Do the math and it becomes clear that the U.S. pork industry is losing about 20% of total born piglets before weaning, says Tim Loula, DVM, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, MN.
The United States markets nearly 110 million pigs/year from the roughly 137.5 million pigs born each year. With stillborns and preweaning mortality amounting to 20% of that total, that means 27.5 million piglets fail to survive to weaning.
“With grow-finish death loss making tremendous improvements since circovirus vaccine was introduced, raising a higher percentage of pigs born is the biggest production opportunity,” Loula declares.
Many production systems Loula works with have reduced nursery mortalities to 1% or so and finishing losses to 2-3%. But some systems are still mired down by preweaning losses of 12-13%; add 7% stillborns and the total loss of production during the farrowing phase is about 20%.
At the same time, producers have made remarkable strides in farrowing performance in the last five years, improving total born to 14-15 pigs/litter. If a producer can wean 12 pigs vs. 10 pigs, that’s 20% more pigs produced out of the same number of sows, improving sow feed efficiency.
With some management changes, Loula says producers should be able to achieve under 5% stillborns and less than 10% total preweaning mortality. The best farms in the world are achieving 4-7% preweaning mortality; with 24-hour assisted-farrowing coverage, the top farms are at just 3-4%, weaning 12-13 pigs/litter.
“We have some production systems in the United States that are doing that. Most of them are getting down that low by going to 24-hour coverage,” Loula says.
Today’s typical 5,000-sow operation farrows 40 sows/day, and those sows are often left unattended for 16 hours of the day, Loula says.
He is astonished by the attitude of staff on some client farms that leave sows alone to farrow. What’s needed is for staff members to adopt the habits of the farm wife 25 years ago, who was driven by commitment.
“There was a time when many farm wives watched every sow farrow. If the sow farrowed too slow, she sleeved the sow. When the piglets were born, she dried them off using straw or towels and placed them by the teats. She watched to make sure they suckled and got colostrum in the first 30 minutes of nursing.
“Once there were 7-8 piglets born, she took a bushel basket and placed the piglets in there or behind a straw bale so the remaining smaller piglets could get to a teat,” Loula says.
In today’s farrowing barns, Day-1 pig care should be as important as breeding proficiency. “Breeders will never, ever leave the farm without breeding the sows that are in heat. But many farms leave sows and piglets unattended and that is just as important. It needs to be a priority,” he says.
Birthing Room Culture
More and more often, farms are assigning a staff member to exclusive duties as the Day-1 farrowing technician, Loula says.
Prior to farrowing, this person makes sure rooms are ready, heat lamps are adjusted and mats are clean and in place. Hot boxes/split suckle boxes should be cleaned with fresh bedding sitting above the crates and ready to go. Farrowing totes with all necessary supplies should be cleaned and ready.
Ventilation should be reset for young pigs, 20 cfm/minute for each sow/litter.
Loula stresses the importance of creating a birthing room culture with these steps:
• Keep it quiet.
• Turn off overhead lights.
• Don’t walk in front of sows when they are farrowing.
• Don’t process piglets while sows are farrowing.
• Keep sow cards in the back of the crate.
“The whole idea is to keep sows calm and not interfere with the farrowing process,” Loula points out.
If farms can’t achieve 24-hour farrowing coverage, they can stagger employee hours so that there is at least 18-hour coverage, he says.
“It’s a fact that all newborns need colostrum; piglets need colostrum for sure within six hours of birth,” Loula stresses. “Colostrum contains high levels of fat energy (and antibodies that confer cellular and humoral immunity). The top farms with 3-4% preweaning mortality and 24-hour coverage dry off piglets and get them on a teat within the first 2-3 hours after birth.”
An old European study found 8% preweaning mortality among small piglets in the first seven piglets born (all had maternal antibodies). But small piglets born later than seventh in the birthing order had 75% preweaning mortality, and 30% of them lacked maternal antibodies at 12 hours of age, Loula notes.
When client farms don’t have 24-hour farrowing coverage, Loula institutes “stress rounds” to provide a quick check to evaluate what happened overnight. “Take the first 15 minutes to get those things fixed that went wrong overnight,” he suggests.
The first round in the morning, box the big pigs so that the smaller pigs have access to sow’s colostrum and milk. Mark “at-risk” pigs, those that are smaller or that require more attention/care than their littermates, to make sure they get off to a good start.
In the second round in mid-morning, determine if the “at-risk” pigs are fixed or if more care is needed. Assess whether the sow is nursing properly.
In the third round later in the day, find out if any “at-risk” piglets require individualized attention or if pigs need help to a teat. Diagram the location of where the challenged piglets are within the room so they are easier to find and treat.
During this critical juncture, audit colostrum management, Loula says. Even though one or two people are watching the room, the manager should ask the following questions:
• Morning — are the right pigs being marked?
• Late morning — are pigs getting colostrum?
• Mid-afternoon — are pigs’ bellies full?
More and more staffs are powdering with a drying agent or toweling off newborn pigs as they make rounds, Loula says.
“If most of or an entire litter looks bad, that is a sow problem. A normal litter will have only 1-3 ‘at-risk’ pigs that need attention,” he says.
“Fix pigs early. Studies show that low intake of maternal antibodies was only observed in one piglet out of 112 born in piglets born first through seventh, but that rises to 10 of 75 piglets born eighth or later,” he notes.
Try to fix all of the “at-risk” pigs as quickly as possible and for sure by the end of the day, and make sure all have full bellies of milk, he emphasizes.
Litters born overnight that have all had colostrum require no work.
Without 24-hour care, chilled piglets need to be placed in hot boxes, Loula says.
Once the first 7-8 pigs in a litter are dried off and have full bellies, they should be moved to a hot box. Big pigs can stay in split-suckle boxes up to 3-4 hours while the smaller pigs nurse. Line the bottom of the boxes or pail with rolled oats, wheat bran or sow feed. No heat lamp is required. When the pigs are returned to the sow, this material can be used as feedback material for the next group of sows close to farrowing.
Limit pig sorting. “Most pigs should get colostrum from their own mother unless they are incapable of getting to their mother’s teats,” Loula says. Less sorting improves health and reduces labor.
Keep it simple when evaluating sows: Is she eating? Is she drinking? Is she passing manure? Do her pigs have full bellies?
Normal gestation periods average 112 to 114 days, but some can extend out to 119 days. To get the most viable litters, let sows farrow naturally. As a rule, don’t induce sows, he says.
Calcium injections are needed when the uterine muscle fails to contract. Injections help with slow farrowing, uterine inertia, weak sows, excitable sows and savaging sows. Loula suggests calcium gluconate dosages of 15 cc per gilt and 20 cc per sow.
Remove sows from the farrowing crate and take them for a walk if they are having trouble farrowing, he suggests.
Make sure sows have good udders and functional teats.
Big Five Checklist
- Prepare the sow to deliver large, viable piglets of equal size and to pass on colostral immunity and provide a strong lactation.
- Provide the proper environment for the piglet that is clean, warm, dry and draft-free.
- Develop an efficient farrowing room work plan.
- Monitor colostrum.
- Prevent starve-outs.