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The global question: Which pig nutrition program is right?

When it comes to pig nutrition, we all understand that feed represents about 60-70 percent of costs of production in the production of pigs. With the present position around the world for feed commodities and raw materials in general, this is probably higher in many countries now with no end to the pressure in sight.

small pig
Small pig on a farm

When it comes to pig nutrition, we all understand that feed represents about 60-70 percent of costs of production in the production of pigs. With the present position around the world for feed commodities and raw materials in general, this is probably higher in many countries now with no end to the pressure in sight.

I have seen various regions adopt a significantly different approach to their pig nutrition. In the past, there has been a particular contrast between the European approach and the approach used in North America. To an extent, other regions and especially Asia select a mix of technologies from each of these programs. While this is not necessarily a bad approach, the best course of action would be to learn, not just copy.

Feed specifications and materials

Europe and particularly Western European countries have, over many years, carried out a very high volume of nutritional research and practical feeding development work. On the back of this extensive work, they have directed feed specifications well towards the high end – going for high performance and high feed efficiency. This also concurred with the development of high performance genetics in Europe where lean tissue growth and lean tissue feed efficiency provided a platform to generate quality pork products that consumers required.

All the way from the pre-weaning phase and on to the starter-grower and finisher phases, the nutrient density applied in Europe was high. This was in terms of the DE/NE supplied and in terms of the amino acid inputs throughout the growing phase. When feed materials were at a low cost, as they were through the 1970s to more recent years, then this strategy seemed right – and this was usually confirmed when simulation model programs were used for specific farm businesses. Today this position has certainly changed; it may be that “taking the foot off the gas” might be a more realistic strategy with the prevailing cost structure in the pig industry.

North American practices

When it comes to North America and particularly the USA, it has always seemed to me that, in the past, a lower level of general pig performance was always accepted. At the appearance of the large-scale integrators back in the 1970s, this changed a lot. However, when it came to actual feed specifications, the level of nutrient density was generally lower than Europe. At the present time in the progressive pig production businesses in the USA, this situation has changed radically and they have moved up a couple of gears to operate at much higher levels of performance with significantly higher levels of nutrient density.

In part, this operating environment was perhaps due to the availability in the USA and also Canada of cheap raw materials. Pig farming businesses utilized “cheap” corn (maize) and home grown soya bean meal and then threw in cheap fat sources – co-products from the large meat processing operations. They then utilized any feed additives and especially antibiotics as AGPs to secure a good performance level at least cost. In North America, they also have learned the “gut health lesson” – that unless you can stabilize gut health via nutritional factors, you will have great difficulty in controlling growth and feed efficiency as well as mortality and morbidity levels.

The European approach

From a purely business standpoint this was probably the correct position for the North American industry. Europe, in contrast, has had a higher level of regulation in the feed and animal production industries, and of course antibiotic growth promoters have been withdrawn from use in EU countries since 2006. With a population of over 700 million people, the EU has access to a very wide array of high-quality feed materials compared to North America.

Europe has also had access to a wider array of cereal types such as barley and oats, which can be very effective in young piglet feeds. Milk powders in some parts of Europe were also built into feeding programs because they were widely available and reasonably priced. In the USA, piglet feeding programs were often constructed in the past as extensions of grower feeds, and the basic use of corn-soya mixes was used for 5 kg weaners onwards, with no consideration of gut health needs or growth requirements. Again, this situation has now changed, and in North America, there is a greater understanding of the need for high quality nursery/starter feeds.

Animal production and welfare 

There have certainly been some very obvious differences between North America and Europe when it comes to production methodology, although I suspect over time these differences will be hardly discernible. North American business units have become very large, and this brings economies of scale in production terms. Many overhead costs can be absorbed more easily when you produce millions rather than thousands of finished pigs. 

Most of the European countries have an industry structure based on small commercial family farms – and these may be two to 500 sows. The co-operative business structure has also been a strong feature of European production over many years, and this has generated efficiency in the purchase of feeds and feed materials and has given purchasing and selling power when dealing with the large feed and processing companies. Europe varies enormously in this respect and countries like Spain have come to the fore with very large integrated businesses operating very efficiently.

Meeting consumer demands

The smaller farms in the EU are also regulated to produce pigs using 28-day weaning systems based on semi-intensive building systems without sow stalls and in some cases with no use of castration procedures and with the use of “manipulable materials” (bedding). There are critical regulations on stocking densities not based on economic optimum positions. All of this is directed at improving animal welfare status in the European industries but adds cost to the businesses. What it does do is to ensure that consumers are provided with products they say they want.

In North America, although there are “green shoots” of animal welfare legislation, in reality they produce to quite different standards. They still wean very early (at around 16-22 days) and their businesses are often based on shipping thousands of weaned piglets many thousands of kilometres from the breeding/nursery units to grow-outs in other regions (states) around the corn belt. They have little legislation on stocking densities and building systems include sow stalls and all slatted floors without bedding materials. They probably accept a far higher level of overall mortality and morbidity in piglets and growing pigs and the prevalence of disease is curbed via the high level of antibiotic use.

Asian industries

The emerging pig industries of Asia are going through a tremendous transition period right now and it will be interesting to see in the next few years where they pitch up their businesses in terms of the items discussed above. The appearance of very large integrated operations in China and other countries is now very evident. Feed companies are integrating back into primary animal production and some of these are businesses have over 250,000 sows. They are also at the crossroads of selecting a high performance European approach or taking the low road to lower performance and minimum cost (which does not necessarily generate the maximum financial margin).

Sometimes these decisions are made in Asia based on the last consultant through the door – whether from North America or Europe! What the technical directors of these emerging businesses should really do is utilize a simulation model/artificial intelligence approach to find their own optimums – based on their own local data – and I strongly suspect that they will ultimately position themselves somewhere between North America and Europe. One of the differences that Asian businesses have to contend with is that there is a strong consumer demand in Asia for high-quality pork – with taste and eating experience and, therefore, a lot more intramuscular fat than would ever be seen in Europe or North America. This demands different genetics, but also different killing weights, and certainly different nutrition and feeding.


Different regions of the world will always express differences in applied production technology, but we should always learn from each other and not simply apply received wisdom. The Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, Threat analysis is useful in this regard to select the appropriate technology or even specific feed specifications. Figures 1 and 2 give SWOT analyses to illustrate this contrast.

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