Managing Pile-ups

Sylven Blouin explained to the 2014 London Swine Conference how Agri-Marché manages piglet flows as sows become more prolific.
calendar icon 26 November 2014
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London Swine Conference 2014

For many years, genetic companies seek to improve the performance of their maternal lines especially for prolificacy. To keep pace with genetic improvement, new farming techniques have been developed (split-suckling, high suckling litter at first parity, etc). In addition, improved nutrition to power these super-sows, new AI technologies, as well as advances in farrowing crates to reduce losses have made it so that today, annual productivity may exceed in many cases 30 piglets per sow per year (and much more in some European countries).

The race for high prolificacy will always be a major aspect of the selection criteria but now we can observe that companies also introduce the concept of quality of weaned piglets.

The challenge for farmers is to wean piglets of maximum quality for an easy and profitable finishing after weaning.

In 2008, as part of an annual meeting of a genetics company, Sylven Blouin reports they had to ask themselves about hyper-prolificacy and its impacts on a large-scale system (if we consider the market in Quebec) like theirs.

Choices that were then made will be discussed in this presentation and the direction they have given to their network.

Description of Network Production

Agri-Marché owns a little over 15,000 sows and also buys piglets from independent producers who represent around 5,000 females. Among these 15,000 sows, 3,000 produce hybrid females (F1) for the whole network including customers.

To raise all these piglets, a network of approximately 150 farms (nurseries, finishing barns) was established (contract or owned by the company) with the basis that all-in allout must be respected with a single source supplier.

Change in Philosophy

Twenty years ago, it was common for us to pick up 17-kg piglets from different sources and mix them together in a finishing barn. With the emergence of PRRS and some other diseases, this practice gradually disappeared. The size of farms in Quebec not being what it is in western Canada and the US, Agri-Marché had to raise pigs several years in rotation if they wanted to stay single source. Then early weaning appeared with two pick-ups per week, rotations in maternity were simply amazing and the perspective of mixed sources reappears. As this was not exactly what happened, they had to find other solutions.

Larger farms projects have emerged but the moratorium in 2002 has ended many of them; this moratorium had certainly not helped the pork producers of the province.

How can we raise more piglets when there is no space to finish them and you cannot build new facilities?

Agri-Marché's network was fine at that time on the maternity side but in finishing, it could do better, according to Sylven Blouin. More piglets were produced by farrowing barns, but some were smaller and started poorly in the nursery after a transport. More and more pigs were hanging at the end of the lot and therefore an increasing percentage of non-full value pigs.

The philosophy of the company then changed: yes produce as many piglets as possible from the farrowing barns but not at the cost of losing money in finishing.

"Agri-Marché has decided to focus on fattening results without neglecting the farrowing performance - but not at any cost. Those extra piglets must be viable and profitable for the whole system."

Things Have Changed

In 2000, 10 of our farms were either farrow-nursery or farrow to finish. No nurseries could raise a larger amount of piglets, they had been built for a productivity of 20 piglet per sow per year. Today, only one site still remains farrow-to-finish and it is planned to turn it into 1,200 sows in 2015 with large groups housing.

Of the 150 farms that raise pigs, 28 are nurseries whose capacity can vary from 1,000 to 4,000 places. Finishing sites vary from 250 to 3,000 places.

With the desire to use only one source per farm, Agri-Marché had to change the way it was working in farrowing barns; this is good for its own barns as well as those of customers. The goal is always to pick up from 1,000 to 1,500 weaned piglets per unit. Larger farms (2,500 sows, for example) wean 1,350 piglets per week; farms from 1,000 to 1,200 sows will wean every 14 days (batch farrowing) in order to obtain our goal of piglets. For smaller farms, batch farrowing every 28 days meets the needs.

Who says batch farrowing every two or four weeks also said unproductive days - we don't want to buy “out of band” piglets. To ensure a stable supply, a former nursery of 2,000 places has been converted into a breeding unit. In this farm, operated as if it were a multiplication unit, they are breeding gilts every week, without having to use costly hormone for a network of five farms. Blood tests are performed once a month just before each delivery of gilts to customers; animals are sold after 75 days of gestation.

In order to ensure farrowing crates are never empty, the customer of this breeding unit is encouraged to breed some old sows that would normally be culled (single dose).

As soon as the number of pregnant gilts that will be delivered is confirmed, the customer decides the number of those old sows he will send to reform. The choice whether or not to use this method belongs to the clients. A second breeding unit is currently in preparation to meet the needs for other farms. They are currently out of pregnant gilts.

Farrowing barns, therefore, provide a fairly constant number of wean piglets but the number is increasing year after year with improved productivity. The problem of under-capacity nursery is sometimes present but many permits were given for 30-kg piglets so it is easy to get little more piglets in these farms and have enough space by selling them at 25 or 26kg.

The transport coordinator juggles every week with the future placement of piglets. Using the management software and the monitoring performed by field technicians every month, Agri-Marché knows several weeks in advance the approximate number of pigs they will have to deal with. They manage approximately 7,000 to 7,500 pigs per week and place them in nurseries or finishing units, There is some flexibility as they may also speed up or delay entry - by up to one or two weeks if necessary.

Currently, 40 per cent of the company's network is in wean-to-finish. Finishing barns have been partially modified (half of the barn) to receive weaned piglets. The problem of lack of space is not as important in finishing compared to nurseries; this technique has allowed Agri-Marché to solve part of the problem generated by the hyper-prolificacy.


Management of surplus is part of the daily management of each producer.

Sylven Blouin said Agri-Marché has decided to focus on fattening results without neglecting the farrowing performance - but not at any cost. Those extra piglets must be viable and profitable for the whole system.

The company's customers and employees know the rules and they accept them. Agri-Marché chose this orientation five years ago and even if it is pushing to increase sow performances, it still believes that the money is made or lost in finishing.


Blouin S. 2014. Managing pile-ups. Proceedings of the London Swine Conference. London, Ontario, Canada. 26 to 27 March 2014. p108-110.

Further Reading

You can view other papers presented at the 2014 London Swine Conference by clicking here.

November 2014

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