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Lessons in Perfecting Pig Survival

Raised decks improve weaning weights including the pigs left on the sows. For 52 consecutive weeks, Pig Palace of Defiance, IA, has set the pace, ranking first out of 212 farms with 400,000 breeding females in Swine Management Services' Swine Smart Farm Benchmarking program for reproductive performance. In the last year, Pig Palace has led the way by averaging 27.63 pigs weaned/mated female/year,

Raised decks improve weaning weights — including the pigs left on the sows.

For 52 consecutive weeks, Pig Palace of Defiance, IA, has set the pace, ranking first out of 212 farms with 400,000 breeding females in Swine Management Services' Swine Smart Farm Benchmarking program for reproductive performance.

In the last year, Pig Palace has led the way by averaging 27.63 pigs weaned/mated female/year, proudly reports Steve Huegerich, general manager of the swine division of Juergens Produce & Feed Co., based in Carroll, IA.

And the 1,200-sow, farrow-to-wean farm achieved that top performance without extending weaning age. Average age and weight at weaning are 19.5 days and 14.6 lb., respectively.

Huegerich believes it is within their reach at Pig Palace and Pig Haven, a 3,000-sow, farrow-to-wean farm at Glidden, IA, to achieve nearly 30 pigs weaned/mated female/year by bumping weaning age to around 21 days.

Starts with Gilts

PigChamp data in Table 1 amplifies the solid performance at Pig Palace. “For the last 12 months, our born alive was 12.1 and our weaning average was 11.1,” states Huegerich.

It all starts with the gilts, he professes. Single-source Danbred gilts are purchased from an isolated farm in Kansas. “We treat the girls right and bring them in as selects at 240-250 lb. We hold them for 90 days before we breed them at 325 to 340 lb.”

All gilts are given a serum injection for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) upon arrival, and a killed, autogenous vaccine booster for PRRS upon herd entry. Gilts/sows are also vaccinated periodically for swine influenza virus, which cycles through the herd occasionally, he explains.

Gilts are never bred early. “If they are bred too young, they will not stay in the herd as long, and they will never produce as many pigs over a lifetime,” Huegerich observes.

Proper gilt management has resulted in a 96% farrowing rate; all gilts are artificially inseminated.


Decks Elevate Performance

Huegerich stresses that having a 12.1 born live average is the key to successful pig production: “You can't raise them if you don't have them.”

That high birth rate presents challenges, however. “It is difficult to expect those gilts to raise that many pigs,” he says.

Pig Palace sow manager Mike Rauch recalls employee efforts to save pigs.

“There has been a lot of bump weaning to do, sometimes moving hundreds of pigs from room to room. We got to the point where we were putting pans of milk in the farrowing crates to try to get extra nutrition into the pigs without having to do all of that extra work of moving pigs,” he says.

Even with the extra effort, the results were fairly poor, he laments. Preweaning mortality still hovered around 11-12%.

Instead of moving groups of newborn pigs to different sows, Pig Palace staff tried three different raised deck systems before finally settling on The Birthright Deck from Ralco Nutrition, Inc., in January 2005.

The deck consists of a totally enclosed, corrugated plastic box bolted on a frame above two farrowing crates. It provides a comfortable, heated environment, much like the home that newborn pigs just left, according to the Marshall, MN-based company. It features a front sliding door for pig entry, one or two heat lamps and plastic-coated, woven wire flooring. Two milk replacer cups are located at the front of the deck, along with adjacent nipple waterers. Decks have side vents for airflow.

Due to the Birthright Deck and other management factors, preweaning mortality quickly dipped to 7-8% and stayed there. Rauch's goal is 6%.

Huegerich and Rauch calculate the raised deck technology is responsible for at least 2-3% of the drop in preweaning mortality. Figure 1 shows a history of the farm's preweaning mortality rates before and after the decks were installed.

Deck Management

At Pig Palace, smaller pigs that are not competitive are pulled from a litter and placed in the raised decks at 3-4 days of age, says Huegerich.

“It allows us to save 95% of those pigs; we are saving 21 extra pigs a week, and we are getting a half-a-pound heavier weaning weight on the pigs that are not on the raised decks,” he adds.

There are several reasons for waiting until Day 3 or 4 to pull pigs:

  • It gives staff time to discern which pigs are truly becoming disadvantaged and in danger of falling behind, says Huegerich.

