Health Care

On NC farms, there’s science in building a better pig

These days, hog producers are supercharging the animals’ digestive systems.

The idea is to make a profit in a competitive and an increasingly scientific business. But turning each pound of feed into more pork also means turning less of it into poop.

The byproduct of less byproduct is a big deal for North Carolina, which is home to millions of hogs and has struggled for decades with pollution from their waste.

Swine digest quickly, so there is a short window of only a few hours to wring more efficiency out of their digestive tracts. Farmers can do that by grinding the feed into dust-sized particles, and then choosing from a sophisticated array of potential additives.

Hog feed is mainly a mix of grains such as corn and wheat, and of soy meal. The mix varies, often seasonally, with commodity prices and supplies. The ground-up particles, which are molded into chewable pellets, offer more surface area for digestive juices to act, breaking down more of the food into usable components.

The ratio of additives is picked to properly enhance the current mix of feed. They include: fat, which helps when the mix would benefit from more “energy,” as the scientists call calories; amino acids, which are basic building blocks for muscle and other tissue; and enzymes, which are catalysts that help in processes such as breaking down food.

“Based upon weight, stage of growth, genetics and environment, the nutritional requirements of the animals are fairly well established, scientifically,” said David Funderburke, a consultant in livestock nutrition based in Warsaw. “So, at a given weight and age, we would assign a certain amount of energy, a certain level of amino acids, the amino acids themselves are set at the correct ratio to each other, and then the amino acids are ratioed to the energy so that we have enough energy to support the protein development.”

Cutting pollutants

That’s Ph.D. talk for more pork from less feed.

Hogs raised in the Midwest – where farmers don’t have to be as efficient because corn is more plentiful – may yield a pound of pork for 2.9 pounds of feed. The more sophisticated diets here do the same with 2.4 pounds of feed, but because the ingredients and processing cost more, the feed cost for raising a hog in both places are similar, Funderburke said.

Still, the reduction in poop from cutting, say, 85 pounds of feed from the production of each of several million pigs a year in North Carolina is substantial, he said.

And there is not only less poop, but lower amounts of key pollutants in each pound of poop. The main enzyme additive helps the hogs’ digestive tracts wring more natural phosphorous from feed rather than simply excreting it. And amino acids now used in feed help cut the output of nitrogen.

Bob Ivey, a general manager of Wayne County-based Maxwell Foods, the 11th-largest hog operation in the nation, said the latest science in diets has cut phosphorous in the waste by perhaps 25 to 30 percent, and nitrogen by perhaps 15 percent.

And it’s serious science. Funderburke’s company, Cape Fear Consulting, works with hog producers all over the world, and employs four nutritionists with doctorates. He said that the hog producer Murphy-Brown has a similar-sized cast of scientists, and he noted that it’s not unusual for pork company executives to hold doctorates and come up through the nutrition side of the business.

In part, that’s because nutrition plays such an outsized role in the economics of pork.

“When you have 200,000 or 300,000 sows producing 10 million pigs, and you are responsible for 75 percent or more of the cost of that production,” he said, “you really need to have someone who has a pretty good understanding of what happens if you don’t reach the amino acid needs, or the energy needs of those hogs.”

Staff writer J. Andrew Curliss contributed.