National Hog Farmer is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


Articles from 2008 In October

Market "Spasms" Spawn Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a bad thing for a business climate. The uncertainty of capital markets is largely responsible for the spasms (as my friend John Ginzel calls them) that are going through the equity markets these days. And the uncertainty of mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) and its impact on packers’ procurement plans is apparently causing spasms in the Canadian feeder pig and weaner pig industry as well.

I still believe this situation will work out over time and that U.S. packers will buy Canadian-born pigs, primarily because they cannot do without seven million market animals. I also believe that U.S. feeders will buy young pigs since U.S. packers will buy them and, ultimately, that Canadian farrowing operations will produce them. But getting from this current state of uncertainty to that point may have its own “spasms”.

Canadian journalist Bruce Cochran quoted Manitoba Pork Council Chair Karl Kynoch this week, saying: “There are a lot of weanlings that don’t even have homes anymore.” It was a reference to U.S. buyers’ backing away from Canadian pigs. Imports of Canadian feeder/weaner pigs indeed fell last week to just over 100,000 head from nearly 120,000 head the week before (See Figure 1). Canada’s Thanksgiving celebration on Oct. 13 played a role in that decline, but the week’s total was 19% lower than one year ago and only 1% larger than the five-year average.

I have to agree with Mr. Kynoch’s statement that this disruption, though I think it’s temporary, will drive more Canadian sows out of production. Canada’s producers have been through difficult times and many simply do not have the financial wherewithal to stand another hit.

Canada’s October Hog Statistics report is due out next week. It will not reflect this most recent pressure, but it should be watched closely to see if the July breeding herd number (which I and nearly every other analyst that I know thought was far too high) is revised downward. Watch for discussion in next week’s North American preview.

U.S. Markets Bare Watching, Too
U.S. hog markets remain on the retreat this week as turmoil in world financial markets continues to spill over into agricultural markets, primarily via heightened concern about meat demand, in general, and export demand, in particular. The rate of U.S. pork export growth slowed in August, but remained 57% higher in volume (product weight) and 64% higher in value than one year ago. Those are far short of the virtual doubling of exports in April through July, but it still leaves year-to-date exports up 68% in volume and up 62% in value (see Figures 2 and 3).

But there are ample reasons for concern. First, prices of trimmings and hams have fallen sharply since August, when they led a surge in U.S. cutout values and hog prices; 72% trimmings are down 54% since August 15 and 42% trimmings are down 62%. Ham primal values are 43% lower at a time of year when they are usually, at worst, holding steady and, at best, increasing gradually as holiday ham needs are filled.

The latest pork export data available are for August, but weekly beef export data are troubling to say the least. More on that later.

Altin Kalo of Steiner Consulting Group, writing for Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) Group’s Daily Livestock Report this week, pointed out that beef exports have fallen from about 15,000 metric tons/week in August to just 7,000 MT last week. The largest contributor to that decline was a roughly 75% drop in shipments to Mexico, our heretofore largest beef customer this year. Shipments to Korea and Japan have also fallen, even though the Japanese yen has held up to the rising U.S. dollar much better than most currencies.

Why don’t we have weekly pork export data? Because producers and packers did not ask for it as part of the Livestock Mandatory Reporting Act of 1999. Beef producers and packers did. The pork industry discussed this long and hard, but eventually felt that weekly data would provide more helpful information to our competitors than it would to the U.S. industry. I was part of those discussions and, right or wrong, agreed with that viewpoint. In hindsight, it would be nice to have the data so we could know more about current market conditions. That can still be done if the industry decides it would be beneficial.

Finally, pork in cold storage as of Sept. 30 increased by 5% relative to last month and 4% relative to last year. Ham stocks are up 13%, year-on-year, while belly inventories are down 33% from last year. Rib inventories are 15% higher as well, likely reflecting the slowdown of foodservice trade as the economy softens.

More Meat in Storage
Perhaps more concerning is the level of all meats in storage. In addition to the growth in pork inventories, chicken inventories were up 16% from last year and up 1% from last month, while beef inventories were 9% lower than last year, but 2% larger than last month. Perhaps most notable was turkey stocks that are 22% higher than last year – a fact not conducive to much recovery in ham pricing during the holidays.

Total meat and poultry in U.S. freezers, at 2.357 billion pounds, reached the highest level since October 2002 (see Figure 4) when near-record stocks of pork and chicken and record stocks of beef sent inventories to a record 2.527 billion pounds. The Sept. 30 total is 1% higher than last month and 9.2% higher than last year.

Click to view graphs.

Steve R. Meyer, Ph.D.
Paragon Economics, Inc.
e-mail: [email protected]

Hog Company Condemns Acts of Animal Abuse

Greene County, IA, authorities on Wednesday charged six farm workers with animal abuse in connection with a video obtained by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that showed employees abusing pigs.

New owner of the farm at Bayard, IA, MowMar Farms, expressed surprise and outrage over the images of animal mistreatment depicted in video footage released by PETA on Sept. 16, 2008, one month after MowMar acquired the farm.

Representatives of MowMar immediately met with PETA to review their allegations and the next day, Sept. 17, publicly committed to implement a series of investigative, disciplinary and corrective actions.

MowMar’s ongoing internal investigation resulted in the termination of some employees, including all six employees charged by the Greene County Sheriff and county attorney.

Based on new evidence, Suidae Health and Production, the farm management firm, has terminated the farm manager as well. All existing and new employees receive extensive and ongoing training to ensure that MowMar Farms’ zero-tolerance policy with respect to mistreatment or abuse of farm animals is upheld.

MowMar officials said they “share the goal of ensuring that all animals managed by our operations are treated in a humane manner, guided by policies that meet the highest legal, ethical and industry standards for animal husbandry.”

Labeling Law Creates Confusion

To say mandatory country-of-origin labeling (MCOOL) is “off and running” would be an overstatement. “Off and stumbling” would be more appropriate but the key word is off. MCOOL is now required – sort of – and the entire meat complex is trying to conform to the rules, whatever those are. Do you detect a bit of uncertainty here?

The MCOOL law and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) interim final rule to implement it became effective Sept. 30. It has been adopted and exhibited at retail stores to varying degrees since that time. Some stores have everything in place; others have little in place. Some have clear, concise labels. Others have labels that cover all possibilities and will probably not pass muster at some point. There is good reason USDA said up front that it would use the initial six months as an education period.

Pork packers are trying to decide how to handle MCOOL, and part of their difficulty is they are trying to hit a moving target, or at least an evolving one. The current version of MCOOL, passed as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, is much more manageable and, in my opinion, reasonable than the version initially included in the 2002 Farm Bill. What boded to be a daunting record-keeping system has been reduced substantially. USDA has agreed that affidavits from people with first-hand knowledge of the origin of animals will suffice as proof of origin. The number of potential labels has been reduced from five to four for meat products.

Marketing 'Issues' Remain
But "issues" remain. They revolve primarily around how much flexibility the system provides for allowing pigs born in the United States to "fill out a slaughter run" that includes some pigs born in Canada and fed in the United States.

First, let’s review a primer on the labels and the apparently-accepted vernacular of Labels A, B, C and D:

  • Label A – Product of the USA. This product must come from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. Note that is a one-way statement. The law does not say that all animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States must carry this label.
  • Label B – Product of the USA and Country X. This product is from animals not exclusively born, raised and slaughtered in the United States, OR from animals born or raised or slaughtered in the United States, but NOT animals imported for immediate slaughter (i.e., both born and raised in another country). The second part of this definition was new in the 2008 Farm Bill, and it allows pigs born and raised in the United States to be included in this label.
  • Label C – Product of Country X and the USA. For product produced from animals imported for immediate slaughter – i.e. Canadian market hogs.
  • Label D – Product of Country X. For imported meat products. These always had to be identified at the border. The new law requires a label at retail, even for fresh meat products, which were not necessarily labeled in the past.
Debating Label Flexibility
The rub, of course, has come with Label B. Just how much flexibility is allowed under the rule? Or, more importantly, how much did Congress intend to be allowed under the rule? Some packers saw the rule as permission to include as many U.S-born-and-raised pigs as they wanted and had moved forward with plans to only use Label B.

Two weeks ago, USDA said this was, in fact, what neither they nor Congress intended and told the meat trade that they could use Label B only for product that was produced on a “production day” when both U.S.-born and Canadian-born pigs were processed in the plant. That still provides flexibility to fill out a day or a shift of primarily Canadian-born pigs with U.S.-born pigs, but it does not give carte blanche permission to label product from U.S.-born pigs with the multi-country label.

An obvious solution would be to make sure you have a few Canadian-born pigs in the slaughter each day or each shift. But there are rumblings that this may not be acceptable either; that "intent of Congress" thing enters in, where we only seem to know after we start trying to do, something what the law actually says.

Five Predictions
It’s still not clear what will happen but here are my thoughts – for what they are worth:
  1. Canadian market hogs are in a VERY tough spot. Production from them will have to carry a unique label – "Product of Canada and the USA" – and that would create three sets of products in some plants. I look for U.S. companies to virtually stop buying these hogs.
  2. Some companies will stick to their “U.S. pigs only” stances but others will compromise. Imports of Canadian feeder pigs have fallen back to levels considered “normal” before the exchange rate- and feed cost-driven surge of late 2007 and early 2008. We will still import about 7 million of these pigs in ’08, 7.3% more than last year. ALL U.S. packers cannot quit buying these pigs cold turkey. (It’s a bad pun but it fits.) The U.S. packing sector cannot run efficiently on 7 million (over 6%) fewer pigs, especially when 2 million imported Canadian market hogs may already be removed from the supply.
  3. The rules and interpretations still allow more flexibility than we once thought would exist. Couple that with the fact that packers collectively still need those 7 million pigs, and I think it is now unlikely that these pigs will be discounted heavily and, perhaps, not discounted at all.
  4. A key indication that imported Canadian feeder pigs are not a huge problem is the fact that the numbers are staying near those “normal” levels. Hog feeders and packers are pretty rational people who have a reasonably good handle on what this situation might entail. And armed with that knowledge, they have continued to buy these pigs. I don’t detect a lot of alarm in that, especially since the interim final rule was published. Live hogs imports from Canada can be found in Figure 1.
  5. Thank your lucky stars you’re not in the beef business. Assuming, of course, you aren’t. And if you are, have fun!