  • At Day 4, pigs are castrated, so it prevents handling pigs twice.

  • And, compared to hours moving pigs for bump weaning and crossfostering, it only takes 10-15 minutes to transfer them to the raised decks, notes Rauch. Most pigs are moved to decks in the same or adjacent farrowing rooms to try to maintain group identity.

Rauch warns against waiting too long to move small pigs to decks. Once pigs get gaunt in the flank, they need to be transferred.

“If we wait until they get thin in the back legs, then it is hard to make a decent pig out of them,” he comments.

At Pig Palace, there are 1-2 decks located in each of the eight, 20-crate farrowing rooms and 3-4 decks positioned in each of the two, 40-crate farrowing rooms. Ralco Nutrition suggests placing 12-15 pigs/deck. Huegerich says they've had no problems with 15 pigs/deck.

Milk Replacer

The Pig Palace uses Ralco's milk replacer, Birthright Baby Pig Milk supplement. They are also testing Solustart milk replacer from Purina Mills, explains Huegerich.

The milk product is plumbed to the decks from a mixer tank in the farm's office. Milk flows continuously through tubes to cups in the decks to provide pigs with 24-hour access.

Because of cost of the milk, and to speed transition to dry feed, the milk cups are removed and pigs are switched to creep feed at 10-12 days of age (about 10 lb.) as depicted in the picture above.

“We don't normally creep feed in the farrowing crate, so the little guys actually get access to dry feed before their bigger littermates,” points out Huegerich.

Managing pigs in decks is fairly simple, he says. Make sure the milk stays fresh. Keep pigs warm and as dry as possible. Adjust heat lamps and add drying powder as necessary, he says. Dip incoming pigs' noses into the cup once so they know where the milk is. Pigs in decks retain group behavior and all want to drink at the same time.

With the cups, pigs always have access to milk, so even the most timid pig gets a chance to drink the milk supplement, states Rauch.

Milk is mixed daily to keep it fresh and stirred automatically about every half hour in the tank to keep it from settling out, says Rauch.

The milk is also supplemented with Regano, an oregano product from Ralco, to help keep the milk stable and fresh, adds Huegerich.

“It provides extra insurance, and we haven't had any trouble with scours in the decks, so we feel the Regano is working,” notes Rauch.

Milk lines are cleaned weekly, including a regimen of soaping, disinfecting with acid and rinsing, Rauch explains. Decks are washed out and sanitized between groups.

Tracking Pig Quality

Huegerich says some groups of pigs from the decks are marked with a special notch or hole punch in their ears so they can be tracked for performance through grow-finish. Without the identification, it would be nearly impossible to spot these formerly small pigs, he says.

“It doesn't do any good to save those pigs in farrowing if they are not going to meet your standards when they go to the nursery or grow-finish site,” he adds.

Economics of Pig Decks

Adding the decks benefited overall weaning weights, including the pigs left on the sows. “Every pig in the system last year was a half a pound heavier at weaning. We are now at 14.6 lb. on 19.5 days weaning. We were at about 14 lb. before we instituted the decks,” says Huegerich.

The additional half-pound weight gain translates to a $9,100 advantage. Calculating the value of the pigs saved, minus the cost of the milk program, provides nearly a $14,000 net benefit/year from using the raised deck system (Table 2). The capital cost of the deck system is not included in the calculations. He estimates the decks will pay for themselves in about two years.

Additional Benefits

Feeding the small pigs in decks has created other benefits that Huegerich hasn't placed a value on.

“Our wean-to-service estrus interval went down by one-half day to a day because there were less pigs on the sows during lactation. Sows are maintaining their bodyweight better, increasing their born alive the next turn and increasing their farrowing rate, and we are just ending up with a better-conditioned sow going back into breeding,” he says.

Wean-to-estrus interval is 4.9 days, with 96.4% of sows bred back by seven days.

Other Factors for Productivity

Pig Palace feeds a highly fortified Purina premix to the breeding herd, including added levels of organic selenium and chromium to enhance performance.

It doesn't often pay to cut feed costs because it can also hurt feed quality, which will in turn hurt reproductive performance.

“A sow eats a ton of feed a year, and spending $5-6 extra on a ton of feed is not a big-dollar issue, especially if you spread that cost out over a number of pigs produced,” says Huegerich.

