Advances in Sow and Gilt Management

Rudolf Wiedmann of the Centre for Education and Knowledge in Boxberg, Germany, describes the changes that can be made in feeding and husbandry to improve sow and gilt welfare and to reduce losses in a paper presented at this year's London Swine Conference.
calendar icon 14 September 2010
clock icon 9 minute read


In highly prolific sow units you have to keep a special eye on dry sows. To reduce the increasing overall losses of dead sows it is necessary in the first place to optimize the feeding management. Three main suppositions have to be fulfilled: individual, undisturbed and simultaneous. Self-locking stalls enable the sows to eat their individual quantity of concentrate in a private atmosphere.

In respect to husbandry, there are three aspects to consider as well. First, you have to do everything for a quick and stable social hierarchy. Second, each sow has to fill her stomach completely at least once a day. And third, the lying comfort has to be adequate to the very different situations in respect to weather and individual body condition. In this respect you need, in each pen, at least two floors with different insulation properties.

Introduction: Sow Losses Are Too High

Low hog prices have driven successful pig producers to focus a great deal on cost control. While not one of the major cost centres in swine production, replacement rate of gilts has reached a level that is too high, with more than 50 per cent in many units. In addition, the performance and particularly health status of such herds is suppressed. Therefore we have to ask the question: How should we manage the modern highly prolific sow to lower the risk for a too early loss? What are the risk factors in respect of feeding and husbandry?

The Fachhochschule Soest in Germany investigated, in 46 piglet producer units, the background for sow losses. In many cases, there is a combination of several reasons which lead to the culling decision. Therefore the scientists identified both main reasons and secondary reasons. Most of the sows were culled due to age and fertility. But how old is an old sow? On some farms, the 'age' already begins after the fourth litter (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Reasons for culling sows in German sow units.
(Freitag and Wittmann, 2008)

In many cases you cannot detect the real culling reason. In a German field study from November 2004 to November 2005, dead and culled sows from four sow herds were brought to a pathology institute and a post mortem investigation was performed. Results showed that 47 per cent of the post mortems were not because of infectious disease: 33 per cent were from infections and 20 per cent were due to ruptures and accidents (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Pathological-anatomical diagnostic findings
(Nienhoff, 2007)

We know that there are not only big differences between different farms but also between different countries. In Germany, we have a culling rate of five to seven per cent; in the Netherlands, only five per cent but in Denmark, 15 per cent on average. A certain percentage in Denmark is due to mercy killing of sows with shoulder lesions but the overall percentage is still much too high.

Strategic Management Measures in Feeding

To simplify the actual problems it is useful to restrict our efforts only to the pregnant sow. Furthermore we have to differ from reasons by feeding or by husbandry. Settling new housing, firstly you should be concerned with feeding. After determining the feeding system, then it is time to decide the housing system.

In Europe, sows have to be kept in groups from week 5 of gestation until one week before farrowing (EU guideline 2001/88/EG). The hierarchy, which is among sows, can be a problem when feeding them in groups. Alpha sows – those at the top of the ranking system – can tend to dominate feeder entrances. This intimidates more timid sows, who may not be able to easily access their feed.

There are three principal goals of a feeding system:

  1. Each sow has to be fed each day individually. Otherwise, you risk undesired growth.
  2. Each sow has to be undisturbed during feeding. Concentrate mixture for pregnant sows is strongly rationed and there are more than 100 per cent differences in eating speed.
  3. All sows of one compartment should eat together. No electronic feeding machines without simultaneous feeding cannot overcome this great disadvantage.

Feeding Stalls are First Class

It is not surprising that only feeding stalls with self-locking or manual-locking doors fulfill the demands of the sows as well as the claims of managers and staff. The self-catch system has many advantages. It enables sows to have contact with other animals whenever they want, but have more privacy when eating.

First of all, the system is quiet and animal friendly. Also, pregnancy scanning is easier as sows can be fixed with little effort. Often, the bile is empty before they start eating again and go into their stalls, so the diagnosis is generally accurate. Sows are very calm during feeding in their stalls.

Feeding stalls are very common in the Netherlands and uncommon in Denmark, which is one reason for the big differences in sow losses. Feeding stalls are well suited for little as well as for very big units. People use them in conventional and organic farms. Staff with lower training can work more easily than with electronic feeding systems (Table 1).

Table 1. Qualification of five feeding systems for highly prolific sows.

