Michelle Sprent  -  Sustainable pig nutrition

I have been working as a pig nutritionist since graduating in 1999. Although not from a farming background I actually started feeding pigs inadvertently at the age of 14 when I got my first job working in a greengrocer’s shop.  We used to collect all our waste fruit and veg into spud sacks for “Frank the Pig Man” to collect every Saturday!  I now work for Premier Nutrition (manufacturers of vitamin and mineral premixes for all species) providing on farm technical support to UK pig producers who are home mixing their feeds.  A large proportion of my work is with producers who are utilising liquid co products.  This includes products such as wheat distillers syrups from the biofuel sector and liquid yeasts from the brewing industry.  My work has led me to have a greater interest in less conventional ingredients for pigs which offer a sustainable and cost effective alternative to the more common raw materials such as soya.

Aussie Pigs

APSA & off project travels

Posted by Michelle Sprent on June 10, 2014

Appears in Livestock, Pigs

Australia 2013

Next stop on my Nuffield travels was Australia.  I hadn’t originally intended to go to Oz but they hold a very good pig science meeting Australasian Pig Science Association’s Manipulating Pig Production (APSA) every 2 years which was a good event to visit with some of our Asian customers and prospects.  Whilst I was down there, it made sense to add on a few Nuffield visits at the same time. 

The APSA conference is a forum for Australian PhD students to present elements of their research projects in the form of 10 minute presentations.  This is interspersed with a selection of invited papers from eminent researchers from around the World.  There was a very interesting session which was focused on gut health and structure in the newly weaned piglet and a section presented by George Foxcroft and Ron Ball from Canada who focused on sows.  In the PhD papers as well as the welfare topics, there was also quite a lot of data presented on inducing oestrus during lactation which seems to be of key interest in Australia currently.

The Australian pig herd is fairly small at 240,000 sows.  Welfare is a big discussion point and this was very evident in the number of presentations on this subject during the APSA conference.  I did get to visit two pig units whilst I was there but both asked to remain anonymous.  Animal rights activists entering pig units and causing problems seem to be a big worry for the Australians.  Currently sow stalls are still allowed to be used but at the time of my visit, 50% of producers had already moved to loose housing and since my visit I’ve read that 60% have converted.  The freedom farrowing crates being used in a few farms in the UK were also the subject of some of the researchers attention.

It was also suggested the major supermarkets are playing one off against the other, regarding whose pigmeat is produced to the “highest” welfare standard.  This is not a good thing for the producers.  Often standards are imposed which appeared to have no scientific backing whatsoever.  Both farms that I visited were already operating loose house systems for the dry sows.  Pig price is about $3/kg and this had been the case for about the last 12 months.  Prior to this it had been $2.70/kg. 

On my two farm visits I was really surprised to discover that AI is a relatively new introduction – only just implemented on both of the farms I visited.  Both had had a few teething issues to start with but were learning the techniques and finding AI beneficial to performance.   

The second unit I visited was solely feeding co-products – whey, milk returns/washings, yoghurt, soya milk, bread, breakfast cereal, bread dough and rice cracker dough.  About 5% of Australian producers are feeding liquid co products.  On the farm I visited the resulting feed is so cheap, they just feed 2 diets!  One for the weaners and growers and a second diet that feeds everything else! 

They were buying in a creep feed/early starter to see if this was a better option.  They asked my opinion on this and I said I’d look at a label in order to be able to tell what the composition was like.  This was not possible though as I discovered that no ingredients are listed on Australian feed labels - just the bare minimum of nutrient analysis!  However, I suspect that their own milk mix was the better option.  I did recommend they allowed free access to water, as with all the milk based products the sodium intake was pretty high and I felt the lack of separate water supply was possibly limiting feed intake.  On this farm around some of their home produced feed troughs they had ceramic tiles (a rather colourful array of freebies they’d picked up from various places!) as these are pretty resistant the acidic feed.  

I was able to have a discussion with a nutritionist who works for a feed compounder about the ingredients being commonly used.  I was surprised to find that plasma protein was widely used as was meat and bone meal.  Although imported soya was widely used, one of the other major vegetable protein ingredients are the blue flowered lupins (Lupinus angustifolius) which grow well under Australian conditions. These are being used in finisher diets at up to 35%.  Rape expeller is available, as is sunflower extract although the latter tends to be used for horses as it’s too expensive to feature in pig diets.  In terms of cereals, it’s along the lines of the UK with wheat, barley, oats and triticale all being used. 

For the second week of my visit, I went off topic and took the opportunity to visit some of the Australian Nuffield Scholars I’d meet during our Nuffield conference in Canada.  These visits took me to see sheep, sugarcane, chillies, mangoes and chickens amongst other agricultural produce.  It was really good to have a look at other areas of industry and to share knowledge and information.  Often things that have been tried and tested in one stream of agriculture can be applied in another.  The difficulty is that often there is no communication between sectors. 

