Caregivers play a leading role in individual sow care and longevity

calendar icon 25 August 2021
clock icon 9 minute read

Caregiver management and training are top priorities on swine farms as productivity hinges on the outcome. Yet few things are more challenging.

Sow farms are particularly dependent on caregivers’ abilities to help the sow navigate through breeding, gestation, farrowing and lactation. Their actions and decisions along the way influence not only the sow’s productivity but its survivability.

Caregivers that lack on-farm experience and the importance of individual sow-care training and follow-up surfaced repeatedly as keys to addressing sow mortality, panelists stated during an industry roundtable “Optimum sow care: Keys to improving well-being and longevity.”

“A lot of the caregivers have never been on a farm before,” said Dyneah Classen, DVM, Carthage Veterinary Service, Carthage, Illinois. “It’s obvious if a sow is limping on the way in to farrowing. But it can be hard to differentiate pelvic organ prolapse from rectal prolapse.”

As a result, Classen has had to simplify some steps, including classifying all prolapses into one category.

‘A sow herd of one’

Not everyone can look at a sow, sort through the subtle signs and know what actions are needed. Further complicating matters is the long list of daily tasks to be completed in a sow barn and how easy it can be to overlook signs in animals that a caregiver sees every day.

Brigitte Mason, DVM, Country View Family Farms, pointed to the philosophy of a production manager within Country View’s system that emphasizes “a sow herd of one.”

“If you had one animal you would know everything about her — whether she was eating, drinking, getting up, all of that,” she noted. “We spend a lot of time discussing these things with our farm managers.”

Farrowing is a stressful period, and Mason has caregivers move sows into farrowing crates 2 to 3 days ahead of their due date to help acclimate the animal. This is especially important with first-litter gilts, “so they understand where their feed and water nipple are located before farrowing,” she said. “If you’ve had young-parity animals that ended up dying and they were dehydrated with sunken-in bellies and hadn’t eaten for a week, they didn’t know where their feeders and drinkers were. That little extra care is going to go a long way.”

John Deen, DVM, PhD, swine epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, concurred that any sow that goes off feed increases its mortality risk.

“We found 1 day off feed triples the likelihood of mortality or at least the likelihood of not surviving to produce another litter,” he said. “That may be a correlation more than a causation, but we need to understand that better.”

Individual sow care

A “sow herd of one” mirrors the concept behind the Zoetis Individual Sow Care program — an extension of its Individual Pig Care program. It is designed to address sow mortality issues and train caregivers to recognize and act on the subtle signs of a sow needing help.

Still a new program, Ross Kiehne, DVM, Swine Vet Center, had caregivers from eight sow units that he manages go through the training in February 2020, which involved both classroom and in-barn sessions.

He shared his impression of the program with fellow roundtable panelists: “The training invigorated the crew and we felt good about it. They really liked refocusing on sow care.”

Program participants started off with about 2.5 hours of classroom instruction, including separate but concurrent sessions in English and Spanish. Then everyone moved into the barn for the next 4 hours with a Zoetis trainer moving on to hands-on practice and discussion.

“Caregivers learned the best way to observe sows when they get up in the morning and about the importance of looking each animal over from head to toe,” Kiehne said. “They learned that taking temperatures can be an indicator of disease. That was a big eye-opener.”

Indeed, many of the animals with elevated temperatures were not originally identified as needing treatment.

Kiehne said the practice of daily temperature checks has been very helpful. He relayed that the participants found the in-barn follow-up and observations to be the most invigorating aspects.

“Having the trainer come into their own barn to demonstrate the classroom lessons was key to the success of the training,” he noted. “The trainer also helped everyone learn how to better identify the early onset of lameness. This involved training their eye to catch lameness early.”

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Kiehne wasn’t able to continue the training or expand it to other units, and “we took a little step back as far as staffing,” he said. “I think when we get out of COVID and make regular visits, we’ll restart the program with a refresher training session for managers and department heads.”

