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Strategies to reduce sow mortality

Iowa Select Farms’ 10 action items to keep sows in the herd.

Ann Hess

December 6, 2023

10 Min Read
National Pork Board

Prior to 2021, no one had held the position of “sow retention specialist” at Iowa Select Farms. Today, the fourth largest pork producer in the United States, employs two specialists to help educate and train as it relates to sow mortality. The goal of the position is to help crews reduce sow mortality at their facilities by identifying lame sows timely, following treatment protocols, performing daily chores thoroughly, improving pen and gilt management, and focusing on body condition and feed intake.

“We have seven direct supervisors today, they cover around 36,000 sows per supervisor, so there's a lot that goes on, with a supervisor's responsibilities,” says Alexander Umbaugh, one of the two specialists. “There’s a lot of organization, movements, a lot of people, issues that they have to do, so there's a lot of things that drive them away from actually focusing on sow mortality and body condition. That's kind of why the position was created, is that we can work individually with those crews, and come up with solutions for each specific farm.”

Umbaugh, along with co-specialist Valeria Lejia, are also part of an Iowa Select Sow Livability Task Force that meets every one to two months. The group includes nutritionists, veterinarians, gilt development unit and sow supervisors, and their goal is to improve sow livability at a system level.

When the Sow Livability Task Force Team was formed in 2021, annualized sow mortality was 17.28%. Since then, the pork production system has seen a decrease in total death loss, with 14.83% in 2022 and 15.38% in 2023.

According to Cesar Moura, DVM, and research manager at Iowa Select Farms, the first objective for the Sow Livability Task Force Team was to gather data over the past few years and to identify opportunities working with Iowa State University. From that data, they have summarized three key areas to focus on in regard to sow mortality for the pork production system:

Health is the biggest risk factor.

With all of Iowa Select Farms’ sow herds located in Iowa, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, mycoplasma and Seneca Valley virus outbreaks continue to be an issue. In addition to heightened biosecurity, Iowa Select has tried including feed additives and feed medication pulses to mitigate the ongoing challenges.

“We tried treating our sow farms with probiotics, and we did an analysis last winter, where we saw that we can actually help to reduce our mortality when we feed those probiotics,” Moura says. “So, we started implementing some feed meds, some feed pulses on feed, and then we usually do them every quarter, and we can see that when we do the pulses, and right after the pulse is implemented, we can see a reduction in sow mortality compared to those other weeks that they're not medicated.”

There are a lot of non-infection risk factors too.

In the Iowa Select system, open pen gestation has had a much high mortality compared to the stall farms, Moura says. The task force has also found breeding gilts at a higher age and a higher weight has impacted mortality, and the animals that lost the most body condition during the farrowing phase were the ones with the worst performance.

To mitigate these issues, Iowa Select has conducted a few trials with enrichment devices with grow out gilts. When the toys were put in, removals were reduced and bites were reduced.

Since gilts bred younger and lighter tended to  stay longer in the herd, removal of those animals was reduced. Another strategy has been identifying sows that go off feed, especially post-farrow.

“That's one thing that we've done, and really helped in reducing sow mortality, and stimulating the animals to eat post-farrow,” Moura says.

Ninety percent of Iowa Select death losses fall into three main causes.

“We tend to see more prolapses (28.02%) on P1s, P2s and P3s, not responsive to antibiotics. We've tested mass treatments, we tested vaginal infusions pre-farrow, and we didn't see any reduction in the prolapses,” Moura says. “We looked at different ages of breeding, and weights at breeding as well and then we didn't see any difference. So, one thing that we've been doing is repairing those prolapses. We don't avoid those prolapses to happen, but at least we don't have to euthanize the sows.”

Lameness (28.78%) has also been an issue for the pork production system, especially with young sows. Breeding gilts earlier has helped, but open pen gestation continues to be a challenge. The system has also tried implementing toenail trimming.  

As for sudden deaths (31.22%), it's usually an old sow issue, Moura says, with most of them around farrowing or right after. Those animals are very responsive to antibiotic treatments.

“When we do the feed pulses, we tend to see a big reduction in sudden deaths, but we don't really know what's a sudden death,” Moura says. “It's a variety of things, so we haven't really done a lot in sudden death, but we are now putting efforts on a necropsy project with ISU as well and trying to better understand the causes and what's behind the sudden death.”

With those lessons learned, the sow retention specialists have now taken 10 action items to drive sow mortality down within the Iowa Select Farms system.

Weekly sow mortality reports

The reports, which are sent out on a weekly basis, give a 13-week average for mortality for each farm. Mortality is then divided into three main buckets: lameness, sudden death and prolapses. The reports have become essential for Umbaugh and his colleague as they study the reports before going into farms, to see what areas they need to focus on, and what improvements have been made.

