The pig whisperer

Family’s inventions improve pork production

TEMPLETON — Soaring corn prices in 2008 were great for grain growers, but tough for pork producers like Dave Klocke. As he was trying to manage feed costs, Klocke was also trying to find ways to address some soft spots in his swine operation’s production metrics.

“We had good numbers for breeding conception rates, but not the size of the gilts’ first litter,” said Klocke, 57, who owns and operates a 2,600-head sow farm southeast of Templeton, where he and his family farrow 120 sows a week and produce approximately 1,350 pigs per week. “We figured if we didn’t get strong numbers the first time, we’d get them later.”

This didn’t turn out to be true, though. Klocke knew he couldn’t overlook this challenge anymore. The issue stuck in his mind when he attended a training seminar sponsored by his swine genetics company.

“We have excellent genetics companies and nutrition companies providing great resources,” Klocke said. “I suspected that tapping into this genetic potential goes back to feed intake.”

He based his theory on a lifetime of hands-on pork production experience and careful observation of swine behavior. He had noticed how gilts lived like market hogs in the isolation barn, complete with at-will feeding, but everything changed once they moved into the sow unit, where animals were fed twice a day.

It took time for gilts to adapt to the new home, where they often ate less during the first week or two.

“There was a lot of feed waste,” Klocke said. “Gilt row was a place where it was a lose-lose situation, so I started putting the pieces together to find a solution.”

MealMeter works with animals’ behavior

Klocke’s answer was the MealMeter, which helps increase feed consumption for every sow and gilt while greatly reducing feed waste.

The MealMeter is an ad-lib feeding system that’s inserted in the drop feed tube in gestation or via another of Klocke’s inventions, the PigEasy Boot, in lactation. The device essentially turns a feed tube into a self-feeder. Made of durable, injection-molded plastic, the MealMeter funnels feed flow. It’s simple to install and remove. It also allows the sow or gilt to eat at will, which is proven to achieve maximum feed intake for pre-bred gilts, weaned sows, under-conditioned sows and lactating sows.

While the MealMeter is straightforward in practice, developing a workable device took time.

“Trial and error are always part of the invention process,” said Klocke, adding that PigEasy started marketing the MealMeter in 2015.

The MealMeter system works in gilt isolation barns, sow units and grower/finisher barns, noted Katie Holtz, Klocke’s daughter and PigEasy’s marketing and sales director. Since animals can get fresh feed when they want it, the MealMeter is especially useful for newcomers in the sow unit, who often return to full feed in one to three days, rather than one to two weeks. “The animals catch on very quickly, since the system is so intuitive,” Klocke said.

The system’s flexibility is the key.

“Every animal is different and has different eating patterns,” Holtz said. “Some are ‘gorgers,’ while others are ‘snackers.’ The MealMeter lets pigs dispense feed as fast or as slow as they like.”

Other advantages Klocke has observed with the MealMeter include:

• More live pigs. Using the MealMeter has helped Klocke increase his total live pigs per litter with parity 1 animals by 1.75 pigs.

• Less feed waste. It’s a myth that animals will just play with the MealMeter and fill the bowl with excess feed, said Klocke, who estimates the MealMeter has helped his animals decrease feed waste by 1 pound per day in farrowing and breeding areas.

• Reduced labor needs. “Before the MealMeter, I was paying employees to clean out feeders and throw feed away,” Klocke said. “Now we have one customer who is saving the equivalent of half a person a day in terms of labor, just by installing the MealMeter.”

• Healthier pigs. Klocke and his farm employees have noticed less pig aggression at the grow/finish feeders, thanks to the MealMeter. “Giving pigs control over their feed lowers stress,” he said.

• Increased sow productivity. While the U.S. industry average for pigs per sow per lifetime is in the low to mid-40s, Klocke’s sows have reached the mid-60s since he started using the MealMeter.

Easy is better

The MealMeter works, because it fits with the animals’ natural behavior and doesn’t require them to fit their caretakers’ schedule. “When producers used to hand-feed sows, the animals would all jump up at once, whether they were done nursing their pigs or not,” Klocke said. “Now sows can finish nursing and eat when it’s convenient for them.”

Sows can also eat when they feel more comfortable.

“In the summer, sows usually don’t want to eat in the late afternoon,” Klocke said. “We’ve seen that sows do most of their eating overnight. While this usually isn’t possible with hand-feeding, it’s easy with the MealMeter.”

Manufactured near Templeton, MealMeter units cost $125 to $200 for breeding and lactation units.

“Since there are a number of different styles of hog crates, we custom-make the feed tubes for each customer,” Holtz said. “We’ll also let you try a MealMeter unit in your barn before you buy one.”

Along with the MealMeter, PigEasy offers a variety of other tools to make pork production more efficient and profitable, including the AI Saddle, a hands-free breeding saddle for artificially inseminating sows. Klocke’s latest invention is an add-on to a pit ventilation system in grow-finish barns that draws out unwanted gases above the manure line.

“We’ve done studies with Iowa State University that show this contributes to a 43 percent reduction in odor and a 32 percent reduction in ammonia,” said Klocke, who continues to test the technology. “We also saw more than a 40 percent reduction in heat run times and a 33 percent reduction in mortalities in a nursery setting.”

Dr. Paul Armbrecht, who has consulted with the Klocke family for nearly 20 years, sees how their practical experience with pork production translates into PigEasy products.

“What’s crucial is that Dave and his family have been actively involved with the daily care of pigs for years,” said Armbrecht, a Calhoun County veterinarian who has served area farmers since 1971. “Dave is the type of guy who will sit on a bucket in the barn to observe the animals and brainstorm innovations the benefit the welfare of the pigs and their caretakers.”

Armbrecht appreciates the PigEasy’s focus on continuous improvement. Klocke said he plans to keep developing practical, simple solutions.

“I like the challenge of pork production and helping solve problems. The best part? Having pork producers tell us that our products do exactly what we promise.”

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