Click to view graphs.

Steve R. Meyer, Ph.D.
Paragon Economics, Inc.
e-mail: [email protected]

Pork Exports Surpass 2007 Despite Global Uncertainty

U.S. pork exports performed well in August, despite the volatility of global markets and growth in the value of the U.S. dollar, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF).

August pork and pork variety meat sales overseas declined compared to record monthly totals set earlier this year. But the August total of nearly $444 million pushed this year’s export value past the previous record set in 2007. For the first eight months of 2008, pork exports were worth $3.21 billion, compared to $3.15 billion for all of 2007. The export volume of 1.37 million metric tons (3.03 billion pounds) also surpasses 2007’s year-end total.

“This is really an amazing milestone for pork exports,” says USMEF President and CEO Philip Seng. “We knew pork exports were headed for an all-time high in 2008, but for the industry to break that record before Labor Day is quite an accomplishment.”

January-August pork exports exceeded those of the previous year by 71% in volume and 64% in value. Japan remains the largest value market for U.S. pork at $992.7 million for the year – 29% over 2007. Japan’s volume of 299,277 metric tons (659.8 million pounds) is 25% above last year.

Pork export sales to Mexico have also remained strong, with January-August volume up 35% and value up 46% over last year to 237,655 metric tons (523.9 million pounds) valued at $417.3 million.

Pork exports to Russia climbed 174% in volume and 177% in value this year to 141,446 metric tons (311.8 million pounds) valued at $302 million. August pork sales to Russia set a new monthly record of 28,012 metric tons (61.8 million pounds) valued at $61.9 million.

“Russian processors will continue to need imported pork in order to satisfy quality requirements and meet current demand,” Seng adds. “While there is some uncertainty with regard to the tariff rates and tariff rate quotas we will face, Russia simply doesn’t have the domestic production to satisfy its needs.”

Pork exports to the China/Hong Kong region – this year’s leading destination for U.S. pork in terms of volume – continued its decline in August, with 21,568 metric tons (47.5 million pounds) valued at $37.1 million. This pushed the region’s total for the year to 307,903 metric tons (678 million pounds) valued at $533.8 million. China has increased domestic production, but high domestic production costs are expected to force some producers out of business, meaning China remains a promising market for U.S. pork exports in 2009 and beyond.

Pork exports to Canada through August are up 23% in volume and 20% in value over the same period in 2007.

Pork exports to South Korea have risen 47% in volume and 28% in value over the same period last year, defying critics who predicted some decline in U.S. pork exports with the reintroduction of U.S. beef to South Korea. In fact, the August export volume of 10,530 metric tons (23.2 million pounds) more than doubled figures for August 2007.

For 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has lowered its pork export forecast by 125 million pounds, citing recent reduced shipments.

People Drive Topnotch Environmental Balance

Equipment and the environment no doubt play big roles in the comfort, ease of care and ultimately piglet survival in the farrowing house.

But when all nine veterinarians at Swine Vet Center were polled, boasting a combined 115 years of practice experience, the consensus among the group was that the biggest driver of top performance was the people managing the farrowing house.

Management involves understanding the advantages and disadvantages of the equipment in the facility you are dealing with and managing around its weaknesses (Table 1).

In this article, we'll attempt to provide insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the equipment we commonly see and the management procedures that we recommend for this equipment.

Farrowing Crate Flooring

The floors in the farrowing crate should provide a surface that comfortably supports the sow and litter, is easy to completely clean and sanitize and is durable. Floor options include woven wire, cast iron or plastic, each having unique advantages (see (Table 1).

In general, plastic flooring retains heat better, which offers additional comfort for the piglets when compared to metal flooring. However, plastic floors can become slippery and are routinely harder to sanitize, especially between floor junctions and along the underside surfaces.

Metal flooring designs have always had the advantage of keeping sows cooler and being easier to clean and disinfect compared to plastic flooring surfaces. However, over time, metal flooring can become worn and corroded, requiring repairs or replacement.

Plastic coating over the metal surface of the floor does reduce wear, but the coating can crack, making it difficult to clean and disinfect.

Crates that combine two different flooring materials — a metal surface for the sow and plastic for the piglets — reap the benefits of each of these flooring types and have been the most successful farrowing crate flooring.

Farrowing Crate Design

Farrowing crate size and design varies. The research on which crate designs are best for the sow and litter has not provided completely clear answers. We believe the crates with a mechanism to reduce crushing of piglets as the sow lies down, both at the side and the rear of the crate, result in less preweaning mortality.

Additionally, crates that use bowed bottom bars or have a finger design have been highly preferred because that makes it easier for piglets to nurse shortly after birth and throughout lactation.

Feeding Programs for Sows

Managing feed intake of the lactating sow is critical to her milking ability. It has also been shown many times that failure to maximize feed intake during lactation decreases future reproductive performance and sow longevity in the breeding herd.

Preparing a sow for maximum lactation feed intake starts well before her entry into the farrowing crate, as sows that are overweight will have lower feed intake compared to sows with ideal body condition.

There are a number of things that we do each day in the farrowing house that influences daily feed intake, including the frequency and amount fed, the environmental comfort of the sow, and the recognition and treatment of sows that are eating poorly due to infection or fever.

When sows are fed by hand, usually the amount of feed they receive is based on the farrowing room manager's observation of the sows' daily appetite. Subsequently, the amount fed each day is a subjective decision based on an estimate of what a sow will eat until the next feeding, a practice that can lead to feed waste for sows that don't eat well at the next feeding, and likely shorts the sows that want to eat more each day.

The implementation of self- and/or automated-feeding systems has helped solve these concerns, while providing ad-lib access to feed. These systems have increased feed intake of lactating sows, as well as reduced daily labor requirements in farrowing rooms.

When feeders are adjusted properly, sows have access to the desired amounts of feed, while ensuring the remaining feed stays fresh and dry. Less feed is wasted due to spillage and moisture buildup at the bottom of the feed pan, especially during warm times of the year.

There are several self-feeding systems available to producers, including those with manually filled feed hoppers or tubes that hold larger amounts of fresh feed, as well as automated feeding systems that store feed in drop boxes and dump feed at scheduled feeding times into self-feeders or tubes.

Automatic feeding systems have increased the frequency of feeding within a farrowing room, commonly allocating feed up to four times per day in an attempt to encourage sows to eat more.

Although the systems are automated, they are not management-free. Some sows and gilts may have to be trained to use the feeders, although most catch on quite quickly. Loose feeder adjustments can lead to feed wastage in self-feeding systems as sows work excess feed into the feeder. Moisture build-up within self-feeding systems usually leads to feed spoilage inside tubes or self-feeders and can inhibit feed flow.

Other problems include feed bridging in feed boxes or outside bulk bins, leading to erratic feeding, especially for systems set to feed automatically after workers have left for the day. Automatic systems increase the potential for mechanical problems, plus some producers are reluctant to adopt the technology due to the initial cost of installation.

Certainly, automated or self-feeding systems in the farrowing house have shown great benefits in total feed intake during lactation, which in turn has had a positive impact on the milking abilities and future reproductive capabilities of the sow.

Water Intake

Water is one of the most important nutrient requirements of the lactating sow, yet water intake often goes unchecked or under-evaluated, especially in those sows that tend to have a poor appetite or those with poorly performing piglets.

Nipple watering systems are most commonly used in farrowing crates for both sows and piglets because they are easy to clean, maintain and replace. Crate hygiene is also easier with nipple waterers vs. cups.

Granted, nipple waterers create more water wastage than other systems. And, because of unfamiliar surroundings, gilts may have a hard time adjusting from watering troughs to the nipples in the farrowing crates. The problem is easily solved with some training, however.

Often neglected, checking to make sure each nipple is working should be a routine part of a daily farrowing room walkthrough. Also, flow rates for sow watering systems should be measured to ensure that adequate water is being provided. Recommendations from the Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) Plus program call for around a quart of water per minute for lactating sows.

Wet-dry feeders that have the water source within the feed trough usually reduce water wastage, but feed wastage/spoilage often increases if troughs are not cleaned daily.

Piglet Comfort

One of the most important concepts in maintaining piglet health and increasing preweaning survivability is providing a warm, dry and draft-free environment. We create this area in specific zones of the farrowing crate to encourage piglets to lie away from the sow, which reduces the number of piglets that are laid on. Creating this environment for piglets has been most successfully accomplished through the combination of heat lamps and mats.

Maintaining heat lamp adjustments is a daily task that requires close attention to the piglets and their lying patterns (Table 1). A relatively straightforward observation, how piglets lie in the zone we create, indicates their level of comfort. Piglets that pile on top of each other under the heat lamp or are found lying on or tight against the sow are a clear indication that the environment is too cold and heat source adjustments need to be made. Alternately, pigs that are spread out away from supplemental heat sources are often too warm, and this requires lamps to be raised.

Keep the positioning of heat lamps in mind also. Poorly positioned lamps can draw piglets to rest closer to sows. A heat lamp that is angled so that heat is directed on the sow will increase her level of discomfort within the crate.

