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You Can Save More Pigs from Those Large Litters

Over the last several years, the total number of pigs born per sow has increased and piglet survival (preweaning death loss + stillborn loss) has declined. This raises the important question, “Are farms weaning more pigs per litter or just disposing of more dead pigs?

Swine Management Services (SMS) reviews data from over 100 farms, either monthly or quarterly, from the United States and Canada, and prepares a written analysis and makes suggestions to help improve farms’ production levels. Fifty farms with current data through March 2011, which had been in production for at least three years were selected for this article. These farms confirm that there is a great deal of variation in this important production parameter.

Chart 1, Total Born / Female Farrowed, taken from the SMS Farm Benchmarking database illustrates the large spread in total pigs born per litter, ranging from less than 9.4 pigs to more than 15 pigs per litter. In the last six years, total pigs born have increased by 1.41 pigs/litter, which is an average of 0.24 pigs/year.

In Chart 2, Piglet Survival (Preweaning Death Loss + Stillborn Loss, the most recent 52 weeks of data shows farms in a range of saving less than 67% of the pigs to several farms with more than 90% of pigs saved.

When the Losses Occur
A closer look at the data will help us understand when the losses are occurring and provide an indication of the variation between farms.

The data in Table 1, Piglet Losses by Day of Death, reflects the most recent 12 quarters of data available. The percentage of piglets lost is broken down into three time periods – Days 0-1, Days 2-8 and Days 9+. As the total column shows, 52% of the piglet deaths occurred at Days 0-1, 31.8% died between Days 2-8, 16.2% died on Day 9 or later. Preweaning death loss averaged 11.7% for the 50 farms, and their quarterly death loss ranged from 10.6 to 12.4%. The average age at death was 3.62 days.

Chart 3 offers a graphic depiction of piglet losses for the 12-quarter period. Again, it reinforces the small increase in death loss.

In Chart 4, we take a closer look at more current preweaning death loss data – the last 13 weeks – by farm. Stillborns (blue line) ranged from a low of 2.2% to a high of 12.2%, averaging 6.2%. The preweaning death loss (red line) starts at 3.1% and climbs to a high of 22.5%, averaging 11.3%. This puts piglet survival (green line) at an average of 82.5%, with the top farm at 93.1% and the lowest farm at 65.5%.

What does the difference of 27.6% in piglet survival mean to production numbers? For a 2,500-sow farm that farrows 120 litters/week, on average, and with 13 pigs/litter, you would have the potential of 1,560 pigs/week. If you saved 93.1%, like the best farm, you would have 1,452 weaned pigs. But if survival drops to the lowest farm’s level (65.5%), you would have just 1,022 pigs or 430 fewer pigs/week.

In Chart 5, Piglet Losses the Last 13 Weeks, the data was broken out by when the piglets died. The farms with the lowest preweaning death loss are located on the left side of the chart (black line). The green shaded area represents piglet death loss on Days 0-1. Eleven farms had over 60% piglet death losses in Days 0-1, while death losses between Days 2-8 ranged from 11 to 25%, and losses at 9 days or older ranged from 6.4 to 13.2%.

Preweaning death loss and the age at death varies widely. We feel that at least 60% of piglet deaths should occur on Day 0-1, while 30% should occur on Day 2-8, and less than 10% death loss should happen at 9 days of age or older.

Focus on Farrowing
As the tables and charts show, not only are some farms farrowing more pigs, they are also saving those extra pigs. We have toured and talked with several farms in recent months that have over 90% piglet survival rates. Although I have not found the silver bullet for piglet survival, here are some key management ideas that make a difference:

• A caring and trained staff;

• Fewer sows induced to farrow;

• Extend hours to ensure someone is there to help sows during farrowing;

• Make sure pigs are dried as soon as possible with a towel, place in a hot box and use drying agents;

• Colostrum management is critical. Make sure all pigs get the limited supply by split suckling the pigs in the litter.

• Identify fallback pigs starting Day 2 after farrowing. Either cross-foster them to a nurse sow or place them in a rescue deck with supplemental milk.

On the farms that have extended hours in the farrowing rooms, which means someone is attending farrowing on a second shift, the attended farrowings increase from 50% to at least 85%. Some farms have 24/7 attended farrowings, which has held stillborn rates as low as 2-3% and preweaning death loss at only 4-6%.

Some farms with lower preweaning death loss are making sure that pigs with birth defects, small and low-viability pigs are euthanized on Day 1. It is important to establish a minimum birth weight specific to your farm. This action ensures more nipples are available for the large number of pigs born. As, concerns about animal welfare increase, more farms are looking at alternative methods of euthanizing pigs. One to consider is the CO2 gas, closed-controlled chamber. Other options can be found in the Pork Checkoff bulletin, “On Farm Euthanasia of Swine,” available from the National Pork Board (1-800-456-7675).

The genetic companies have done a very good job increasing total pigs born; now it is up to producers to update the way they manage the farrowing area to save more pigs.

Key Performance Indicators

Tables 3 and 4 (below) provide 52-week and 13-week rolling averages for key performance indicators (KPI) of breeding herd performance. These tables reflect the most current quarterly data available and are presented with each column. The KPI’s can be used as general guidelines to measure the productivity of your herd compared to the top 10% and top 25% of farms, the average performance for all farms, and the bottom 25% of farms in the SMS database.

If you have questions or comments about these columns, or if you have a specific performance measurement that you would like to see benchmarked in our database, please address them to: or

Click to view graphs.

Mark Rix and Ron Ketchem
Swine Management Services LLC