Key Steps to Improve Piglet Survival

We recently spent a couple of days with a group of producers. During the discussion, this question was raised: “What are three things we can do to improve piglet survival?”

Logically, piglet survival is total pigs born/litter minus stillborns and pre-weaning mortality. In the Swine Management Services’ database, average piglet survival (%) is 79.9%. In that mix, one farm has achieved over 95% survival rate, but several farms are below 66% (see Chart 1).

To save more pigs, the first priority is to reduce stillborns. These four steps could help achieve that goal:

Step #1: Make sure the farrowing crew is identifying stillborns accurately. The easiest and most accurate way to identify stillborns is to post some of the stillborn pigs, remove a piece of the lungs and drop in a glass of water. If it sinks to the bottom of the glass, the pig has not taken a full breath, so it is classified as a stillborn. If the lung sample floats, the baby pig took a breath and then died and, therefore, should not be classified as a stillborn.
Step #2: Reduce induced farrowings. A normal gestation length for sows is between 110 to 122 days. If you induce the sow on Day 114 and her normal gestation length is longer than that, you could be effectively aborting the litter.
Step #3: Identify the sows that have a history of stillborns and flag them for extra care during farrowing. Stillborns are highly repeatable; 80% of the stillborns come from 20% of the sows. Early in the farrowing process, a sow should have a pig about every 30 minutes; later in the farrowing process she should have a pig about every 20 minutes.
Step #4: Extend farrowing room attendant hours to assist sows that are finishing the farrowing process early in the morning and late in the afternoon/early evening. With attendants present for 12-15 hour periods, you should be able to attend 80+% of the farrrowings. It is important to identify when the sows are having the stillborns. Is it during the day when you are there or are there more stillborns when no one is attending farrowings? Scheduling attendants from 3:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m., with a very simple job description of getting the pigs out of the sow, drying them off and making sure all pigs get colostrum will help save more pigs. The next priority is to reduce Day 0-2 death loss. These steps will help:

Step #1: Identify the real reason pigs are dying. Many of these losses are attributed to being “laid on,” when in reality there are underlying reasons that need to be identified. Again, post some pigs. Check their stomachs to see if they have nursed. Pigs with nothing or very little in their stomachs have no energy and are unable to get out of the way of the sow, so they get laid on. These pigs should be marked as “starve-outs.”
Step #2: Dry off pigs as soon as they are born. A wet pig can get chilled very quickly. This is especially true for the smaller pigs. Consider using a drying agent. Place it on the mats, in a pan, or make up some sprinkler cans that can be used to shake the drying agent on the pigs. The drying agent can be placed behind the sows during farrowing. When a wet pig is found, apply a generous amount of drying agent.
Step #3: Place pigs in a hot box and split suckle them in small shifts. This will help ensure that all piglets get colostrum and have the energy to compete for milk. This can be accomplished by simply placing a divider panel in the back corner of the farrowing crate, restraining 6-7 of the most robust pigs, then coming back 3-4 hours later and pulling the divider so the entire litter can nurse. Foster pigs using nurse sows and nurse decks: •Fostering is more of an art than a science, and some people have a knack for doing it well. All cross-fostering should be completed within 24-48 hours after farrowing. It is best to move only a few pigs. Move either the small pigs or the large pigs, leaving most of the pigs with their birth mom.
• Identify pigs that could be fall-back pigs. Place these disadvantaged pigs on a nurse sow or in a nurse decks with milk replacer. To help identify these pigs earlier, starting at Days 2-5, spend a few minutes each day looking for pigs that are still under the heat lamp or on the heat mat, while the rest of the litter is nursing or watch for the pigs that continue to suckle after the rest of the litter has stopped. These pigs are getting no milk. Find these pigs before their hair coat gets rough and their backbones begin to show.
Some extra attention devoted to these three primary farrowing room operating procedures can help improve piglet survival.

Key Performance Indicators
Tables 1 and 2 (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