Mats are also successfully used in farrowing crates to maintain warm lying areas and to reduce drafts from beneath the flooring surface. Rubber mats are commonly used because they are durable and reusable. Disposable mats have become popular with producers who are concerned that rubber mats cannot be disinfected effectively. Disposable mats offer a lying area that is initially free from environmental contamination, a real plus during severe scouring episodes. Disposable mats also serve as good feedback material for a herd immunization program.

Heated mats have also been used, but often they do not eliminate the need for a heat lamp in the crate to provide a comfortable lying area for piglets. Much like plastic flooring, heated mats can be difficult to clean and sanitize over time, plus maintenance costs are greater compared to rubber or disposable mats.

Controlling Heat Sources

With increases in energy costs, many producers are finding success with new technologies that allow for more precise control of electrical heat sources. These environmental controllers provide just enough energy to the crate's supplemental heat lamps or mats to maintain a desired temperature. This reduces electricity use as pigs get older or their need for continuous supplemental heat decreases. Savings in energy costs have been remarkable.

Thermostatic control of supplemental heat sources is another excellent way to reduce energy costs in farrowing rooms.

Hovers Can Help

As an alternative to heat lamps and farrowing mats, hovers have been used to provide supplemental heat and draft protection within the farrowing crate. Research trials comparing hovers with traditional supplemental heating methods have not shown a large difference in piglet survivability, but they definitely reduce the amount of energy used in farrowing rooms because the desired temperature can be reduced more than with mats and heat lamps alone. Table 2 shows a daily log of recommended farrowing room temperatures.

Critical Colostrum

The first 24-48 hours after farrowing is a critical time for the newborn. Piglets that spend time shivering in the corners of farrowing crates quickly become chilled, have a decreased ability to seek out the sow, and often do not receive adequate colostrum. Pigs that do not get sufficient colostrum within the first 6-12 hours after birth are more susceptible to disease and more likely to perish.

That is why it is important to get pigs warm, dry and nursing as soon as possible. Warming and split-suckling techniques that increase the probability that each pig has been dried off, warmed up and received colostrum are very popular among successful sow farms.

This warming and split-nursing process requires a clean container with a layer of wood chips, preferably a drying agent and a supplemental heat source. After newborn piglets are dried, warmed and allowed to nurse to ensure they've received adequate colostrum, they are placed in the container so their littermates that follow have a chance to nurse without competition. This process gives the piglets the best start possible.

Farrowing Room Ventilation

There are usually two primary goals that we are trying to achieve with the ventilation system in the farrowing room. First is the removal of excess moisture and gas without over-ventilating, which wastes energy and causes drafts on the piglets. Second is to assist in cooling the sows to keep them comfortable during warmer months.

It is very important to evaluate the ventilation equipment to ensure the best environment for the sows and litters. Figure 1 provides a set of farrowing room environmental standards.

Many farrowing rooms are ventilated through a negative pressure system, so in general, the equipment to assess includes: exhaust fans, air inlets, heaters and the controller that ties some or all of these together.

To ventilate properly, a farrowing room must have adequate fan capacity to meet minimum ventilation requirements, yet be able to operate at levels that do not over-ventilate during cold times of the year.

A range of minimum ventilation cfm (cubic feet/minute) requirements from several sources can be summarized into the following recommendations for a sow and litter:

  • Cold weather, 20 cfm;
  • Mild weather, 80-100 cfm; and
  • Hot weather, 500-1,000 cfm.

The simple calculation in Figure 2 will help determine if a farrowing room has adequate fan capacity.

Being able to cover fans that aren't in use during the winter is a must for reducing room heating needs and saving energy.

Assessing Air Inlets

An assessment of air inlet capacity and condition is another important part of evaluating farrowing room ventilation.

A wide variety of air inlets exist among farrowing facilities. End wall and ceiling inlets are often designed to bring air into the room from an inner hallway, which helps control air temperature before entering the room. Many air inlets are manually adjustable or can be weighted to self-adjust as fans turn on and off.

Actuated inlets, which have become popular for farrowing rooms, allow for more precise control of the amount of air coming into a room, and prevent drafting that can occur on windy days when the attic becomes pressurized. Regardless of style of inlets, if not adjusted properly and routinely, they will allow drafts to enter the room and chill piglets.

Heating and Cooling

Forced air heat remains a common part of farrowing room environmental control. Furnace placement is important. They should not direct heat toward minimum ventilation fans, as that would directly remove heat from the room without benefit.

Likewise, forced air heat near temperature probes in a room will give inaccurate readings and often lead to excess speeding up of fans. When multiple heaters are placed within a room, they should be spaced evenly and staged together so that heat drifts evenly throughout the room.

Cool cells have undoubtedly become an important tool for keeping the farrowing room environment comfortable for sows during warmer months. Cool cells can decrease incoming air temperature by 10 degrees or more.

Being able to keep sows cool and comfortable during hot months, when lactation feed intake is historically decreased, has helped with milk production and reduced the number of sows removed from lactation prematurely due to poor conditioning. The operation of cool cells can also reduce electrical demands in farrowing rooms by lowering the number of fans required because rooms maintain cooler air temperatures.

Management and Training

Daily understanding of the farrowing house environment and what is considered normal vs. abnormal comprises an important part of not only the environmental control program, but also sow and piglet health, well-being and productivity.

What is considered normal for farrowing room management can be straightforward for many of the objective measurements including temperature, humidity and, to some extent, fan and inlet settings.

Other areas of farrowing room management, including sow and piglet behavior in relation to their level of comfort in the surrounding environment, certainly take more training.

In theory, if we make sure those areas that can be measured are normal, the comfort of animals within the farrowing room should be quite good.

Considerations for training and correcting of farrowing room environmental problems should include:

  • When abnormalities in sow and piglet behavior or the farrowing room environment occur, use this time as a teaching opportunity for everyone involved in the day-to-day management of the farrowing house. Review the causes of the situation and the actions taken to resolve them.

  • When a situation is recognized as abnormal or when a problem occurs, ensure that all are involved and understand the solutions implemented.

  • Establish some measure to monitor and ensure that the changes made correct the abnormality within a room.

The Bottom Line

The comfort of sows and piglets in the farrowing house has a large impact on the health and production of an enterprise, and relies on the interaction of the facility's daily management and equipment. To this end:

  • Manage crate microenvironments with heat lamps and mats to keep piglets warm, dry and draft-free;

  • Monitor sow and piglet environments daily using visual assessments and available monitoring tools;

  • Use warming and split-nursing techniques early to ensure adequate colostrum intake;

  • No matter the feeding system, strive to maximize sow feed and water intake each day;

  • Be familiar with the entire ventilation system so that problems that are identified can be fixed; and

  • Train farm staff to be observant of environmental challenges and monitor to ensure that satisfactory solutions are found.

Selected Protocols Ensure Sow, Pig Health

In most farrowing operations, the number of pigs weaned per litter is impacted more by preweaning mortality than by the number of pigs born alive.

Significant increases in pigs/sow/year (p/s/y) can be gained by maximizing piglet health and minimizing preweaning mortality. The greatest percentage of preweaning mortality occurs within the first three days after farrowing. To optimize health during this period, preparation must begin well before farrowing.

Piglet health status is the balance of immunity and disease challenge. A high level of immunity in a clean environment is most likely to produce healthy pigs. Both of these activities originate with the sow well before farrowing.

Building Pig Immunity

Piglet immunity has two critical mechanisms, generally referred to as “acquired” and “innate.”

Acquired immunity is the focused response to specific disease organisms. Included in acquired immunity are antibodies that are produced by the sow and transferred to the pig via colostrums (first milk).

Innate immunity consists of general barriers to infection, such as moist mucus membranes to filter inhaled pathogens, and normal intestinal bacteria that compete with potential pathogens for food.

Acquired immunity is very specific and efficient, but slow to develop at the first exposure to disease. Innate immunity is less efficient and specific, but generally operates all of the time.

Improving innate immunity depends on proper environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity, and adequate nutrition for the piglet (See sow and pig nutrition, page 34).

Piglets are born with the ability to use both types of immunity. However, because acquired immunity may take 7-14 days to peak after exposure to a disease, piglets are provided premade antibodies by the sow via colostrums. Figure 1 illustrates the general process of immune system events that have to culminate at farrowing for early protection. The relative timing and quality of each step affects the final concentration of antibodies that the piglet receives.

For example, if vaccination occurs at mid-gestation rather than at late gestation, sow antibody levels will have peaked and be declining when it is time to concentrate them in the colostrum for presentation to the pigs.

Likewise, if gilts do not receive at least two doses of vaccine at least two weeks apart prior to farrowing, the level of antibodies in the colostrum will be greatly reduced.

Similarly, if poor injection technique or vaccine handling means that the sow receives less than the entire dose of a quality vaccine, the level of antibodies available to the piglets in the colostrum will be reduced.

Poor nutritional status of the sow might reduce the energy available for building antibodies, again resulting in lower levels in the colostrum.

From the piglets' standpoint, a poor microenvironment might prevent them from nursing adequately, and soon enough after farrowing, to get maximum antibodies from the colostrum.

Timing is Everything

A recent case study illustrates the importance of timing. A farrow-to-wean farm was experiencing scours with increased preweaning mortality. Diagnostic testing identified the pathogen causing the problem as an Escherichia coli (E. coli) strain that was included in the pre-farrow vaccine. The vaccine specified that sows receive the vaccine three weeks (21 days) before farrowing. However, the farm vaccination protocol was to administer sometime in the “third week” before farrowing, as work flow allowed.

Figure 2 illustrates the real difference in timing of vaccination — although they appear to be similar.

