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An In-depth Look at Batch Farrowing

Last week, we reviewed the history of group/batch farrowing. In the mid-70s, pork producers wanted to become more efficient, utilize their labor better and reduce their cost per pig. They turned to batch farrowing. Many different systems were tried, but most settled on the 20/1 grouping system, which is a weekly farrowing program.

(Second in a two-part series)

Last week, we reviewed the history of group/batch farrowing. In the mid-70s, pork producers wanted to become more efficient, utilize their labor better and reduce their cost per pig. They turned to batch farrowing. Many different systems were tried, but most settled on the 20/1 grouping system, which is a weekly farrowing program.

The Swine Management Services (SMS) farm benchmarking database currently has 13 farms using a batch-farrowing program. They range from 250 to 1,600 sows with from 40 to 300 farrowing crates. Most have a five-group system and farrow batches of sows every four weeks. Several different genetic lines are represented.

Table 1 shows a composite of production from these farms, with the Top 10% averaging 26 pigs weaned/mated female/year (PW/MF/Y); all farms averaged 24.89 PW/MF/Y, while the Bottom 25% averaged 23.79 PW/MF/Y.

In Charts 1 through 7, the data is broken down by several production parameters:

• Chart 1 shows PW/MF/Y ranges from 22.81 to 26 pigs.

• Chart 2, wean-to-first service interval, the system benchmark is 7.96 days vs. SMS benchmark (Table 3) at 6.94 days.

• Chart 3, farrowing rate, the system average is 84.1% with a range of 79.8 to 93.1%.

• Chart 4, total born/female farrowed averaged 13.93 pigs born (range: 14.62 to 12.39 pigs) vs. SMS benchmark database at 13.26 pigs

• Chart 5, pigs weaned/female farrowed, shows a system average of 10.71 (range: 10.06 to 11.41 pigs) vs. SMS benchmark at 10.38 pigs.

• Chart 6, piglet survival was just 78.3% for the system (range: 73.3 to 86.1%) vs. SMS benchmark farms at 79.6%.

As with most data sets, there is a lot of variation in production numbers between farms based on the batch system used, length of breeding time, how returns are found and added back to groups, and the method of replacing a portion of the groups with new gilts.

In reviewing information on batch farrowing, there are several options available:

10/2 grouping – Ten groups of females farrowing a group every two weeks, which is farrowing half of the crates every two weeks; farm activity would be to wean one week, then breed the next week; start farrowing mid-week and the next week, start over again with weaning.

7/3 grouping – With seven groups of sows and farrowing every three weeks, the workload is spread out with breeding one week, farrowing the next week, and weaning the third week. You will be farrowing half of your farrowing crates every three weeks with a six-week turn of the farrowing rooms. That gives you a weaning age of 14-28 days, based on the number of days you bred sows.

5/4 grouping – Five groups of sows farrowing, using all the crates every four weeks. This system flows by weaning one week, breeding that group the next week, and at mid-week start farrowing a group; then two weeks down time. Weaning age runs 15 to 22 days of age with a one-week breeding.

4/5 grouping – Four groups of sows farrowing every five weeks. Activity level is weaning one week, breeding the next week, farrowing the next week, followed by two weeks of down time before weaning the next group. This allows for breeding up to 14 days with weaning age ranging from 14 to 28 days.

Table 2 presents a Batch Farrowing Production Summary broken down into three production parameters – weaning age (days), pigs/crate and turns/crate/year for the five-batch farrowing systems. As you can see, to keep weaning age up, you need to breed for less than seven days. Assuming 10 pigs weaned/litter, the pigs/crate ranges from 87 to 130 and turns/crate/year ranges from 8.7 to 13.

Pros and cons of batch systems:
•Adding replacement gilts – This has become easier with the use of Matrix (Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health), a product that can be fed to gilts for at least two weeks before you want to breed them. When the product is removed, gilts will cycle within a few days.

•Managing females that recycle – Depending on the batch system you are on, it can be difficult to get the returns back into a group. If your farrowing rate is high, you may want to cull the returns or hold them for another group.

•Improving piglet survival – Start with weaning sows on Monday. In subsequent gestation periods, they will start farrowing on a Monday-to-Friday schedule, based on the number of days you breed and the wean-to-breed cycle. (See "Best Day to Wean Sows.") This allows you to have extra personnel available to attend sows during the 4-5-days peak period, focusing on reducing stillborns, towel drying pigs, and making sure every litter is split-suckled.

•Using nurse sows – Since you are only farrowing every 2-5 weeks, it is hard to have nurse sows available for extra pigs at farrowing or for fallback pigs. If your total pigs born is high, try feeding supplemental milk to pigs 2 days of age or older in Rescue Decks.

•Labor management with batch-farrowing systems – To keep costs down, you still need approximately one employee for every 300-350 sows. For a 700-sow farm, that's 2-3 people. With the 10/2 or 7/3 grouping systems, your labor is used every week. With the 10/2 grouping, you will wean one week and be busy with breeding and farrowing the next. The batch systems that present problems for labor usage are the 5/4 and 4/5 systems. Both have two weeks of down time with no weaning, breeding or farrowing taking place. In some systems with two farms close together, they stagger the breeding groups and move some of the labor from farm to farm. This allows some personnel to be specialized, but it can also cause fatigue with breeding and processing crews on large farms with big batches of sows.

•Farrowing frequency – If you have a small herd (i.e. 700 sows), you'll likely have about 120 farrowing crates. The 5/4 program will allow you to farrow 120 litters every four weeks and enable you to wean 1,200 pigs per group. If your farm is larger (i.e.1,600 sows with 300 farrowing crates), you could use the 5/4 system, which would allow you to wean 3,000+ pigs every four weeks. Or, with the 10/2 option, you could farrow 150 litters every two weeks, which would give you 1,500+ pigs. The latter option would spread out the labor requirements more.

Changing from a weekly system to a batch-farrowing system takes lots of planning and careful execution of the plan to make sure you don't end up farrowing small groups for several months as you get all of the sows cycling during the weeks you want to breed.

It was fun to look back at our approach to batch farrowing several years ago when the modern pork industry was getting started and to review group/batch-farrowing systems. With the need for weaning large groups of pigs to stock finisher barns or large groups of weaned pigs, the batch-farrowing system can be a very good option. With the ability to control estrus in females, it is now easier to keep breeding groups full. With some Rescue Decks, you can handle the extra pigs without nurse sows. The biggest problem is how to organize and use the available labor crew if you are only farrowing and breeding every 2-5 weeks.

Key Performance Indicators
Tables 3 and 4 (below) provide 52-week and 13-week rolling averages for key performance indicators (KPI) of breeding herd performance. These tables reflect the most current quarterly data available and are presented with each column. The KPI's can be used as general guidelines to measure the productivity of your herd compared to the top 10% and top 25% of farms, the average performance for all farms, and the bottom 25% of farms in the SMS database.

If you have questions or comments about these columns, or if you have a specific performance measurement that you would like to see benchmarked in our database, please address them to: [email protected] or [email protected].

Click to view graphs.

Mark Rix and Ron Ketchem
Swine Management Services, LLC