Summer has arrived in Michigan. It’s been in the nineties here for the better part of a week. And, like any time it’s hot in the middle of June and July, I’ve spent a not-insignificant portion of that time begging pigs to eat.
Contrary to their gluttonous reputation, pigs are selective consumers. Their appetite, like ours, can be suppressed for many reasons and temperature is one of them. When it’s already sweltering outside, the heat given off during digestion can make the difference between a comfortable afternoon nap and an uncomfortable afternoon spent feeling too hot to rest. To avoid the extra heat, pigs just won’t eat when it’s hot outside. For normal farm pigs — especially on a small farm like ours, where we’re not under contract to meet certain growth or production rates within a certain time frame — this isn’t the end of the world. We just plan ahead, knowing that any pigs raised out here through the dog days of summer are likely to have a week or three of slower than usual growth. But for some pigs — in some stages of life or being raised for a specific purpose, even here — sacrificing growth and production according to the whims of Mother Nature isn’t an option. Sows who are nursing a litter, for instance, need all the nutrition they can get. Making milk for ten or twelve or fourteen ravenous little pigs who are growing at an astronomical rate is energy intensive. One missed meal may make the difference between there being plenty of nutrition to go around, and a shortage at the milk bar that leaves the smallest or weakest piglets with empty bellies and the Mama in declining body condition. As the old saying goes, if Mom’s not happy, no one is happy!
Show pigs and fair pigs are another type whose growth rates can’t be left to chance. Whether you’re attending open shows on the jackpot circuit or bringing a (hopefully) prize swine to the county 4-H fair, each show’s rules include weight limits — usually at both the bottom and top ends of the spectrum — and pigs whose weight doesn’t meet the range laid out in the rulebook may not be allowed to compete.
Fortunately, there are tricks and techniques for encouraging pigs to eat in the heat (and at other times of low appetite, or when you just need them to grow faster too.) And a few more for helping them get the absolute best growth rate out of each bite they take. Since show pigs are the more common problem for our readers — including many of our longterm customers whose kids have been taking pigs from our sows to county fairs around the state for many years now — some of these tricks of the trade are specifically for them, but most can be employed across both show pigs and other types of pigs if you need to get optimum growth or performance out of a batch of feeders, a breeding herd, or some other type of pig. Ready? Let’s go:
None of the following tips or tricks are going to do you much good if your pig is carrying a load of parasites. Not only do worms create havoc in the stomach and intestines, preventing pigs from getting all the nutrition possible out of the feed they do eat, worms also take up space in the digestive tract, reducing appetite and the overall amount the pig will eat. There are many deworming medications on the market, but the one we recommend most often to our show pig customers is Safe-Guard feed through. It can be easily measured with any kitchen scale, and top-dressed onto their usual ration or mixed right into the feed. If you’re deworming more than a few pigs, safe-guard is also available in larger buckets and bags. It doesn’t have as many resistance issues as some other options, and since it’s designed to be fed to the pigs it eliminates the need to give a shot, which can be intimidating to people who aren’t well-versed in the art of sticking pigs.
- Keep Them Cool
When the temperature climbs above eighty degrees and the humidity follows suit, keeping your pigs cool in the middle of the day can go a long way in moderating how much their appetite wanes due to the heat. Make sure they have shade, rig up a fan to blow air across their favorite resting spot if there isn’t a natural breeze (and maybe even if there is), and get them wet. Pigs can’t sweat, and sweat is an important cooling mechanism for most animals. You can mimic the evaporative cooling effects of sweat by gently wetting your pigs every hour or two throughout the heat of the day. Don’t keep them wet, which will actually trap heat. Just take your hose, make sure the water coming out of the end is nice and cool, and spray them down all over and then leave them to dry in the breeze or under the fan. The water evaporates off their skin, taking some of their body heat with it. It’s the same reason you feel a chill when you get out of the pool on a warm summer day.
Sometimes, when it’s really hot, we even freeze milk jugs and 2-liter bottles full of water. These are great for dropping in their water trough or barrel to keep their drinking source nice and cool, and for scattering around their pen as a sort of personal air conditioners. Think: reverse hot water bottle. They can lay up against the ice and enjoy the cooling effects just like you might tuck a rice sock under your covers when you go to bed in the wintertime for extra cozy heat.