To maintain work schedule flexibility, injections were moved to the fourth week, pre-farrowing, so that there was at least 21 days between vaccination and farrowing.

Additionally, the farm was in the habit of warming the vaccine prior to injection. This is unnecessary and may contribute to the breakdown of the vaccine. When these two problems were corrected, the piglet scours resolved.

An effective pre-farrowing sow and gilt vaccination program that is diligently maintained is a basic requirement. This case demonstrates that there are three crucial considerations: 1) selection of the correct vaccine, 2) correct administration technique, and 3) correct timing.

A number of products are available on the market for vaccinating sows and gilts prior to farrowing in order to boost maternal antibodies by the time of farrowing. Selecting the appropriate product requires veterinary interpretation of diagnostic testing in affected piglets. There are many organisms, such as E. coli, that have non-pathogenic and disease-causing strains. Molecular testing can determine which vaccine is appropriate.

Effective vaccines do not exist for all potential piglet pathogens. Other techniques to immunize sows prior to farrowing include fecal feedback, autogenous vaccines and controlled exposure to wild-type pathogens.

However all of these approaches have potentially serious side effects for the herd, so plans should be developed with input from a veterinarian who is thoroughly familiar with your herd and its health status.

Maternal Antibodies Are Priceless

After colostrum is absorbed by the piglet, no more maternal antibodies can enter the pig's circulation. The window to absorb antibodies is generally about 24 hours after birth. However, studies suggest that the process of suckling begins to initiate gut closure such that the period to absorb antibodies ends about four hours after the first dose of colostrum. Any activity that interrupts the piglet's first suckling event likely reduces immunity, even if the pig gets another dose of colostrum later.

After the colostrum is consumed, sow milk continues to include antibodies. While these are not absorbed into the piglets' circulation, they can bind and neutralize bacteria in the intestines and reduce the disease challenge for the piglets. Milk replacers can provide useful supplements for energy and hydration, but they do not routinely contain antibodies that replace those found in sow's milk.

Minimize Exposure

While increasing a piglet's immunity to various pathogens is one important aspect of controlling disease, the other important part of balancing health is reducing the piglet's exposure to disease-causing organisms. Even if it is not possible to completely eliminate exposure of piglets to certain disease organisms, there are many opportunities to reduce the numbers of these organisms (pathogenic load) to which piglets are exposed.

Even if a piglet has reasonable immunity to a disease organism as a result of an excellent vaccination program, facing an overwhelming number of these organisms will consume all available maternal antibodies and may still lead to disease. Treating pigs with antibiotics helps lessen the pathogenic load to a level that the pig's immune system can manage. If a scours problem warrants treatment in an individual pig, then consider treating all pigs within that litter since their exposure is likely to be similar.

Beginning with a clean, disinfected farrowing crate and scraping manure out from behind sows in farrowing crates every day is a good way to decrease the pathogenic load that piglets will face in the critical first days of their lives. This protocol can help reduce the number of scours-causing organisms to which young piglets may be exposed. It can also be crucial to the reproductive performance of the sow herd.

Parturition and estrus are two periods when a sow's cervix becomes dilated. An open cervix allows for bacterial organisms from the environment to migrate into the uterus and cause reproductive failure. Therefore, farrowing and breeding are two times when a clean environment becomes more crucial. If you are seeing vulvar discharges and/or poor reproductive performance, sanitation may be one area to address. In either case, there is the opportunity to increase pigs/sow/year by improving sanitation in the farrowing crate.

Most operations will pressure wash farrowing rooms after weaning. Many disinfect the rooms as well. It is important that the disinfectant be given adequate “kill time” on the crates before a new group of sows is placed. Most disinfectants require a minimum of 10 minutes of contact time before they are effective against hardy bacteria and viruses.

Ideally, disinfect the farrowing rooms and allow them to dry overnight. Often it is necessary to move new sows into a farrowing room on the same day that the last group was weaned. This may be necessary to avoid farrowing in the gestation stalls and maintain the flow of the system, but the rooms should still be washed and disinfected. Heaters can be turned up in the empty rooms in order to aid in the drying process.

Reduce Disease Challenges

Biosecurity can go a long way towards maintaining the health of piglets within your farrowing operation. Most of us are very familiar with the notion of external biosecurity measures, such as shower-in/shower-out, isolating incoming stock and limiting visitors.

However, the importance of internal biosecurity should not be overlooked. There are many simple protocols that will help decrease the total number of piglets affected by disease. One very simple way of decreasing disease challenge is to avoid stepping in farrowing crates. This activity is difficult to avoid when one employee has to do all of the processing alone, as often happens on busy or understaffed farms. Piglets can be shedding pathogens before clinical signs become apparent. Therefore, stepping into crates housing apparently healthy litters can contaminate boots and transfer disease to more pigs.

When processing, if any litters show evidence of disease, such as scours, process all of the healthy litters first and then process the diseased litters. Always clean and disinfect the processing cart thoroughly and immediately after each processing job. When done immediately, cleaning should be easier to accomplish, as fecal material will have had less time to dry in place.

In many operations, it is common to use feed as a drying agent in the bottom of the processing cart. This is less than ideal, as feed can serve as a reservoir for potential pathogens that are shed into it by piglets in the cart. In many cases, the feed will stick to piglets from other litters and allow them to carry pathogens on their bodies. When male piglets are placed back in the cart after being castrated, they will often sit down immediately, and the wet feed particles stuck to wet wound edges can impede healing.

A much better option is to use a small piece of flooring raised slightly above the bottom of the cart. This should be fitted to cover the entire bottom so that piglets are not getting caught at the edges. The floor can easily be removed after processing for cleaning and disinfecting along with the rest of the cart.

Processing activities, including iron supplement injections, tail docking and castration, should occur between 24 hours and 4 days of age. Piglets require iron as a component of hemoglobin, which is found in red blood cells and carries oxygen from the lungs to various parts of the body. Piglets with inadequate amounts of iron can become anemic and will often appear noticeably pale. Anemic piglets will not perform as well as their counterparts, and, the anemia may limit the effectiveness of their immune system.

A processing schedule, which is both ideal and realistic, involves processing twice weekly in order to catch all pigs when they are older than 24 hours of age and no older than 4 days of age. Delays in iron injection are more important when disease is present. One tool piglets use to fight bacteria is to store iron where it can't be used by bacteria. Unfortunately, this might further compromise the pig as well.

Many operations include injectable antibiotics as a routine part of processing, often mixed with the iron injection. Blanket treating all pigs is rarely necessary, and is not the judicious use of medications that is expected by our consumers. Additionally, the practice of mixing antibiotics and iron dextran may create unknown effects or chemical reactions and is considered the practice of compounding. Compounding to reduce labor or expense is prohibited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Accurate Diagnosis is Key

When facing serious problems with sows or piglets in the farrowing room, aggressive diagnosis is necessary and a veterinarian should be consulted. He or she will likely want to sacrifice some affected live piglets that are representative of the problem. This will not only allow for better gross necropsy observations by the veterinarian, but also provide for the collection of fresh, representative samples that will provide a more accurate diagnosis.

Bacterial culture and subsequent antibiotic sensitivity testing at a diagnostic lab will help define treatment. Clinical disease is often multifactorial resulting from both management and health deficiencies.

Two ways to lower veterinary expense and improve performance are to: 1) develop tools to help employees eliminate management contributions to disease, and 2) give the veterinarian high quality information about the problem.

To do this, develop troubleshooting flow charts that help employees solve common problems and collect important information about more complex problems.

The sidebar (below) explains how and provides an example (Figure 3) of how a flow chart is used to troubleshoot lactation problems on sow farms.

Crossfoster with Care

Crossfostering among litters is a common practice. There is only one reason to crossfoster pigs — to get every pig a productive teat to nurse. Beyond this, crossfostering has significant negative impacts, including spreading disease to more pigs and decreasing milk intake in both the pigs that are moved and the resident pigs that must reestablish teat order.

When necessary, crossfostering should be carried out within the first 24 hours of the piglets' lives. Once piglets are moved onto a new litter, they should remain there for good. Ensure that piglets being fostered, as well as those in the litters receiving fosters, all receive adequate colostrum before movement. The addition of new piglets to a litter can also be a setback to the pigs in the receiving litter. The amount of time and energy devoted to crossfostering would serve a more useful purpose if focused on other aspects of farrowing care.

Knowledge Ensures Health

The most valuable health strategy uses expertise and technology to conclusively diagnose health challenges. It increases colostral antibodies with appropriate vaccines given at the optimum time to sows and gilts.

Piglet-acquired immunity is maximized by ensuring colostral intake and minimizing crossfostering. Piglet innate immunity is maximized by providing the appropriate environmental conditions and sow nutrition. Disease challenge load is limited by sanitation and internal biosecurity. Veterinary costs are limited by empowering employees to troubleshoot common problems and gather valuable observations to relay to the veterinarian.

Seeking More Full-Value Pigs

After significant investments in time, labor and feed in the breeding-gestation barn, pork producers reap the fruits of their labor in the farrowing house. There are few areas in a pork production system that demonstrate the value of stockmanship skills as well as the farrowing process.

Further, management of the newly farrowed sow can have subsequent impacts on the level of her future productivity.

Likewise, management of the newborn piglets can have a dramatic impact on their performance throughout the nursery and grow-finish phases.

Certainly, there are many factors contributing to the successes and failures in the farrowing room and, subsequently, weaning large litters with heavy weaning weights.

Many of the factors center on the stockmanship skills exhibited by the workers in the farrowing room. Their skills in attending the sows at farrowing, induced farrowing and many other management factors will be documented when sows and litters are weaned.

