Prioritizing pig care

When considering pre-wean mortality and the farm management required to address it, every employee in the production process has a role to play.

June 28, 2023

6 Min Read
Caregiver Holding Piglet.jpg
National Pork Board

In the process of tackling mortality rates in the pork industry, there are plenty of places one can look, but infancy is an especially critical time to ensure the health of a pig. Tackling pre-wean mortality is a crucial part of eventually getting a quality pig to market, and Seth Krantz of Tosh Pork shares his knowledge on the state of this part of the industry.

Managing mortality rates
Krantz currently oversees animal well-being in his position with Tosh, and after years of looking at data from the farms he works with, he names two main culprits for pre-wean mortality: crushing incidents and low viability.

There are, of course, other issues that crop up in the examination of such an intensive problem. At least on Tosh facilities, Krantz observes that around 60-70% of their total pig mortality occurs in the first 48 hours of a pig's life. Though those are some big numbers to boil down to two culprits, those leading causes are what they struggle to overcome. Crushing, when a sow lays on her piglets, is a problem with solutions varying from improving nurse sow selection to technologies made specifically to monitor pens for incidents, such as SwineTech's SmartGuard. On the other hand, low viability is less straightforward. Krantz personally aims to avoid euthanizing piglets based on low birth weight. Speaking on the method he uses instead, he explains that it's "a quality of life determination. Is that pig strong and thriving? Can it compete?"

Provided the pig has potential, Krantz asserts that "Our people can save pigs, even if it's a 1.8 pound pig that might be under a typical cut-off. They can provide some special care and…We can wean him. He'll be a little smaller than his cohorts, but he'll go on to make a market hog."

Krantz continues to say that, aside from its obvious economic benefits, pre-wean mortality improves morale in a production facility. "People can see the efforts of their labor right then and there. They can put that effort into warming and drying pigs and getting colostrum in them, and they can tell they made a real difference."

Piglet care, then, is clearly rewarding, so why can it feel so difficult to make the metrics of a farm line up with the efforts employees are putting in?

Merits of metrics
Obviously, farms need to have benchmarks for their productivity and, not only that, to have numbers to associate with performance goals. However, Krantz doesn't shy away from the fact that, for a variety of reasons, metrics can only take a supervisor and their team so far. 

For one thing, litters of piglets are bigger than they've ever been. Krantz does feel that litters are also getting simultaneously healthier across the board, but having a higher number of pigs means that they also require more labor to care for them, which is difficult to pin down with the ongoing labor shortage across agriculture. Furthermore, efforts from many producers are being split between the basics of their farm to issues on the horizon such as ASF and biosecurity. "It's hard to maintain that focus when there's always a new, bigger challenge," says Krantz when asked how the industry is generally performing with pre-wean mortality. 

All of this is to say that the task of chipping away at mortality percentages isn't easy. Krantz says that the facilities under his supervision sit fairly consistently at a 10% pre-wean rate, with some having higher rates due to complications with porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome and others sitting a little lower. In his nine years with Tosh, Krantz says the lowest rate he's ever seen was 5-6%, but of the farm producing those results, he admitted that he can't offer any secrets about how they're doing it. "They just care and get the job done."

That noted, Krantz then continues to say that solely focusing on one metric misses the utility of a holistic approach. Farms that do have higher pre-wean rates "usually aren't doing anything wrong" and have a solid reason why they're struggling. When management listens to what workers have to say instead of coming in with a single-minded goal, they're able to improve a facility as a whole, rather than the possibility, for example, of working hard to fix pre-wean rates but then having more stillborns because someone's missed an important detail of a related issue along the way. In other words, looking only at numbers instead of asking hands-on employees their thoughts loses much of the nuance of husbandry.

Comments Krantz, "If we just focus on doing what's right, then in general, the metrics will follow. I think we try to manage metrics more than we try to help people and manage pigs … How we change is [that] we make sure our people have what they need, [that] they understand what they're doing."

Caring and communication
Tosh Farms is continuing to grow alongside many other companies in the industry despite some of the daunting tasks at hand. However, at the core of what pork producers do is the care for the animal they're tending to. As pointed out by SwineTech CEO and Popular Pig host Matthew Rooda, a farmhand is the point of care for the animals under their supervision. In the human medical field, the numbers and efficiency of patients processed fall to the wayside; care comes first. Luckily, there are tools that can help producers better identify the needs of their herds at all ages, such as PigFlow, a point-of-care platform to revolutionize pork production. 

This mobile app offers efficient data collection systems for farmers to input information about pigs as they work and for their coworkers to see that information in real time and make decisions based on it. Furthermore, when workers can see the same information as their leaders, communication and improvement based on evidence follows.

Krantz acknowledges that he only has a vague idea of what happens every day in a barn despite his level of expertise, and programs like these that allow everyone involved in the production process to be on the same page are invaluable. Moreover, acknowledging the care that pork producers put into what they do is crucial. In fact, Krantz gives the example of farms he's seen that have one pet sow, and though the animal isn't typically the most productive member of the herd, the connection employees form with the sow and, subsequently, animal health as they ask their doctors about her needs can create well-informed, well-rounded teams in barns.

When considering the concern of pre-wean mortality and the farm management required to address it, every employee at every part of the production process has a role to play. Caring about one's work pays off, and though challenges to animal health may persist, so does the dedication of those powering the industry.

For more information on this topic, listen to Krantz's full statement on Popular Pig: Leaving No Piglet Behind.

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