One common factor I found across all the different enterprises in Australia was the importance of water.  Water is in a critical state globally (hard to believe having come out of the 2012/2013 wettest winter on record in the UK) and being in Australia really

highlights this.  A recent annual update from an Australian Nuffield scholar who grows rice sums up the issue quite nicely:

“We do have some difficulty on the irrigation side, with water becoming too expensive to use for production so as a result we are shifting our business towards marketing our water more actively and it is likely we will trade significantly more water than we use to produce.”

A visit to Marybororugh, a couple of hours North East of Melbourne was where  I met up with Nuffield scholar Matt Ipsen who, with his father, farms 820 hectares with 3000 Merino ewes and 400 hectares of crops.  Matt also runs a business called Ewe Wish which provides a scanning and AI service for sheep.  All Matt’s sheep are electronically tagged and their performance monitored closely. 

It was really interesting discussing maternal nutrition from a ewe perspective and we also discussed lamb survival as this is part of Matt’s study topic.  We discussed how the pig industry handles feeding groups of sows with different needs and talked about the outdoor ESF systems which have been trialled in the UK recently.  A system like this could be quite useful with ewes as well.  At the moment ewes are put into groups according to the number of lambs they are carrying so they can be fed accordingly.  The process of sorting is quite labour intensive so in theory an ESF system could be remove this need for separating into groups.  It would also make grazing/stocking density management a lot easier.        

From Marybororugh, I headed up to Queensland and stayed with Jodie Redcliffe who along with her husband Wayne, rears broilers for Inghams – one of the big poultry integrators in Australia.  Attention to detail was excellent and the system extremely efficient.  One of the issues facing the poultry industry in Australia is the cost and availability of litter and this is the subject of Jodie’s Nuffield scholarship.  

My next stop was to visit Trent de Paoli who runs a vertically integrated business called AustChilli.  They are harvesting chilies 52 weeks of the year and planting every 2 weeks.  They pick the whole chilies for the fresh market and then use a modified tomato picker to strip the plants of all the remaining chilies which are processed and vacuumed packed in their own factory giving them a means to add value to the crop. 

They also process second grade avocadoes into a convenience product called Avofresh.  The product is sold in tubes is great for squirting a “dollop” of crushed “Avo” onto your toast and poached egg for a quick easy healthy breakfast.  Again, a great added value product and a little different from the tobacco Trent’s grandfather and father used to produce on the farm! 

I continued north to Mackey to visit Joe Muscat’s farm.  This area is dominated by Sugar Cane production and this is the main crop for the Muscats.  Joe was away on his Nuffield studies so his son, Steve showed me round the farm.  They have put a lot of effort into developing a very efficient irrigation system (using pivots) for the farm which utilises gravity as much as possible to reduce energy use.  The farm has all been mapped using laser levels!  They also have a strong focus on improving soil quality and sustainability – they no longer burn the “trash” and leave this on the soil surface as this helps to retain moisture, add organic matter and reduce weed growth.  The benefit of this technique was clearly visible when you looked at the soil and crop condition and compared it with a neighbouring farms field where they were still burning the trash.  The Muscat’s are also growing fibre crops such as Kenaff and Sun Hemp which act as break crops and can also be used as an energy source when burnt in the cane factory.  Sun hemp is a legume so this has an additional benefit of fixing nitrogen.  They also grow some soya, although this does pose problems due to insect issues and also it’s harvest is due in the middle of the rainy season making quality an issue. 

My final destination was a little town called Bowen in tropical North Queensland where there is a large production of mangoes (along with tomatoes, pineapples to name but a few) so it was a great opportunity to look at another unfamiliar crop.  They were in the midst of the mango harvest which all takes place within the space of six weeks. 

The mango harvest is all done by hand using “cherry pickers” for the high up fruit or nets on poles for the lower fruit.  The sap of mangoes is really acidic and burns skin (both human and mango) and ruins metal work if touched!  The fruit is therefore plunged into bins full of an alkaline solution as soon as it is picked.  On reaching the packing shed the fruit is washed again before it gets to the sorters.  In one season, over AUS$ 4 million worth of mangoes from 10,500 trees are picked on the farm I visited.  They grow two main types of mangoes – one known as an “R2” and the other a “Honey Gold”.  This farm was just one of 4 farms in Australia producing “Honeys” which fetch a premium in the export market.  Production of “Honeys” is protected to ensure that it remains an exclusive product.  A box of Honey’s is worth $40-60 whilst the R2’s are worth $18 a box. 