A review of some key performance indicators (KPIs) provides a closer look at the impact of various farrowing room management techniques on overall productivity. The KPIs are drawn from the near-million-sow database of Swine Management Services (SMS), Inc., Fremont, NE.

Compare Best to the Rest

To gain perspective, we will first take a look at several KPIs from the top 10% and the top 25% of herds for a 12-month period and compare them to the average productivity in the database. Data is sorted by pigs weaned/mated female/year (PW/MF/Y).

Table 1 summarizes data for more than 450 herds in the SMS system. You will notice that the top 10% of herds weaned over 27 PW/MF/Y, while the top 25% of herds averaged over 26 pigs weaned. The average for all herds in the SMS database is 23.74 PW/MF/Y.

This trait, highlighted in Table 1, pigs weaned/mated female/year (PW/MF/Y) — is a good KPI that directly reflects the activities that preceded the weaning event, including the breeding and farrowing areas.

Likewise, farrowing rate follows the same trend noted with PW/MF/Y. The top 10% and 25% of herds had farrowing rates of 88.3% and 87.6%, respectively, while all herds in the database averaged 83.9% for farrowing rate during the most recent 12-month period.

Other KPIs, such as total pigs born and pigs born alive, follow similar trends (Table 1). And traits such as average or percentage of stillborn and mummified pigs are reflective of farrowing room management and herd health. In both cases, the data reflects very acceptable levels.

Goal is More Full-Value Pigs

Once the piglets are born alive, the key is to produce a pig that captures full value at the next step in the production phase. Piglet survival is a good measure of this capability. As Table 1 shows, the top 10% and top 25% of producers ranked on PW/MF/Y attained piglet survival values of 83.5% and 82.6%, respectively. This compares to a piglet survival value of 80.7% when all farms in the database were averaged.

There are many contributors to success in the farrowing crate. Inducing sows to farrow is one practice believed to improve worker efficiency, as it improves the odds that a stockperson will be present as sows farrow. Furthermore, induced farrowing reduces the variation in piglet age.

Induced farrowing is accomplished by giving sows an injection of either cloprostenol or lutalyse. Farrowing usually occurs 8 to 24 hours later, so with a little planning, most sows will farrow during a normal work day.

Caution should be exercised when inducing farrowing in sows. Sows should be at least 112 days into gestation before using an induced farrowing program. Therefore, it is critical to know every sow's exact breeding date, plus the average gestation length in the herd. Failure to know either could create a greater chance of stillbirths.

Induced Farrowing Pros, Cons

The SMS database was separated into those herds that utilize induced farrowing from those herds that indicated they don't use the induced farrowing procedures. These values are summarized in Table 2.

The induced farrowing group includes those who routinely use the management practice on 75% of sows or more. The data were again sorted into three groups — top 10%, top 25% and average — using PW/MF/Y for the ranking.

The average gestation length in the induced group was approximately one day shorter when compared to the non-induced group.

One of the key advantages of induced farrowings is the opportunity to reduce the incidence of stillborn piglets and improve the survival rate of those born alive. The data in Table 2 supports this role.

The average number of stillborns is reduced by nearly 0.10 piglets/litter across the average of all herds reporting they induce farrowing, compared to the herds that do not. Because the top 10% and top 25% of farms in the non-induced farrowing group have a greater number of total born and born alive piglets, they outperform those using the induced farrowing practice when PW/MF/Y is used as the key performance indicator.

The bottom line is that producers using the induced farrowing practice have approximately 0.5% more pigs born alive, and therefore have a comparable margin when piglet survival is recorded.

Additionally, the average weaning age is more consistent across all three induced-farrowing groups, approximately 19.5 days of age, compared to the non-induced groups that averaged 18.1 days of age for all farms. But the top 10% and top 25% of farms averaged 23.6 and 20.3 days of age, respectively.

Farrowing Supervision

Another practice gaining some favor in the pork industry is extending the working day to ensure a stockperson is present during farrowing.

SMS identified a group of producers who practice extended hours, defined as providing at least 12 hours of attendance in farrowing.

Table 3 summarizes and compares the “extended hours” farms to the average of all farms in Table 1.

The farrowing rate of sows from producers using the extended farrowing hours was 2.4% higher when compared to the average of all producers (Table 3).

The percentage of pigs born alive relative to the total number of pigs born was from 0.6 to 1% greater for the average to the top 10% of producers practicing extended worker hours when compared to all producers in the database. On average, this translated into 1.1% greater piglet survival when compared to the average of all herds (81.8% for herds with extended hours vs. 80.7% survival across all herds).

However, this did not translate into more pigs weaned per litter as the values for number of pigs weaned per sow farrowed were nearly identical for producers using extended hours compared to all farms (Table 3), while PW/MF/Y was over 1.5 pigs greater for those using the extended hours practice when compared to all herds. This advantage was largely attained by a higher farrowing rate from the extended-hours group.

Some Farrowing Practices Pay

From this data set, it is clear that some practices can improve farrowing room performance. Pork producers should evaluate all practices, such as extended farrowing hours and induced farrowing, to determine whether they provide the level of performance improvement necessary to justify the additional expense associated with them.

The data does not show, however, the variation in performance that some farms realize, while others fail to experience a similar advantage.

Checklist of Farrowing Room Practices

The three key stockmanship skills needed for success in the farrowing room include:

  1. The stockperson needs great observational skills to identify both normal and abnormal occurrences in the farrowing crate.

  2. Having identified an abnormal event, the stockperson must know what to do — even if the intervention is as simple as asking a more experienced person or supervisor what to do about a situation.

  3. The stockperson needs to have an action attitude so the intervention can be successfully completed.

To accurately identify sick or injured sows and piglets in the farrowing house, ask the following questions:

  1. Did you induce farrowing? If so, was the sow at 112 days of gestation or greater?

  2. Once farrowing has begun, how long has it been since the last pig was born?

    If no piglet has been born in the last 40 minutes, and there is no placenta being expelled, the stockperson should consider intervening.

  3. If all piglets are dry and the stockperson is reasonably sure the sow is not done farrowing, should he/she consider intervening?

Yes. Intervention can start with the administration of oxytocin and/or manual assistance with the labor process, depending on the situation. For example, the stockperson may suspect that a large piglet is stuck in the birth canal.

A post-farrowing observation checklist should include:

  1. Has the sow gotten up to drink and eat after farrowing?

  2. Is the sow lying on her side or belly?

    A sow lying on her belly may indicate a case of mastitis.

  3. Is the temperature of the farrowing room conducive for sow performance (15-18°C or 60-65°F)?

    A temperature in this range helps ensure that sows are cool enough to eat well, which translates to adequate feed intake, a key ingredient for good milk production and piglet weaning weights.

  4. Are piglets warm, dry and draft free?

    Zone heating should be provided for the piglets (29-35°C or 85-95°F). This heating zone is necessary to prevent chilling and encourages piglets to lie near the heat source and away from the sow to prevent crushing. Avoiding piglet chilling will also help the piglet resist pathogens, particularly those causing scours.

  5. Are the piglets dry?

    Drip cooling is often used on sows in hot weather in an attempt to keep them comfortable and near temperatures that are conducive to greater sow feed intake.

    However, excess water will run off sows and onto piglets or the flooring around them. If the piglets become wet, they are more susceptible to diseases, chilling and crushing.

  6. Have all of the piglets obtained adequate colostrum within 12 hours after birth?

    Crossfostering should occur after piglets have had adequate time to obtain colostrum from their birth dam. Crossfostering helps improve the odds for the weaker pigs in the litter.

  7. Do you notice any foul odors upon entering the farrowing room or around specific farrowing stalls?

    Odors and wet, runny and discolored diarrhea call for immediate attention by a stockperson. Consult your veterinarian.

  8. What is the incidence of scrotal hernias, umbilical hernias, splay-legged piglets and other abnormalities?

Some traits, like scrotal hernias, have a genetic cause and should be identified and treated to increase the number of full-value pigs at weaning and at marketing.

Other traits like umbilical hernias have an environmental predisposition and can be addressed by improved stockmanship. Still other traits, such as splay-legged piglets, are costly to treat and the benefit of treatment should be evaluated.

Processing piglets should occur around 3 days of age. This could include castration of males, administering iron shots, clipping needle teeth and tails (optional), identification (ear notch, tattoo, etc.), and administering antibiotics as needed (consult your veterinarian).

12 Risk Factors Worth Checking

Getting pigs born alive and started right in the first few days of life can reasonably be called “risk management.”

It is estimated that any increase in survivability achieved by reduction of stillborn rate or preweaning mortality will improve cost of production by at least 50-60¢/pig.

Risk factors vary by farm, management style and, perhaps most importantly, with the level of staff training. The 12 risk factors that follow, and the management recommendations that address them, were compiled from controlled and in-field studies.

  1. Pigs born without supervision (during lunch break, at the end of the day, overnight)

    Some studies show the stillbirth rate of unsupervised farrowings at twice the frequency as supervised farrowings (6% vs. 3%).

    Further, when additional supervision was extended through the first three days of life, the risk of death fell from 1.29 pigs in unsupervised litters to 0.85 pigs in supervised litters.

    The success of supervised farrowings is dependent on effective training of farrowing attendees, and whether sows were induced to farrow at a time when employees were available.

    On farms where monitoring is available 24 hours a day, induction may not be necessary. However, when sows are induced to farrow, more pigs are available for crossfostering, farrowings can be timed to when supervision is available, and there is more opportunity to pre-plan other tasks in the farrowing barn.