Facilities at Pig Palace are well maintained. Most of the buildings were rebuilt or remodeled following a fire in 1991. Farrowing areas are converted from nurseries. When the site doubles to 2,400 sows this summer, farrowing will be done in new buildings that will enhance pig production, he says.


Rescue Decks Save Unthrifty Pigs

Litter sizes are on the rise, in some cases dramatically. But when that occurs, it can lead to lower birthweights and more starving pigs, says Kevin Cera, swine nutritionist and director of Technical Services for Akey Feeds, headquartered in Lewisburg, OH.

If they do survive, they often end up being lightweight or compromised pigs at weaning simply because of the competition for milk, exacerbating preweaning mortality, he adds.

Crossfostering and bump weaning can become excessive and tie up crates, and moving to an older weaning age doesn't eliminate the problem of excessive preweaning mortality, says Cera.

Fallout Pigs

Two classes of fallout pigs impact preweaning mortality and number of high-quality pigs weaned: compromised (low birthweight) pigs and starveouts, he says.

Akey is cooperating closely with S&R Resources, which makes and sells Rescue Decks, to focus on saving those pigs and producing more full-value pigs through to market. These compromised pigs will average .5 lb. or more gain/day on milk, and achieve 10 lb. or more in 14-15 days in the deck, according to Cera.

For proper use of the decks, focus on placing only the small, compromised pigs in the decks, not whole litters, to achieve heavier pigs after weaning. Maximum recommendation for the Rescue Decks is 12 pigs, he says.

Rescue Decks are plastic-molded, enclosed structures that are bolted on a frame between two farrowing crates. It includes two front milk cups, a continuous circulating loop milk line, plastic-coated woven wire flooring and a partial lid that stays partially open or closed depending on air quality. A third cup provides fresh water to the pigs. A heat lamp above the deck features a dimmer switch to adjust the temperature, explains Cera.

The milk replacer made by Akey for the decks is called Nurse-On. Pigs can transition to Akey's preweaned pig feed product, called Pig Creep, as early as 9-10 days of age, providing both wet and dry sources of nutrition while saving the cost of exclusively feeding pigs milk replacer.


Piglet survival rate in company research and producer trials has averaged at least 90%, says Cera. Lowering preweaning mortality by 3% pays for the equipment in less than six months.

Find out more about Rescue Decks by clicking on For more on Akey's milk replacer products, click on

Table 2. Raised Deck Economics for the Pig Palace
Milk cost (annual basis)
Death loss benefit — 3%
Pigs saved/week — 21
Pigs saved/year — 1,092
Value of pigs saved — $42,588.00/1
Overall weight benefit — .5 lb./pig
Value of weight benefit — $9,100/2
Total benefit — $51,688.00
Total cost — $37,777.50
(Excludes capital cost for raised deck systems estimated to be paid for in two years or less)
Net benefit — $13,910.50
1This figure is based on 1,092 pigs multiplied by a formula price of $39 for 20-day-old weaned pigs.
2This value comes from how pigs are priced out of the sow unit. They are priced $.50 higher for every pound of weight over 12 lb. Therefore, Pig Palace is getting an extra $.25/pig for every pig because they weigh a half pound more.

When to Consider Raised Decks

Mike Eisenmenger, DVM, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, MN, serves as the consulting swine veterinarian for Pig Palace. He advised owner Ron Juergens and swine division general manager Steve Huegerich to install the raised farrowing decks after viewing their successful use in Canada.

Eisenmenger is quick to point out that the decks aren't for everyone, and that management must be committed to make them work.

Two factors should be considered when using raised farrowing decks: the number of pigs born alive and the milking ability of your sow herd. If born alive is 10 or below, there should be adequate teat space; therefore, other management steps may be needed to save pigs.

If the milking ability of your herd is really poor, then pig-saving methods may not be enough. Changing the sow herd may be your best bet.

Eisenmenger stresses the best barometer of whether to use raised farrowing decks is if the total number of liveborn pigs exceeds teat capacity.

Those pigs add value to an operation. “What I generally tell people is that we figure each extra pig they wean is worth $34-35,” he says.

There are a growing number of farms producing high born-alive numbers of pigs, says Eisenmenger.

“We are going to have to be more creative on how to save all of the pigs we produce,” he emphasizes.

“The genetic companies have done a fantastic job of getting born alive and total born to very high levels. Now we've got to figure out ways to save the pigs that we create through total borns. And raised decks might be one way for people to go,” says Eisenmenger.