- Feed Less, More Often
It may seem counterintuitive, but having feed available all the time can actually decrease the amount pigs eat. When there’s a full bowl in front of them all the time they lose any sense of urgency to eat and, especially when it’s hot outside, their nibbles throughout the day don’t add up to as much as they would otherwise eat if they were getting limited meals hand-delivered a few times per day. To transition to hand feeding, take their feed away in the late afternoon or early evening of day one. Since they were probably nibbling throughout the day, but not eat heartily they’ll get good and hungry overnight. First thing the next morning they’ll be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to see you and their breakfast at the gate. At that first meal give them only as much as they can eat in twenty-minutes, then collect up their feed pans no matter how much is left and put them away until lunch time. Repeat this each time you feed them, up to six times per day — but if you’re really desperate for growth I suggest at least four, as evenly spaced as possible; less desperate times call for two or three times per day — and soon you’ll have pigs who know they need to clean the dish in one go or risk being hungry. Which often results in better feed intake than having free access to nibble a little here and a little there.
- Get Your Days and Nights Mixed Up
No matter how hot it is, chances are the nighttime is at least a little bit cooler. When it’s over ninety degrees we push our show pigs’ mealtimes back in both the morning and at night. Feed as early and as late as possible to take advantage of cooler temperatures even if it means rolling out of bed and going to the barn in your pajamas at three or four in the morning and then going back to bed after you’ve delivered a hearty breakfast to the swine. Remember: show pigs are a project and sometimes a project requires sacrifice for the best outcome.
- Slop Them
Slopping pigs was once a staple of hog rearing, but it’s not nearly as common now. Some bigger farms have wet-dry feed systems which allow the mixing of water and feed for a nice sloppy ration, especially for sows who may be prone to constipation, but on smaller farms and for families just raising a few show pigs for the summer, dry feed is easier to handle and therefore more common. Pigs, on the other hand, haven’t changed all that much over the generations. They love a good slop in the summertime, and will often happily eat more wet feed than dry. To slop your pigs, just add a little water out of the hose to their feed pan when you deliver it, stirring with a stick or your hand to incorporate it well. A nice thick paste is a good consistency, but you may find your pigs like it best a little drier or a little wetter than that. Experiment a bit. Just make sure you only hand feed them when slopping and wash out their pans quickly after they’re finished eating so the feed doesn’t go rancid and/or attract bugs and rodents.
- Feed More Fat
Since most pig feeds are advertised and sold by protein content — that’s what they’re talking about when they tell you it’s “sixteen percent” or “eighteen percent” — the first nutrient people tend to go for when they want a pig to grow faster is protein. As I covered in Feeding Pigs however, the reason feeds are sold by protein percent is because protein is the most common limiting factor in swine diets, not because it’s the one that promotes growth or the one that is most important. Protein is important for muscle development, but excess protein runs right out the other end of your pig, increasing the nitrogen in his waste, but not much else. To get more bang for your buck, more growth for your feed, you want to focus carbs and fat. And fat, as we all learn sometime around the fourth or fifth grade, has a distinct advantage: it contains more than twice the amount of calories by gram. That is, one gram of fat contains more than twice the calories as one gram of carbohydrate — nine to four. This means that if your pig is only willing to eat two pounds of feed, increasing the fat content of that two pounds of feed is a good way to get more calories in her without trying to increase the amount she’s eating. There are fat supplements on the market that are made specifically for pigs and can be added to both feed and water. Purina Mills’ High Octane Heavyweight is a good one that’s water soluble so you can make even their water calorie dense. But if you’re on a budget or just prefer a simpler option you can also use plain old corn oil. Start with about 1/4 cup per pig per feeding, mixed right into their feed, and increase slowly to up to 1 full cup per pig per feeding, keeping an eye out for digestive upset.
One caveat: Fat can suppress appetite in large quantities, so always aim for balance in supplementing and watch to make sure your pigs don’t decrease the amount they’re eating beyond the benefit they would otherwise get from the higher fat content. If, for instance, your pig is eating two pounds at a meal and reduces down to one pound after you increase the fat content a bit, you may be losing growth rather than gaining. Watch their weight and intake closely.