    Farrowing attendees can provide sows and pigs with extra individual care, such as:

    • Remove placental membranes to prevent suffocation;

    • Warm and dry newborn piglets (hot boxes, toweling, drying agents);

    • Give special care to lower viability pigs (extra heat, colostrum);

    • Practice split suckling of large litters;

    • Administer fluid to dehydrated pigs (orally or subcutaneously);

    • Tape the legs of splay-legged pigs;

    • Record natural farrowing interval of individual sows using monitoring cards;

    • Offer obstetrical assistance when farrowing interval exceeds normal farrowing interval for a sow;

    • Practice early crossfostering post colostral intake.

    Additional tasks farrowing attendees can do:

    • Flag high-risk sows to increase observation;

    • Remove fecal material behind sows;

    • Shorten or tie navel cords;

    • Administer early treatments prescribed by veterinarian;

    • Ensure early colostral intake of all pigs via split suckling, syringe feeding or stomach tubing prior to crossfostering;

    • Walk farrowing crates the first three days to check for laid-ons, weak pigs, signs of illness in sows (mastitis, agalactia, infections);

    • Treat sows aggressive to pigs;

    • Stagger lunch breaks so someone is with farrowing sows at all times;

    • Late in the day, mark first born, so if pigs need to be crossfostered before staff leaves, they know which pigs most likely have had colostrum.

    Timing of induction is the key to optimizing the viability of the pigs and the number of sows farrowing during the day. It is recommended that induction be based on the average gestation length of the herd.

  2. Born to high-risk sows

    Higher stillborn rates in litters from older sows are well-documented.

    In the mid-'80s, research by Tim Blackwell, DVM, showed the risk of stillborns in Parities 1 and 2 at 15%, Parities 3 and 4 at 25%, Parities 5 and 6 at 35%, and Parities 7 and higher at 45%.

    Some farrowing managers choose to only induce and monitor high-risk sows (Parity 4 and higher), thin or obese sows, or sows with a history of stillborns. It is helpful to flag high- risk sows as rooms are loaded or at induction.

    Attendees must understand that if a sow is synchronized with oxytocin 20-24 hours post-induction, increased vigilance is necessary to ensure the sow is provided wise obstetrical intervention (vaginal palpation; udder stimulation; oxytocin administration) when farrowing interval is excessive.

  1. Obese sows have more prolonged labors, which can lead to increased stillbirths. Conversely, backfat levels below optimal body condition may cause decreases in hemoglobin and, thus, an increase in stillborn rate.

    Tools like flank-to-flank measurements and body condition scoring guides can help address sows that are over- or under-conditioned.

    Other tools include adjusting gestation feed intake according to metabolizable energy (ME), monitoring and adjusting feed drops regularly and sow weight, as estimated by girth measurements.

    Good management of sow body condition is a great way for the breeding /gestation team to help lower stillborn rates.

  2. Born late

    Being born late in the farrowing process is risky. There is greater risk of hypoxia and delayed delivery. Vaginal palpation, udder massage, and/or administering 5-20 IU of oxytocin, if contractions are weak or lacking, may be necessary to help expel the last pigs to be born.

    But before offering obstetrical assistance, consider the intervals between births, sow parity and the size of the litter.

    Normal interval between pig births is 20-30 minutes, but ranges from 15 minutes to several hours. If you can document a sow's natural farrowing interval, when she exceeds her normal interval by 10 minutes, intervention via vaginal palpation is warranted.

    Natural oxytocin release by the pituitary gland can occur by stimulation of the udder, by vaginal palpation or by keeping at least four pigs nursing at one time. If the farrowing process slows towards the end, stimulation of the udder alone, or with vaginal palpation, may help.

    If these attempts fail, the sow may be hypocalcemic and may benefit from an intramuscular injection of calcium. Research has shown that plasma concentrations less than 6mg/100ml were associated with reduced uterine activity during parturition.

    Calcium is a very important part of the parturition event. Release of intracellular calcium is necessary for the contraction of the uterus. A difficult or long labor, or one where excessive oxytocin is used, can predispose a sow to becoming hypocalcemic.

  3. Born in a large litter

    Studies have shown that in litters of more than 12, the likelihood of being stillborn doubles. As genetic selection increases litter size, management efforts to minimize stillborn rates will be critical.

    Sows with a history of large litters should be flagged to ensure those farrowings are attended.

    Pigs in large litters have a higher risk of insufficient colostral intake. Split suckling can help ensure pigs obtain adequate colostrum within the first 12 hours. Then, in the next 12 hours, pigs can be crossfostered, taking into account the location of smaller pigs.

  4. Overuse or misuse of oxytocin

    Oxytocin may reduce time of labor by almost half, increase the strength of uterine contractions and help coordinate farrowing time to fit staffing schedules. However, recent research has shown that the negative effects of oxytocin administration to “synchronize” sows to farrow, and excessive or early administration of oxytocin, can have negative effects on the sow and unborn piglets.

    Negative effects include increased myocardial contraction of unborn piglets, decreased fetal cardiac frequency, increased hypoxia of piglets, increased intra-partum stillbirths, increased number of piglets with severe meconium staining, increased number of ruptured umbilical cords, increased stillbirths and increased chance of a sow becoming hypocalcemic due to the intensity and frequency of uterine contractions.

    When employees hear these risks, their first instinct is to eliminate oxytocin from the program, but remember, we are managing risk. Sometimes we have to take a risk to manage a risk.

    The combination of PGF(2alpha) and oxytocin can cause increased number of stillborns compared to other induction methods, but increased monitoring of sows at farrowing can offset this effect.

    It is essential that every farm has very clear standard operating procedures for dosage, timing and route of administration of oxytocin to quell indiscriminate use and over-dosage. Oxytocin can be a valuable tool used during judicious obstetrical assistance, if used in moderation and with caution.

  1. Prolonged labor

    Prolonged labor can be instigated by disease, calcium and/or phosphorus deficiency, anemia in sows, large litters, induced hypocalcemia and later parity. But each is correctable and preventable.

    The use of oxytocin to synchronize farrowing can speed up the birthing process, however, the negative effects listed in risk factor #5 should be considered.

  2. Born to a stressed sow

    Stresses can cause the sow to release stress-related hormones, such as epinephrine (adrenaline), and move her into fight-or-flight mode. When adrenaline is released, the hormones regulating the farrowing process lower the sow's ability to deal with the offending stressor.

    Common stressors include pig processing or loud, abrasive behavior by staff while sows are farrowing, or the presence of an employee that the sow “dislikes.”

    To promote a calm environment and to alert staff that this is a room where calm, quiet behavior is necessary, it is helpful to work with the lights off. Sows prefer to farrow at night, so why not simulate night?

    Sows experiencing heat stress ranging from mildly high temperatures (73-77°F) to very hot temperatures (over 77°F) are at risk for increased stillbirths due to prolonged labor, epinephrine release, hypoxia, hypocalcemia, etc. More than 40 breaths/minute is often considered heat stressed.

    The optimal temperature for the sow to farrow and lactate is about 65°F. Since the newborn pig's optimal environmental temperature is 93°F, we usually compromise and set room temperatures at 70-74°F. If baby pigs are dried shortly after birth and provided with adequate localized heat, room temperatures can be set at the lower end of the range for the sows' sake.

  3. Vaginal palpation

    Vaginal palpation or “sleeving” can be a valuable tool to reduce stillborn rates, but if done without reason or proper skills, it can have negative effects, too.

    Even when done with reason, sleeving has a risk of increasing stillborns. Therefore, sows that have been “sleeved” once need increased vigilance and may need to be sleeved again to prevent more stillborns. It is another take-a-risk-to-lower-a-risk situation.

    Good hygiene and a clean, well-lubricated, disposable sleeve are essential. A monitoring card will help track a sow's natural farrowing interval and recognize whether vaginal palpation is warranted.

  4. Born hypoxic (oxygen-starved)

    Low doses of oxytocin can help avoid a slowdown in cardiac frequencies in the fetus, rupture of the umbilical cord and meconium staining; it does not reduce the fetal mortality rate, but may increase the viability of the newborn piglet.

    An oxygen-starved pig has a higher risk of being weak, not getting enough colostrum and being laid on. Proper oxytocin use and how to resuscitate a baby pig born severely hypoxic must be a part of every farm's training.

  5. No colostrum or inadequate colostrum

    Colostrum is one of the most important substances a pig receives in its life. It is a prerequisite for high health and low mortality from birth to slaughter.

    A pig's ability to absorb adequate amounts of colostrum depends on the amount consumed, the immunoglobulins (IgG) concentration, the timing of consumption in relation to intestinal closure, the teat nursed, competition between piglets and birth weight.

    A sow's colostrum production is independent of litter size or parity. Some feel it serves as “a good marker for the maternal quality of the sow.”

    Studies have shown that most pigs consume twice the amount of colostrum needed by 12 hours after birth. The smallest pigs, however, take 16-24 hours unless you intervene with split suckling. If you do not split suckle, this restricts crossfostering opportunities to 12 hours for the medium to large pigs and 16-24 hours for the smaller pigs.

    Since it is best to crossfoster pigs before the 24-hour mark due to teat territorialism and sow bonding with pigs, split suckling is a valuable tool for speeding up colostrum intake in small and late-born pigs.

    Another consideration associated with split suckling is that the ability of antibody proteins to move through the pig's gut decreases with time and the stimulus for these “holes” to shut down is the presence of milk in the gut. IgG intestinal closure is typically complete by 18 hours, post birth.

    Stomach tubing or bottle feeding of the sow's colostrum — or cow colostrum used as a substitute — has helped start small pigs that have not received adequate colostrum.

  6. Born to a sow that had a tough labor (born later or last)

    Pigs born to a sow with a prolonged labor is at greater risk of anoxia — abnormally low oxygen levels. One study shows that when farrowing takes over six hours, the mortality rate is 21% compared to just under 12% for litters farrowed in less than six hours.

