Is there an optimal production unit size?

In the past few weeks I’ve been involved in a series of discussions with producers and allied industry about production unit sizes. A common thread in the discussions was the idea of what size of production unit a producer should target. I think many of you have thought about this already as you have invested in production facilities, presented testimony at township and county zoning hearings, etc.


Lately I’ve read and heard it said in discussions that the 1200 sow farrowing unit doesn’t fit with the future direction of the US industry. The argument behind this thought is that today’s wean-finish facilities are most often sized for 2400 or 2450 hd of pigs during the grow-finish period. For several states in the Midwest, this size is just under the size at which more rigorous manure reporting requirements begin.


Another consideration in sizing of the production facility is the all-in/all-out consideration. With 1200 pigs in a room, it is relatively easy to pull out semi loads of pigs for sale (generally 186 head) with minimal packer sort loss. With smaller production rooms, either the loads have more variation in pig wt, or the loads must come from more than one unit which is often a violation of a production system biosecurity standard.


The challenge for producers who wish to remain as independent producers by assuming pig ownership risks and rewards is that sourcing large flows of pigs is a challenge. Many producers have overcome this challenge by investing in a pig production unit and receiving pigs on some type of schedule. In order to have a flow of 2400 pigs per week (keeping pig age relatively tight) is that it takes about 5000+ sows to generate the flow.


The complexity of pig flow gets even greater if the wean-finish facility is double-stocked at weaning with 50% of the pigs moved off-site 5-7 weeks after weaning to other facilities. Suddenly you need to have 4800 weaned pigs delivered, and if the delivery interval between first and last pig is large, management of diets becomes an issue.


A 1200 sow unit, farrowing weekly, will produce around 500 pigs/week. If this sow unit is supposed to fill a 2400 head wean-finish, it takes 4-5 weeks of weanings, an unacceptable long time. One option some units have done is to return to batch farrowing, even with 1200 sows. Now, instead of 500 pigs every week, they wean 2000+ pigs once every 4 weeks. There are some inefficiencies at the sow unit in terms of open females not fitting production schedules, etc, but the pig flows fit many existing facilities.


Another option being considered is to construct wean-finish facilities with smaller rooms. Each of the rooms is all-in/all-out, but the overall facility is never empty. The advantage of this system (often with 16 rooms) is that pig sales can occur from multiple rooms, so you can always put the heaviest pigs on a load to slaughter. You can clean and fill a room (often by double stocking) while you are still selling from other rooms, meaning facility utilization goes up. If you receive weaned pigs every 4 weeks, vs 2x per year in a typical wean-finish facility, market risk management is easier as you have pigs for sale in all months of the year.


With a weaned pig flow need of 500 head at a time, a person with 350 sows that batch farrows can keep the facility full.


The biggest criticism of this production option is the lack of all-in/all-out by facility. Both the farrowing site and the wean-finish producer must be committed to a strategy that minimizes the PRRS risk.


Lately I’ve been with several producers who have invested in smaller flow facilities, or are gearing up to sell into smaller flow facilities. This suggests that there is no one optimum size fits all model for production systems. There still is a place for a variety of sizes of enterprises, but it will take innovation to be successful.

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