Too Much of a Good Thing...Is Rarely a Good Thing (with apologies to Martha Stewart)

Variation is a natural part of biological systems and a characteristic that cannot be eliminated. However, the wise producer will institute procedures from the boar stud to the final loading of the finished animals which at a minimum, does not increase the natural variation in growth. Variation costs money, lots of it. Since we adopted systems which produce weekly lots of pigs, the pigs flow through the farm in age-segregated groups, often moving two or three times to different locations. When their growth performance begins to spread, the time and the cost associated with their completion and marketing begins to rise.

In addition, packers desire (read pay more for) pigs of the right uniform size and quality for a lot of good reasons. Not only do consistent animals support the attributes of branded products, but the efficiency of the harvest and processing functions is disturbed when pigs are spread wide across the size and quality spectrum. This includes both the ability of technical processes (machines and labor) to efficiently deal with the carcass but also necessitates weighing and sorting mechanisms which are costly. Not every customer wants the same thing so some variation is good up chain, but it is better to receive it in uniform groups rather than spread throughout the daily inflow to the plants.

Once the pigs are born, natural variation begins to occur based on the competitiveness of the pigs in gaining access to feed, water and the best (most comfortable spaces) places within the grow out environment. Stressors such as disease, changes in temperature, humidity, ventilation and contact add to the competitive environment to increase variation.

Techniques such as cross-fostering pigs were developed to even out the weaning weights. However, research has shown that some of these techniques actually thwart the desired and most economical result. If you think about it, simply reducing variation can mean that the fastest growing, most healthy pigs are slowed down, while the slowest ones are speeded up. While variation can be reduced this way, it is not the optimal way to go from a financial point of view. Too much of a good thing is rarely a good thing. So what is the ideal strategy for reducing the cost of variation?