    Judicious obstetrical assistance and ensuring newborns receive colostrum within 12 hours is a great help.

    Others use this risk as a reason to continue to synchronize sows to farrow with oxytocin, regardless of her being a high or low-risk sow. It is yet another way to manage a risk with something that has a risk.

  7. Not establishing cross-fostering guidelines

    It is important to develop early crossfostering principles that have a purpose. Large litters and light birth weights are the most obvious reasons to move pigs. Since pigs adapt quicker to a new teat when moved at a very young age, it makes sense to move them as soon as possible after colostral intake is ensured.

The philosophy, less is more, may be the best guidance when establishing crossfostering protocols:

  • Minimize stress by crossfostering within the first 24 hours after birth.

  • Count functional teats to determine sow's rearing capacity.

  • Consider teat size and functionality.

  • Transfer either the smallest or largest pigs from a litter to minimize movement.

  • Small pigs are at greatest risk of not establishing teat fidelity. Studies have shown that small pigs have consumed enough colostrum, but they subsequently died from lack of energy — probably because they lost the battle for an available teat.

  • Moving small pigs to a milk deck may be cost effective.

  • Whoever does the crossfostering must be well trained, a good thinker and a quick decision maker.

*Condensed from a 2007 American Association of Swine Veterinarians preconference workshop presented by Sarah Probst-Miller, DVM, Carthage (IL) Veterinary Service; the complete paper is posted at:

Modern Sows Have Higher Nutrient Requirements

The major goal for managing nutritional programs for sows in lactation is to maximize milk production without incurring substantial losses in body condition that impair subsequent reproductive performance.

The nutritional demands of the modern lactating sow and litter have changed greatly. Today's genetic advancements provide pigs with faster growth rates, better feed efficiencies and improved leanness.

However, these developments have created new challenges in feeding lactating sows, which generally have lower voluntary feed intake and are leaner with greater body size at maturity.

Likewise, today's piglets have increased growth potential such that even the most productive sows often fail to produce enough milk to meet their requirements for maximizing growth performance. These rapid changes make it important to continuously evaluate and develop sow nutritional programs that account for these changes to maximize both sow reproductive and litter performance.

It is well known that lactating sows need maximum intake of a good quality diet to optimize sow and litter performance. However, too often lactating sows are limited in feed intake, resulting in decreased milk production and excessive sow weight or backfat loss that can hurt future reproductive performance.

Therefore, the three main goals of the sow lactation nutrition program are: 1) maximize intake of a properly formulated diet; 2) match the amino acid and other nutrient levels to the level of feed intake that is achieved; and 3) maintain a reasonable feed cost/weaned pig.

Attitude is Key

It all begins with the right frame of mind and resolve. Many producers seem to accept that it is “normal” for sows to lose body condition during lactation. However, a number of producers have shown lactation weight loss can be prevented.

Some studies suggest up to 30-35 lb. weight loss won't negatively affect performance. Still, if we adopt the attitude that any amount of weight loss is unacceptable, then there is a greater chance that we will succeed.

Prepare for First Lactation

Sows have greater capacities to meet their nutritional needs due to their higher feed intake and larger body reserves compared to gilts. More problems are encountered with first- and second-litter sows due to their lower feed intakes, smaller body frames and less fat reserves. These lower reserves produce large gilt body condition losses after farrowing, resulting in lower subsequent litter size and longer wean-to-estrus intervals.

Poor fat reserves at first parity also leads to progressive decreases in body reserves that impact sow longevity.

Gilt pool nutrient management will help prevent this problem. Feed gilts to attain adequate body reserves of lean and fat prior to first mating. Research suggests that gilts should weigh at least 300 lb. and record at least one estrus to provide the body reserves and physiology to optimize lifetime reproductive performance.

Certainly, in addition to an adequate nutrition program, other critical management factors such as boar exposure and proper acclimation are important ingredients for successful gilt integration into the herd and to maximize lactation performance.

Start at Conception

Feeding sows for optimum lactation begins at conception, not after parturition. There is a strong, negative relationship between gestation feeding level and lactation feed intake, which is mediated by the female's backfat level at farrowing.

Using the equation, in Table 1, it is predicted that sows with 22 mm. (0.88 in.), 18 mm. (.72 in.) and 14 mm. (.56 in.) of backfat at farrowing will consume an average of 10.4, 11.6 and 12.7 lb. of feed/day during lactation, respectively. So reducing backfat by 4 mm. (0.16 in.) is projected to increase lactation feed intake by about 1 lb./day. Thus, the fatter the sow, the lower her feed consumption during lactation.

Body weight or fatness of each pregnant sow must be managed effectively. Feeding regimens during pregnancy must equally target the demands of lactation as well as the demands for fetal and maternal growth.

Kansas State University nutritionists have developed an objective method of feeding gestating sows based on an estimate of weight and backfat thickness (Table 1). An estimate of weight is obtained by taking a flank-to-flank measurement using a flexible measuring tape to categorize sows into body weight groups. Real-time ultrasound is then used to measure backfat as an objective measure of body condition.

Using these estimates, energy requirements for maintenance, maternal weight gain and fetal gain are converted into daily feed intake nutritional requirements that are easily calculated in a spreadsheet ( This grid can be customized using the spreadsheet to adjust for the total born litter size, environmental temperature and dietary energy density.

Another feature of this spreadsheet is its ability to translate the grid into actual feed box settings. Thus, if the feed box setting is not the same as the weight delivered, farm staff does not need to make the conversions. It is important to periodically update these settings if the bulk density of the diet changes from the addition of different ingredients or changes in the test weight of grain.

The latest challenge we have been addressing is the variability in amount of feed delivered at various feed box settings due to the positioning of the drop and the type of drop.

Based on these studies, we have found that feed drop style definitely influences the accuracy of the amount of feed dropped at various settings. Also, we have found that some designs are more variable due to positioning than others.

Milk Production Drives Nutrient Needs

Milk production and hence litter growth rates are the main determinants of the nutrient needs of the lactating sow. Milk production represents 70-95% of the requirements for energy and amino acids, and is used as the basis for determining energy and lysine requirements.

To customize lactation diets based on sow productivity, an appropriate dietary lysine level can be calculated if average litter weaning weight and sow feed intake averaged over the entire lactation period are known.

The first step is to get a good estimate of average daily feed intake of lactating sows. For example, over a six-month period, a 3,000-sow farm with 450 farrowing crates farrows 3,615 litters with an average litter weaning weight of 101 lb. at 19 days of age. During this time, 419 tons of lactation feed were delivered to the farm.

Two simple calculations help determine actual lactation feed intake. The first method (above) uses crate days and feed disappearance.

The second method (above) uses number of lactating days and feed disappearance.

The first method should underestimate average lactation feed intake because of days that crates are empty or contain sows that are eating lactation feed but have not farrowed. The second method overestimates lactation feed intake because the feed to prefarrowing sows is counted as feed fed to lactating sows.

The average of these two values should be used as the feed intake estimate. In this example, the daily lactation feed intake should be between 10.2 and 12.2 lb.

Once an accurate estimate of feed intake is determined, the next step is to determine dietary lysine levels. Since milk production accounts for a major portion of the lysine requirement, and litter growth rate is an indirect reflection of milk production, litter weight gain can be used to customize lysine levels based on the level of litter weaning weight.

Sows require about 11.9 grams of lysine per pound of daily litter weight gain plus 2 grams for maintenance; thus, the next step is to determine daily litter weight gain, which can be calculated by dividing litter weaning weight by lactation length.

Based on average daily feed intake and litter weight gain, the dietary lysine level can be customized to accommodate the herd's average milk production. If the previous lactation diet being fed on the farm is higher in lysine than the recommended level, it may be possible to reduce the dietary lysine level without sacrificing performance.

If the previous lysine level being fed is lower or the same as the recommendation, the producer may want to increase the lysine (protein) level and reexamine performance records to determine whether litter weaning weight increases. This relatively simple approach allows the sow lactation diet to be customized to an individual farm.

First Parity Focus

First-parity sows require special consideration when formulating lactation diets. Usually their feed intake level is about 20% below the herd average. To maintain the same level of litter weaning weight, first-parity sows require about 0.20% higher lysine lactation diet (Table 2).

Also, researchers have demonstrated that first-parity sows require higher lysine levels for maximum reproductive performance than is required for maximal milk production.

Other essential amino acids critical to lactation performance that may become limiting include: isoleucine, methionine, threonine and valine.

More research is needed to determine requirement estimates of these amino acids; however, results to date indicate these amino acids must be carefully considered in diet formulation to prevent costly limitations during lactation.

In practical diet formulation, formulate to meet the lysine requirement of the sow and attempt to maintain high levels of threonine, valine, isoleucine and methionine without incurring excess cost. Typically, these amino acids are formulated in ratios relative to lysine (Table 3). Monitoring these ratios is especially important when using alternative ingredients and synthetic amino acids.

An example of a corn-soybean meal-based formulation for lactating sow diets is provided in Table 4. Additionally, diet formulations with 10, 20 or 30% distiller's dried grains with solubles (DDGS) are included.

With the dramatic increase in ethanol production, DDGS has become more abundant and available for use in swine diets. Data has indicated that DDGS produced from new ethanol plants has approximately the same energy content as corn.

Initially, there was much concern over adding DDGS to lactation diets due to the reductions in palatability when added to finishing pig diets.