Although this trip went a little off topic, it was a great eye opener that gave me the opportunity to see lots of different streams of food production and the importance of keeping niche just that to maintain the premium.  Land management, efficiency of production and water were all critical to the different production systems I saw and were three factors that will only become increasing more important to the future success of global agriculture.     


China Travels

A brief summary of my tour of China in August 2013

Posted by Michelle Sprent on December 19, 2013

Appears in Livestock, Pigs

Chinese Nuffield Travels

My second Nuffield trip took me to China in August.  With 46 million sows (although some estimates suggest up to 52 million) China has the World’s largest sow population and therefore of great interest to all involved in pig production.  The estimate is sketchy as many of these exist as a handful of sows in a “back yard” situation.  Although they are the world’s largest pig producer China is the World’s least efficient pig producer.  Whilst the Netherlands and Denmark are producing over 30 pigs per sow per year China is only producing less than 15 (13.9 according to 2011 figures – Interpig data).  The Chinese are pig crazy though.  Pigs have been estimated to have been reared in China for over 2000 years and in Chinese script the character for “Family” incorporates the character for pig within it.  They also eat pig meat (or any other part of the pig for that matter!) with most meals.  The increasing wealth of the population and this passion for pigs means that global pig production will be strongly influenced by Chinese pig production for the foreseeable future.  It was therefore definitely high on my Nuffield travel list.    

I had been fortunate to have visited China on a business trip earlier this year to take part in a creep feeding seminar held in Shanghai.  I was invited by a sister company (ABCA – an AB Agri business specialising in co products and feed additives in the Asian market) to present at this conference and was astounded to hear that there would be more than 600 pig nutritionists, feed manufacturers and pig producers present!  The experience of presenting in front of this quantity of people gave me a taster of just how big pig production is in China and how keen they are to improve pig production.  The team from ABCA were happy to have me back for another visit and kindly offered to help with some Nuffield orientated visits. 

My first week in China was spent in Shangdong province.  Agriculture dominates this province with pig production, broilers, maize, vegetables and fruit all being produced in abundance.  There are 33 provinces in China with about 10-13 of these being important pig areas.  Shangdong has roughly 2 million sows and falls into the category of important pig areas.  As with the total population, the sow herd is a rough guess as no one seems to really know!  I met with 6 businesses in total ranging across the whole province, from a Korean run pig unit with 1500 sows to a newly formed feed business which has the target of producing 1 million tonnes of feed by 2015 from a standing start at the beginning of 2013.  Unfortunately, I only got to see a handful of dry sows in a new farm which will eventually have 3500 sows on it.  This business started as slaughter house and aim to become a fully integrated business.  By the end of this year they will have 10,000 sows and by 2016 their ambition is to be producing 600,000 finishers!  The speed and level of investment and growth in China is amazing!  

I had planned with my UK colleagues that I would travel to China in August during UK harvest.  The timing of this worked perfectly for ABCA as this coincided with a 3 venue nutrition seminar planned for August and took the opportunity to request a repeat of my June presentation.  The seminar was being co- hosted by Topigs with Glen Illing and George Aretis from the Topigs Asia team presenting.  The seminar visited Guandong, Jinan and finally Beijing.  As with my June presentation, the attendance and interest at these meetings was incredible.  In total I’ve now presented my starter feed presentation to nearly 1000 people! 

My final week took me to the far North East corner of China into Heilongang Province which borders Mongolia and Russia.  I visited a “State Farm” where Yao Bin, who now works for ABCA was brought up.  His maternal Grandfather was posted up there after WW2 and his Father drove tractors there in his youth.  The farm is one of 9 sub bureaus (distributed throughout China) and mainly produces maize (corn) and soya.  The town we stayed in only exists because of the farm.  Of the 300,000 strong population, 100,000 of them are  employed by the farm.  When the area was first populated it was virgin land which the army cleared and began to farm.  The farm is operated in a very professional manner and prides itself on application of the latest in global technology.  I was told there is a 50 year gap in terms of technology between the State farms and the privately owned small traditional farms.      

China is in a very strong position in terms of feed supply.  Because of the volumes they are requiring key suppliers are happy to deliver ingredients to them.  A number of years ago the Government made a decision to support corn production and that is what they have done.  For soya and other protein products they are reliant on supply from the rest of the world.  It is also evident that the Chinese will invest in agriculture in other countries (Africa and Russia for example) to secure their supply chain.  

All aspects of agriculture are subject to investment and I’m told this is being actively supported by the Government. 

I’ve definitely been given an opportunity to visit more of China than most Western visitors have access to.  As a novelty, I’ve had my picture taken with a few Chinese and been stared at by even more as in some provinces Westerners are rarely seen!  Although I’ve not been given access to the elite pig producers of China, I think I’ve visited a good cross section of the market.  This has granted me a good understanding of how the majority, rather than the minority of Chinese pig production and feed businesses work and aim to work in the future

During this trip, I’ve met some really lovely people who’ve gone out of their way to look after me and I hope that these people remain contacts for the future.