Other actions needed

It’s not uncommon for two caregivers to look at the same sow and come away with different interpretations. To address that, some farms that Ron Ketchem, co-owner of Swine Management Systems, works with have formed “health crews.”

“It’s hard to train everybody to identify the sow that’s getting sick,” he said. “We need to have specific people trained, and their job is recognizing animals that may have a health problem before it happens and doing something about it.”

He would like to see the concept of health crews expand more widely through the industry.

He has also seen the benefit of having health crews walk sows down an alley, assign a lameness score and note which feet need to be trimmed or other actions. He cited a client with pen gestation who reduced sow mortality by 3% with this practice and $20 clippers.

“We’re always concerned about body condition, but that might not be the main reason a sow doesn’t see her next litter,” Ketchem added.

Deen agreed that the impact of lameness can be confusing. He noted that a major predictor of sows leaving the herd is lactational feed intake.

“If a sow is not getting up, if she’s not eating, she’s not drinking, she’s in trouble.” Still, the connection to why a sow doesn’t get up to eat or drink often goes unidentified and unaddressed.

To better understand sow mortality, another beneficial practice on farms is to have trained personnel conduct a sow necropsy. “If we really want to dive into this, we need a trained person that can at least open up an animal, take pictures, or have someone that can drill down into potential causes,” Classen told the group. “Downer animals aren’t always lame; sometimes they’re septic. Without that kind of information, I don’t think we’re getting the whole picture.”

Take-home strategies

Asked what future plans they would implement to address sow productivity and survivability, the roundtable panelists had a wide range of responses.

Ketchem would like to see more data sharing and discussion throughout the entire production process.

“I don’t think it’s understood how one interaction affects another one. What does a 1% change in sow mortality versus a 1% change in pre-weaning mortality do to the farm?” he said. “We need to share more information with employees. They’ve got to have ownership and know their job is important.”

Deen’s advice is to identify the interventions that must be addressed regularly on the sow farm and measure them.

“A goal might be making sure every sow that needs to be treated is treated before the lights are turned out at the end of the day.” He cited an analysis of whether sows get treated on the weekend. “If they do get treated, it correlates with reduced mortality,” he said, compared with farms that don’t have the time or staff to treat sows on weekends.

Improving daily observations and having caregivers walk the sow barns, mark animals that might have a problem and take action — in order to get out in front of problems — are Kiehne’s priorities. He and his caregivers have learned a lot from taking daily sow temperatures.

“I want to make sure that practice continues so we find sows earlier that need treatments.”

Whether it involves lameness, prolapses or losing too many young sows, Kiehne intends to have more frank discussions with caregivers in the barn.

“There are probably a lot of animals with problems that we could address earlier, but we aren’t talking about it,” he said.

For Mason, a renewed emphasis on gilt selection and starting to keeping records on those animals much earlier are her goals. Like many large operations, Country View Family Farms has its own gilt multiplication herd, and like many, they don’t start keeping records on replacement gilts until they enter the breeding herd.

“But gilts are on our sow farm from 10 weeks of age on, so we might as well be reporting and tracking information so we can make valuable decisions,” she said.

Classen plans to investigate vulvar scoring of gilts and perineal scoring in late gestation and put more pressure on genetics suppliers. Just as the industry has pushed for improvements in total born and feet and leg structure, “we need to continue to put on pressure because we don’t know a lot about the genetic influence (on sow mortality). That’s still an area where we need to continue to focus,” she said.

Another priority is to better understand the economics of a dead sow or premature culling and to share that information with the farm’s production team and managers.

“It’s very easy to look at vaccine costs, medication costs, feed costs, labor costs but there are more subtle costs,” Classen said. “Maybe we can break things down to four or five basic reasons and establish industry partnerships so we can aggregate data across systems and really start building a database that makes sense and is actionable.”

Editor’s note: This information was adapted from “Optimum Sow Care: Keys to improving well-being and longevity,” highlights of a sow-care roundtable discussion sponsored by Zoetis. To download a free copy, click here.

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