, and growing faster while doing so. With this in mind, and focusing particularly on the micro portion of the diet (vitamins and micro minerals), we have not seen any major adjustments in the daily recommendations at this level. In other words, are our rearing or replacement gilts receiving adequate levels of these nutrients per day to achieve optimal lifetime production, given the lower feed intake with the genetic improvements made, and secondly, would we have ample and continuous supply of those key components in our diets, considering the challenges we are experiencing in worldwide supply?

The gilt herd

Substantial evidence supports successful management of gilts as an absolutely necessary component of breeding herd management and the pivotal starting point for the future fertility and longevity of the breeding herd. Good gilt management can largely resolve the existing gap between excellent genetic potential and the more modest sow lifetime productivity typically achieved.

Gilt development is essential for sustaining a productive herd. Your gilt herd is the future production facility on the farm, and, in order to ensure that the animals reach the desired weight-at-age targets, various management protocols should be in place. 

Whether you breed your own gilts, or buy them in from your genetic company, there are three major points that should be addressed in order to reach the desired outcome of producing gilts that will continue on to be successful sows in the herd:

  1. Feed to Need:  What is the potential of the gilt?  Are we meeting this with the nutrients we supply?
  2. Farm specifics:  All farms and conditions will vary, and it is important to ensure that the gilt nutrition is customized to each farm’s individual situation.
  3. Reducing / understanding the variation in major raw materials:  Understanding and knowing the raw materials available on the farm is key to reaching maximum performance.

Feed to Need

The mineral and vitamin requirements of developing gilts are higher than those of finishing (market) pigs of similar age. This is because bone development in gilts is required to reach the maximum potential for building lifelong mineral reserves. This is very important not only for skeletal development, but also for fetal development and sufficient milk yield. Therefore, a deficiency in any mineral or vitamin early in life will result in impaired bone mineralization, reduced bone strength, and overall compromised performance.

I am sure most nutritionists are fully aware of this, and would like to feed the future sow the best we can give her to achieve the best outcomes for her and for the producer.

So what are you then using as your reference – or which minimum mineral and vitamin values do you use – to ensure that you are complying with the daily needs of this high-demand, fast-developing, and genetically-superior super female? Is this reference expressed in need per kilogram of final feed, daily requirements per day or even need per kilogram lean growth? Is this reference making consideration for farm conditions, health status of the animals, and, most importantly, the genetic improvements made over the last few years?

The genetic improvement in our pig herd over the years must be taken into account when we consider their mineral and vitamin requirements. FCR has not only improved in grow-finish pigs, but also in the breeding herd.  How do we compensate for this?

When we look at the table below, we see the general recommendation of some minerals and vitamins and the difference when taking into account a 10% improved FCR. All levels need to be adjusted upwards to compensate for this improvement. No further adjustments were made for health status and unfavourable farm conditions.  With this in mind, the general recommendation used as my starting point is enough to start a good debate and discussion between nutritionists.  

In my dealings with different premix companies around the world, I have realized that only a few (minority of them) made upward changes over the last few years in the gilt/breeder premixes they supply. With recent trade and supply challenges, and because of the competitive nature of the business, some even made downward changes to their mixes. One can see the disconnect between the genetic improvements made and the supply of some key elements needed to improve longevity and lifetime performance in our breeding gilts.

Adapting programs and nutrient levels to match farm conditions better and understanding the variation in major raw materials are all points that merit their own interpretations.

Pigs are changing and, as such, so are their nutritional needs, including their mineral and vitamin requirements. Higher output per kilogram of feed consumed already justifies an increase in all the essential components of a diet. A better understanding of their true needs for minerals and vitamins, and even more importantly, a better way to express this, will help to resolve the existing gap between excellent genetic potential and the more modest sow lifetime productivity typically achieved.

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