However, recent research has failed to indicate a similar reduction in palatability when DDGS is included in lactation diets. Therefore, it appears that high-quality DDGS can be used as an economical ingredient in lactation diets with a substantial reduction in feed cost per ton. Good indicators of high-quality DDGS are greater than 26.5% crude protein, a 2.8 lysine-to-crude protein ratio, 10.5% fat and freedom from mycotoxins.

Limitations of Added Fat

Adding fat to the lactation diet is an effective means of increasing the fat content of the milk and improving litter weaning weight, but it will not benefit sow reproductive performance. It is important to remember that dietary fat is preferentially used by the mammary gland and results in production of “high fat” milk rather than being used by the sow as an energy source.

Use of high dietary fat levels during lactation will improve litter weaning weights, but may actually impair subsequent reproductive performance by influencing reproductive hormones in early lactation. Therefore, although some added fat (up to 5%) may be beneficial to improving litter performance, high levels of added dietary fat (greater than 5%) should not be used as a remedy for poor lactation feed intake.

Producers should take all steps possible to increase lactation feed intake whether fat is added to the diet or not. Generally, if it is economical to add fat to late nursery diets, it will be economical to use 3-5% fat in the sow lactation diet.

Parity Effects

When all sows are housed in the same facility, management must choose either to provide higher amino acid levels than required by the multiparity sows in order to meet requirements of young sows, or formulate closer to the requirements of older sows and not meet the requirements of young sows.

In most situations, the choice is to formulate closer to the requirements of the young sows and oversupply nutrients to the older sows. An advantage of segregated parity flow is that old sows can be fed diets formulated closer to their nutrient requirements in gestation and lactation, resulting in reduced feed cost.

Feeding Management

Lactating sows should be full-fed in order to maximize milk production. A lactating sow will normally consume 9 to 15 lb. of feed per day. Intake level will depend on diet composition, sow's body condition, previous gestation feed intake, water availability and environmental temperature of the farrowing facilities. Consider the following procedure to maximize sow feed intake:

Sows are fed 0, 1 or 2-to- 4-lb. scoops at each of three feedings during the day. If there is feed left in the feeder from the previous meal, no feed will be added to the feeder. If a small amount of feed is left, one scoop will be added. If the feeder is empty, two scoops will be fed. Managers may want to consider the extra scoop of feed in the afternoon feeding if feeders are consistently empty in the morning at the next feeding. The only deviation from this pattern is for Day 0 to 2 after farrowing. During this time, the decision is to give 0 or one scoop at each meal to limit over-feeding while milk production is being initiated.

Many farms are implementing mechanized systems that allow for continuous access to lactation feed. One option is to use a beveled PVC pipe clamped within the feeder using U-bolts (Figure 1). The pipe is then attached to a feed line using flexible tubing with an individual shutoff over each feeder. Field observations indicate that average daily feed intake often increases from 1 to 2 lb./day after implementation of these systems.

Value of Creep Feeding

Suckling piglets have high potential for growth. Studies show that piglets artificially reared can gain at twice the rate of piglets reared by sows. This indicates a large part of piglet biological growth potential remains unachieved in practice, and that increasing the nutrient supply to suckling piglets can further improve birth-to-weaning growth rates.

A reasonable target for preweaning growth rates is 0.62 to 0.66 lb./day to achieve weaning weights of 16-17 lb. at 20 to 22 days of age.

The first and most important option is to improve sow milk output by increasing lactation feed intake of an appropriately formulated lactation diet.

However, milk production becomes limiting at Day 7 to 10 of lactation. This suggests that the difference between the need for nutrients to sustain piglet growth and the nutrient supply increases as lactation proceeds.

Creep feeding, the practice of feeding a solid diet to piglets during lactation, is the most common and easiest way of supplemental feeding of suckling piglets. The usual justifications for creep feeding are:

  • Provide supplemental milk production, especially to sows nursing large litters;

  • Prevent preweaning mortality;

  • Increase weaning weights;

  • Initiate and promote gut and digestive enzyme development to digest nutrient sources other than sow's milk; and

  • Reduce severity of postweaning growth reduction and improve postweaning performance.

Some of these benefits have been observed in older weaning ages (4 weeks and over), but little research data indicates benefits of creep feeding to piglets weaned at less than 3 weeks of age. Recently, there has been promising results that may support the value of creep feeding piglets even for 21-day weaning ages.

Pattern of Creep Feed Intake

There are different recommendations on when to initiate creep feeding, but creep feed is often introduced to suckling pigs between 7 to 14 days of age. Daily and total creep feed consumption is highly variable between litters. Also, in our studies, about 75% of the total creep feed intake was consumed in the week prior to weaning (Figure 2).

Contrary to some observations, starting pigs on creep feed when they are older does not have a detrimental effect on the amount of feed the pigs eat. Older pigs seem to accept creep feed more readily than younger pigs, and may actually consume as much or more creep feed overall, compared to pigs started on creep feed at a younger age. It may be more practical to start creep feeding for as little as three to seven days prior to weaning and obtain similar creep feed intake as compared to providing for longer periods prior to weaning.

In recent research, creep feeding in piglets weaned at 21 days of age did not improve weaning weights compared to piglets not provided with creep feed. However, there was evidence that ‘eaters,’ which are piglets that positively consumed creep feed, grew faster after weaning and had higher initial postweaning feed intake than piglets that did not consume creep feed.

Eaters have a shorter time before they begin to consume solid feed after they are weaned than non-eater piglets. Eaters also had higher nutrient absorption rates. This suggests that increasing the proportion of eaters in whole litters may potentially improve postweaning performance. We've studied some of the factors that could encourage more piglets to consume creep feed and become eaters (Table 5).

Restricted feeding of lactating sows did not increase creep feed intake nor the proportion of eaters within litters. This suggests that a limited nutrient supply to piglets through lower milk production fails to promote greater piglet creep feed consumption. Also, this suggests that creep feeding practices are not a substitute for maximizing lactation feed intake.

Creep feeding from 7 days of age (13 days prior to weaning) produced 80% of piglets classified as eaters, compared to about 70% of pigs classified as eaters when provided creep feed at six or two days prior to weaning.

Longer durations of creep feeding did not affect preweaning gain and weaning weights, but did increase the proportion of eaters in whole litters. However, 70% were classified as eaters by providing creep feed for only two days preweaning.

In our experience, a rotary feeder with a hopper is the best type of feeder to use for creep feeding. With this feeder, we were able to significantly increase the number of creep feed eaters compared to conventional bowl feeders and pan feeders (Table 5). The conical shape, curved rim and wings of the feeder with hopper prevented piglets from rooting, standing over or pushing creep feed out of the troughs. It appears that the design of the feeder with the hopper kept pigs from wasting feed, while ensuring that feed was continuously available in the troughs.

The hopper can also be adjusted daily to manage the amount of feed that flowed out of the gap, thus controlling the level of feed in the trough and extending its freshness. This also makes the feeder more practical, because it only requires daily checking of hoppers rather than sprinkling and managing creep feed numerous times in a day.

Finally, changing the taste and aroma of the creep feed also did not increase the proportion of eaters (Table 5). However, there is a trend for improvements in daily gains and an increase in initial feed intake when piglets are exposed to a flavor prior to weaning via the creep feed and fed starter diets that contained the same flavor.

Diet Composition and Form

Creep feeds are usually designed to be highly digestible, complex and palatable. This is to match the digestive capacity of these young pigs and to stimulate feed intake. Creep feeds usually contain a high percentage of milk products, processed ingredients and higher levels of amino acids, digestible energy and fat. An example of a highly complex creep diet with the diet specifications is shown in Table 6.

Creep feeds can also come in different forms, usually in meal or mini-pellet form. Extruding, expanding or gels are other forms employed for delivery of creep feed. These processes may help improve the digestibility of the feed or be more easily consumed.

However, there is little scientific data to indicate that one form of creep feed delivery is clearly superior.


Further research is needed to investigate methods by which creep feeding behavior can be encouraged. However, our recommendations when using creep feeding are to use a feeder that minimizes waste and initiates access to creep feed from three to seven days prior to weaning.

Decision Trees Help Visualize a Resolution

Decision trees can be made using several common software packages, including Microsoft PowerPoint, most word processors, and many drawing programs.

Essentially any program that allows you to link boxes and arrows can be used to communicate the decision tree.

A specialized program from Microsoft called Visio is specifically designed to create charts and diagrams that can be saved and shared in a wide number of formats, including other Microsoft programs. The examples that follow were built using Visio. This program can be tested for 30 days and purchased at:


Decision trees are stepwise graphical representations of a decision process. They are especially useful in the following:

  • The situation is complex and has many steps to reach a solution.

  • There are many potential conclusions or categories that answer the decision to be made.

  • The decision can be broken down into discrete parts that have “yes” or “no” answers.

  • When a complex situation occurs infrequently, and important considerations or inputs might be forgotten in the interim.

  • To illustrate and simplify a new concept to employees or peers.

  • To help an individual check the quality of their own decision by reviewing the parts for consistency and agreement.

  • When answers to previous questions suggest additional or different criteria that should be considered in subsequent steps.

  • To provide consistent and predictable management decisions among many different operators.

Steps in the Process

Brainstorm the list of input information that is relevant to the decision being made and formulate these as questions.

Consider the potential answers to these questions.

Organize questions in order of importance.

Order questions so that more general questions are asked earlier in the process than very specific ones.

Use one of the software programs to present the questions or decision steps in graphical manner. Software programs that allow “drag and drop” construction from menu of shapes and arrows are easiest and quickest to use.

Link dependent questions to previous questions so that the reader is directed to the next important consideration in the process based on the answer given to the previous step.

Test the resulting decision tree with someone who has little knowledge of the likely answer for clarity and completeness.

Refine the decision tree as new information is found that can simplify the decision or has an impact on the correct conclusion.