- Sweeten it Up
This is another area where you can either go the pre-bagged or DIY route, but the goal is the same either way: make the feed irresistible. A few different show feed and supplement companies make appetizers that you can add to feed to make it more exciting for the pigs’ palate, in turn making them want to eat more of it. I haven’t used any of those products so I can’t recommend one in particular, but a quick google will pull up a few options if that’s the way you want to go. What I have used, and have recommended to others for use successfully however, is cake mix. That’s right, plain old $0.99 pre-boxed cake mix. Duncan Hines, Pillsbury, Betty Crocker… pigs aren’t brand conscious so feel free buy whatever is on sale. Most seem to like chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavors best. It’s a good idea to get a few flavors and alternate them so they don’t get tired of just one if they are eating if for a long time before the show. (Yes, they will get flavor fatigue. I know, it seems ridiculous.) The process is simple: mix anywhere from a third to a full box of cake mix into your pig’s bowl of feed at each meal (works best if you slop them too) and watch them go wild for it.
- Consider Paylean
Paylean is the trade name for the the beta-agonist Ractopamine, which encourages a pig’s body to convert more of its food into muscle rather than fat. While this won’t be an option to you if you are opposed to giving your pig medications for growth — note again, ractopamine is a beta-agonist not an antibiotic — it can be a handy tool for getting extra gain on a show pig who might not otherwise make weight, ruining months of hard work. Paylean is available over-the-counter at most feed elevators or Tractor Supply stores. If it’s not stocked on the shelf, ask an associate, because they all work with companies who carry paylean-containing show supplements and will usually be happy to order it in for you. There’s no withdrawal for paylean, but keep in mind that the best effects are seen in the first two weeks of use. After that the benefits start to decline quickly. If you need just a little boost it’s best to feed paylean in the last two weeks of your project, leading right up to show day. If you need a lot of growth help, you can also count back from your show date, alternating so you are feeding it for two weeks and then not feeding it for two weeks on and off throughout the project to get the best possible growth enhancement out of it. Just try not to use it on pigs weighing less than 150 pounds, and watch closely any pigs who are naturally very muscular. In pigs who are “hard bodied” — those who carry a lot of muscle in their hams, especially — paylean can sometimes cause lameness. If your pigs are large hammed and have low body fat to begin with the effect of the paylean adding more muscle to the frame can reduce their flexibility too much and cause them to limp or move out a little odd. In those pigs, you should discontinue the use of paylean as soon as you see the slightest hint of a problem.
- Remember the 3:1 Rule
Or guideline, really. While genetics, environment and a whole host of other issues can affect a pig’s feed conversion ratio, a good rule of thumb is three to one. That means the average pig needs about three pounds of feed for every pound of gain. It can be a bit more or a bit less, but three is a good starting place. The real value in the 3:1 rule is the concrete goal it provides. If you know you need three pounds of gain per day to make weight in time for your show, for instance, you also then know you need to be trying to get at least nine pounds of feed into your pig each day. You can then keep record of your pigs’ weight to see how much gain they’re having compared to the amount of feed you’re giving them for a more precise number in your exact circumstances.
- Do All of the Above
Each item in this list is one way to incrementally increase rate of gain to help you get your show pig to weight in time for your big day. But what if you’re really, really behind and need a miracle? In times of extreme need, you might need to do a combination of the above, or even every single thing on this list at the same time. Each item alone will help up your gain a little bit. All together, they’ll add up to as much as a couple extra pounds per day over what you may have been doing before. One family we talked with this year, for instance, started doing most of these when they realized they were behind schedule and panicked over needing nearly three and a half pounds of gain per day to make weight in time for their fair. One or two of these probably would have increased their weight gain a bit, but by adopting almost all of these they’ve gone above and beyond to bring their pigs up to 3.3 – 4.3 pounds of gain per day. Which, if you’ve ever raised pigs, you know is one heck of a rate of gain. Will their pigs make weight for the show? Only time will tell, but they’re on the right track and learning how to adjust their routines to get the best possible result with their animals in the meantime. That’s a win no matter what in my book.