Focus on Farrowing to Save More Pigs

Over the last few months, there have been several articles in pork industry magazines featuring producers who are focused on saving more pigs in the farrowing unit.

Over the last few months, there have been several articles in pork industry magazines featuring producers who are focused on saving more pigs in the farrowing unit. With this in mind, we took a closer look at the SMS Farm Benchmarking database to see whether this emphasis has affected total pigs born, stillborn rates, and pre-weaning mortality.

To address how farms classify mortalities in farrowing, SMS developed an equation that we call “piglet survival,” which is simply: 100% - (stillborn % and preweaning mortality %).

Table 1 shows farms that had 13+ total pigs born/female farrowed for the last 52 weeks. In the data set, 282 farms from our data base of 775 farms met these criteria (36.4%). The data was then broken out by size of farms: 93 small farms (<1,000 sows), 147 medium-sized farms (1,000 to 2,999 sows), and 42 large farms (>3,000 sows).

In Table 1, the average pigs weaned/mated female/year (PW/MF/Y) is 25.09 pigs. Small Farms averaged 25.84, medium farms averaged 25.08, and large farms averaged 24.88 PW/MF/Y. We were surprised to see a 12.7-pig variation, with the top farm averaging 31.6 PW/MF/Y and the bottom farm at 18.9 PW/MF/Y. In looking at total born/female farrowed, all farms highest to lowest ranged from 15.8 to 13.0 pigs, with large farms topping out at 14.7 pigs. Pigs weaned/female farrowed ranged from 12.8 to 9.0 pigs for all farms and averaged 10.51 pigs.

The piglet survival percentage tells most of the story. The 282-farm average was at 85.9%. Small farms held the advantage at 87.6%, while medium farms averaged 85.9% and large farms averaged 85.5%. Again, looking at the range of 90.0% to 66.4%, best-to-worst, a 23.6% difference in saved pigs is a lot.

When we break down piglet survival for all farms into its two components, we see a stillborn average at 7.7%, with a large range of from 16.0% down to only 3.6% and preweaning mortality shows an average of 14%, again with a wide variation in death loss from 22.9% down to only 3.1%.

When farms average piglet survival rates of just 75%, we have to ask: “What are the people in farrowing doing?” Some people farrowing sows outside in “A” huts lose fewer pigs!

We also question data from some of the farms that show stillborns at 3.6% and preweaning mortality as low as 3.1%. As part of our business, we do get out and tour sow farms so we can see what is really happening.

Recently, we did a walk-through of a very large sow farm that averaged 90% piglet survival for the last 52 weeks and several other units averaging just 75% piglet survival. We wondered what the secrets to keeping more pigs alive were. Was it extra staffing in farrowing? The units visited had a ratio of one person to 300 sows. Was it new facilities? Farm age ranged from 3 to 12 years of age. Was it the genetics? Different genetic companies and lines were being used, but farms with similar genetics still had a large variation in piglet survival.

Here are a few of the differences we identified:

• Caring and trained personnel: Sows and pigs being attended seven days a week vs. five days a week. It is important to have written standard operating procedures (SOP’s) that are followed everyday to ensure all the details of keeping pigs a live are followed. Continuous training and retraining of personnel of these details are necessary to save more pigs and to try new concepts.

• Extended farrowing hours: Farms have reduced the number of sows being induced and have shifted staff to extended hours to ensure farrowings are attended. They are there to get pigs dried off, make sure pigs find a nipple and to reduce stillborns.

• Split suckling pigs on Day 1: With the large litters, colostrum management is very important. All pigs need the antibodies and improved nutrition of colostrum the first 6-12 hours of life to survive.

• Identifying and manage fallback pigs: With a large number of live pigs born, it is a challenge to load every sow in the farrowing room with extra pigs to see if they can nurse them. It is important to know how many functional nipples are available in the farrowing room and to have a plan of what to do with the fallback pigs starting on Day 2 after farrowing. The first challenge is training personnel on how to spot potential fallback pigs early before their backbone is showing. Second, have a plan for how nurse sows are to be selected and used. If rescue decks are available, have a prescribed plan for their use.

• Detailed records: Farrowing attendants need to keep a written log of when sows were observed or helped, the injections given, recording pigs born live, stillborns, and split-suckling times and rotations. In addition, the farrowing crew needs to record the date and time of death of any piglet, including determining if a stillborn was truly a stillborn. This information will help track how often sows are being monitored during the farrowing process, how long pigs are being left in the hot boxes and when and why mortalities occur.
Charts 1, 2 and 3 provide a breakdown of the farms in the small, medium, and large size groups. As you can see, there is lots of variation from farm-to-farm for total born/female farrowed, pigs weaned/female farrowed, and percent piglet survival. Clearly, the data does not support the myth that only small farms can be high-producing farms. It all comes down to caring, trained employees.

Keep in mind this question: If you can improve piglet survival by 5% in your unit, what would it be worth? For a 2,500-sow unit, weaning 25 PW/MF/Y, you would sell 62,500 pigs. A 5% improvement would give you 26.3 PW/MF/Y – or 3,125 more pigs to sell. At $40/weaned pig, that’s an extra $125,000 income per year.

Key Performance Indicators
Tables 2 and 3 (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: or

Click to view graphs.

Mark Rix and Ron Ketchem
Swine Management Services, LLC