Nuffield Travels So Far

Posted by Michelle Sprent on June 28, 2013

Appears in Livestock, Pigs

My application for a Nuffield Scholarship began last May after a chat with Zoe Davies who said “just do it”!  I thought a Nuffield Scholarship would be a fantastic opportunity to find out some more about liquid feed use for pigs in other parts of the World.  Since joining Premier Nutrition 3 years ago I have spent more and more time working with customers using co product feeds.  I felt that if I could learn more from others around the World then hopefully I could bring something useful back to my UK customers which would help their businesses for the future.  Having said that feeding co products is only ever going to be relevant to limited number of producers and an important aspect of Nuffield is to ensure that as many people benefit as possible from the individual scholars learning and development.  The technical team of which I am part of at Premier spend a lot of time discussing raw materials, their availability and quality and also exploring what the future holds for raw materials for producing pigs not just in the UK but around the World.  Bringing all of these thoughts together has led me to a topic title “Sustainable Pig Nutrition” which is definitely a wide enough title to cover all these aspects! 

The first overseas official Nuffield trip was the Contemporary Scholars Conference which the Canadian branch of Nuffield hosted.  This brings together this year’s Scholars from all the participating countries.  We had Australia, New Zeland, Canada, France, Brasil and Ireland represented plus some Eisenhower Foundation scholars from the USA.  The presentations and visits covered lots of topics so there was much to be learnt.  A few key highlights for me were the importance of everyone involved in agriculture working together to promote the fact that it is a great industry to work in is something all countries are looking at.  Also communicating with the consumer about where their food comes from is a hot topic for everyone.  The Canadian’s have several projects going on which seem pretty good and I’m sure we could use some of the work they’ve done here in the UK.   

Being in Canada for the CSC was a great chance for me to stay on to talk to some of the Canadian pig industry.  With about 1.3 million sows it is a key player globally with much of it’s produce going for export.  The Canadians spend a lot of money on pig and feed research and have some researchers with great reputations.  My first stop however was with Grand Valley Fortifiers who are a premix business similar to Premier but they also have a trading division which specialises in co products.  I visited a pig unit and their biscuit processing plant as well as talking with their nutritionists and traders about the current situation and their feelings for the future in terms of ingredients.  GVF are looked just over an hour from Toronto so they have the benefit of being close to a large human population which means food industry co product availability.  Like us they use whey and yeasts but they also use an ensiled corn product .  They have the same issue here that co products can be variable and adaptability is key to getting the best out of product opportunities.  The market is constantly changing and new ingredients arrive that we have to quickly learn to use whilst some of the older products start to disappear as other more profitable homes are found for them. 

The remainder of my visit was with various researchers.  I met with Kees de Lange at the University of Guelph who is renowned for his pig nutrition research.  Kees was asked by the “Swine Liquid Feed Producers” group to research some aspects of the products they are using to give some “credibility” to their use of co products.  He’s looked at nutritional profiles and energy evaluations so he was able to share useful data. 

I also met with Tom Scott and John Smilie at the University of Saskatoon to talk about the work they are doing on feed processing to try to improve efficiencies in livestock production.  Hank Classen talked to me about oilseed rape processing whilst Albert Vandenberg talked about lentils and other pulse production in Canada.  Albert and I discussed the opportunity for breeding crops to suit animal production but he felt that the return on investment in plant breeding for feed usage is not good enough.  I also went to the Prairie Swine Centre whilst in Saskatoon and witnessed some pigs undergoing ileal cannula operations for digestibility studies which is essential work in improving our understanding of ingredients and feed conversion efficiency.  

My final visit was with Ruurd Zilstra at the University of Alberta who is recognised in nutrition circles as an expert on rape seed and wheat by products and has written many articles on co product (dry ingredients such as DDGS and wheat feed) use in pigs.  All great contacts for the future and they all gave me an outline of the projects they are working on so I can keep an eye on what’s new from Canada. 

For the next stages I hope to visit the Netherlands and Germany to investigate how they are utilising co products.  I want to see how they cope with variability in products, how they approach quality control and traceability to ensure efficiency and food safety.  I also have planned a trip to China as they are having such a big impact on the global market for ingredients and as we all know have a rapidly developing pig business.  I will visit their main soya producing area and also look at some of the co products they are using from sugar beet processing and yeasts from various fermentation processes.  In November I am hoping to travel to the USA to attend the Kansas State Swine Day where all their research from the past year is presented.  My final trip will be early in 2014 to South America where they are doing more good pig research and are a key player in soya and other ingredient supply.