Team choring

Iowa Select now has 100% of their farrowing and 80% of gestation conducting two-person chores. One employee works from the front of the crate, making sure the sow has feed, scraping the feeder, checking the water nipple, and examining the sow from a different angle in the front. The other employee works from the back of the crate, making heat lamp adjustments, looking at the sow’s back, feet and legs, and scraping manure as well. Since issues are now identified in a timelier manner, Umbaugh says they have seen a pretty significant increase in treatments.

For open pen gestating farms, one person runs through the pens, ensuring the pen is uniform, and identifying anything that's at risk. The person in the alleyway is then responsible for feed box adjustments and can assist if there's a sow that needs to be pulled out.

“A majority of the farms did see a pretty good reduction in sow mortality after implementing the two-person choring,” Umbaugh says. “Not every farm did, whether that may be a function of short staffing, or a function of health, but for the most part, it was pretty good success when you have two people choring together.”

The biggest buy-in for team choring has been, instead of having to haul a dead sow out of a pen, the team is identifying more at-risk sows, getting them treated and saving those sows, which saves time in the long run, he says.

Hand-feeding post-farrow

After farrowing, sows are hand fed for first three days post-farrow: four pounds in the morning the first day, four pounds in the morning and afternoon on the second day, and then on the third day, four pounds in the morning, with a return to full feed if all is cleaned up.

“It's helped tremendously with farrow and feed cost, and it's a lot easier to identify the sows that maybe didn't clean up their feed from the night before, and so therefore, we can get a treatment administered on them in a timely manner,” Umbaugh says.

At-risk sow identification

Iowa Select Farms uses the ABC analogy: A for at-risk, B for basic, and C for critical. All at-risk sows receive a pink card indicating there is something abnormal with her, and that card stays with the sow farm from breeding to farrowing.

At-risk sows

One thing they have changed within the ABC system is how at-risk sows are penned.

“We actually go ahead and get all of our sows up before we pen them, and then we go to the back of the crates with a flashlight, and then look at their feet and legs to identify if they have any small wounds, long toenails, anything that would make them at-risk, flag them, and then actually group those sows together, and then group them into our gestation snake,” Umbaugh says.

Overall, the process has created more uniform pens, and the sows are staying in pens much longer.

Condition scoring with a caliper

Before they started using the caliper, Umbaugh says there was a lot of variation not only farm to farm, but person to person, when it comes to condition scoring. Today they caliper sows at breeding, 30 days, pre-penning, 60 days and 90 days, if they're in an all-stalled farm. Their goal is to reach 95% accuracy with caliper, with score factored into employees’ quarterly bonuses.

Gilt management

Prior to gilt entry, a hospital pen must be reserved. Hours after the gilts arrive, staff then go back and identify any animals that need to be pulled or treated. If they see any gilts that are lame or stiff from transportation, the barn will be administered aspirin for five days. Finally, they make sure that each gilt receives four pounds of feed once they get into the farm.

The pork production system also implements stall acclimating a week before going into farrowing, and once they enter a farrowing stall, the gilts are monitored twice daily to make sure they are getting up for maximum water and feed intake.

Toenail trimming

This is one area Umbaugh says the task force was most skeptical about, because Iowa Select Farms doesn’t use chutes within their system. However, the team has found it doesn’t take too much time or labor to implement.

“It's not a whole process, it might be a sow here and there, and I think the ultimate goal, if you can get one more parity out of that sow, or if you trim a sow's toenail before you put her in a pen, she's more likely to go into an at-risk pen versus into a hospital row where it can jam up your row, and then potentially not allow more critical sows to go into that hospital row,” Umbaugh says.

Breeding flashcards

While not required at every single farm, flashcards are used on farms that have struggled with consistency. The flashcards show who's choring what barn each day, the number of sows they pulled from that pen, how many new treatments they administered, where their mortalities came from, and then the reasons for that.

Sow livability quiz

The quiz, which consists of 25 questions on livability, body condition, feed usage, treatment and more, has sparked friendly competition amongst the sow farms, Umbaugh says. And only department heads and staff are allowed to compete.

While sow mortality is something that continues to vary for the pork production system, Moura says after implementing these practices, it’s good to see some stats trending back down. They have seen one of their lowest rates for prolapses and lameness in the last few years.

“We still have more sows in pens, and still a struggle, but we can breed the gilts at the right age. The two-team choring strategy is something that really helped,” Moura says. “Sudden death is something that we cannot really act on, we've tried multiple different things, but it's really hard to really get the sudden death rate to go down, because in reality, we know it's sudden, but we don't really know what we're dealing with.”

Umbaugh says the key for system-wide improvement is not settling for mediocracy. “I've dealt with a lot of people that have said, ‘I've been doing this for 25 years and my way's the best.’ Well, you know, I respect that, but at the same time, the way that we raise pigs today is a little bit different than when we raised pigs, 25, 50 years ago, so be willing to change, be willing to accept different ideas, and continue to work with your crew to have the best results for your farm.”

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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