Strategic Management Measures in Husbandry

In respect of housing conditions, three aspects are very important for health, performance and sustainability. These are stable social hierarchy, gut fill and lying comfort.

Stable social hierarchy

Sow aggression is a heritable trait and it may be possible to select against it. But the environment and management still play an important role in how sows behave. When mixing sows, a new social hierarchy has to be found. To prevent negative influence on claws, it is favourable to give during the first two days of mixing enough space (5 square metres = 55 square feet) and a solid floor with deep straw.

After staying in such an 'area', the sows have built up their hierarchy. To stabilise this hierarchy, it is necessary to offer suitable conditions in their pens in respect to feeding system, gut fill and adequate lying comfort.

Gut fill: 'a full sow is a peaceful sow'

Highly prolific sows are able to eat daily during lactation more than 8kg (16lb) of concentrate. Therefore you can imagine, that dry sows cannot reduce this quantity to 2.5kg (5lb) without any problems. With single housing there was no great problem to handle permanent hungry sows.

But it is very different in group housing. To keep sows peaceful, they have to be full. Otherwise, there will be problems like restlessness, injuries of skin, vulva, claws, fertility and so on.

Adequate lying comfort

Most of the time, sows are resting. Therefore you have to offer adequate facilities to keep them warm in cold weather, i.e. insulation and/or heating of building or floor in lying area. During hot weather, sows need appropriate cooling. Therefore, it is for highly prolific sows performance-suppressing to lie only on slats. The resting area has to be at least solid and insulated, i.e. in housing with cold climate. Much better is sufficient and dry bedding material.

Table 2. Floor temperatures in the sow lying area with regard to body condition score

Figure 3. Comparison of pens with or without straw in the lying area in respect ot different parameters of claws. (Hahn, Boxberg, 2009)

Since the skin temperature of sows is about 28°C (82°F) – like in human beings – all lying materials have to make sure, that those skin temperatures can be maintained easily. Table 2 shows the problem, that thin sows are not able to heat slats to the necessary 82°F. Such sows are more exposed to risks like colds, cystitis and so on. Furthermore, they lie more on their stomach and are not able to sleep in relaxed lateral position. Lying on the stomach is a leading cause of leg and claw injuries. Dry straw in the lying area is a very good method to keep claw injuries at a low level. (Figure 3).

Figure 4. Structured housing for pregnant sows in a double-row with different insulated areas.

Figure 5. Structured housing for pregnant sows in a single row with photo-voltaic roof to the south
(measurements in metres)

In Figures 4 and 5, you can see examples for pregnant sows with different areas for lying, feeding and dunging. Floor and walls of the lying area are insulated.

Some Aspects to Gilt Management

First of all: gilts are the 'crown jewels' of each unit. Therefore, do not house them like finishers.

A great deal of problems with today's sow herds are the results of not respecting the needs of the gilts in the past.

Guidelines for Gilts

  • Gilts should be kept in little groups of about six to 10 animals
  • Offer them much space (at least 3 square metres = 30 square feet per gilt) for their own fitness training (heart, muscles and fibers, immunity)
  • Give them each day a lot of employment, a full gut and fresh air
  • Lying areas must have different insulation (straw area and concrete area)
  • Look for claw abrasion and strong, clean legs
  • Keep gilts separate but not too far away from your unit
  • Emphasise a firm human-animal-relation and talk to them each day
  • Serve them not before they are eight months old
  • Adapt them to feeding stalls
  • Give them contact with boars
  • Put them to the sows after first litter at the earliest – or even better after second litter


  • Nienhoff, H. 2007. Sauenabgangsursachen auf den Grund gegangen. Mitteilung der Landwirtschaftskammer Niedersachsen, Fachbereich Tiergesundheit, Heisterbergallee 12, 30453 Hannover/Germany.
  • Deen, J. et. al. 2004. Sow mortality management, Proc. 18th IPVS Congress, Hamburg, Vol. 2, p. 864.
  • Vestelgaard, K. et. al. 2004. Meddelelse nr. 656, Landsudvalget for Svin, Danske Slagterier, Copenhagen, Denmark.
  • Freitag, M. and Wittmann, M. 2008. Sauenabgänge genauer analysieren. SUS Schweinezucht und Schweinemast 6/2008.
  • Hahn, B. 2009. Klauenbonituren in verschiedenen Haltungssystemen, Bildungs- und Wissenszentrum Boxberg, 97944 Boxberg/Germany.

Further Reading

- You can view other papers presented at the London Swine Conference 2010 by clicking here.

September 2010
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