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Measuring the direct and indirect costs of sow mortality

7 September 2021, at 9:30am

Everyone knows that a breeding female is a valuable asset because it drives the farm’s downstream production. But the costs involved in getting a replacement gilt ready to enter the breeding herd or to keep a sow there are less clear to caregivers and even managers.

When breeding animals die, are culled prematurely, or need to be humanely euthanized, there are direct costs involved with the outcome, but the indirect costs are less obvious.

It’s easy enough to look at vaccine, medication, feed and labor costs, “but there are more subtle costs,” said Dyneah Classen, DVM, Carthage Veterinary Service. “I want a better understanding on the economics of a dead sow or premature culling; I want to share that information with my production team.”

Panelists at an industry roundtable, “Optimum sow care: Keys to improving well-being and longevity,” discussed some of the impacts of premature gilt and sow losses.

Paying a price

Although costs in every part of hog production vary from farm to farm, some basic calculations can offer a starting point for the question: What’s the cost of a dead sow? Ron Ketchem, co-owner of Swine Management Systems, shared this perspective from his database of more than 1.5 million sows:

  • Cost to develop a replacement gilt: $320
  • Annual feed cost per sow: 2,300 pounds x $270 per ton = $310.50 ÷ 2.5 litters = $124.20
  • Vaccination: $5 per litter
  • If the sow dies in late gestation or during farrowing the loss of 11 pigs x $35 per pig = $385
  • Estimated cull-salvage value of the sow: 450 pounds x $35/cwt. = $157.50
  • Total cost for a dead sow: $991.70

“So, it’s close to $1,000 every time you lose a sow,” Ketchem pointed out.

While the loss of the sow is clearly evident, he emphasized that it’s the loss of the litter that’s disturbing and too often overlooked. And it carries no small impact. “Most of our data are showing us that 30+% of our sow deaths fall in the 9-day period from 3 days before they farrow to 6 days after,” he noted. “So, what do we do about that? How are our people in the farrowing house trained?”

Equally important, he asked the group “why are we not finding that (compromised) animal starting 2 or 3 weeks earlier?”

Hidden costs

Two other costs have shown up. One is that sow mortality forces down a herd’s parity profile.

“We’ve seen time and time again that P1 progeny have lower levels of performance and higher mortality in the nursery,” said John Deen, DVM, University of Minnesota epidemiologist. Research suggests that this is due to first-litter gilts having not fully matured, including the immunity levels passed on to their piglets.

“I think there’s some evidence that it has a population effect as well. We have to be concerned about that,” he added. Downstream growth appears to lag behind in these early-parity litters compared with their contemporaries.

Another lesser considered cost is the impact on labor. Deen pointed to a survey he conducted around the debate between gestation stalls and pens, which asked caregivers if there were major animal welfare concerns. He found that stalls didn’t necessarily present a welfare concern; rather a nearly universal response cited the difficulty of removing downer and dead sows.

“We have to listen to that as well,” he added. Having to remove downer or dead sows from stalls “wears on our workers in ways that we really haven’t measured.” Not only is it physically challenging, but emotionally as well for many sow-barn workers, and there is a cost to that.

The economics of culling

The cull-sow market can influence sow mortality rates in subtle ways. Culled sows don’t contribute to mortality levels, yet they may not be meeting their expected contribution to the herd.

Depending on the economic climate, there are times when a culled sow is worth more than the purchase of a gilt,” Classen said. “Any time that occurs, you’re moving culled sows more frequently.”

The farms she oversees run a 50% replacement rate, which limits their sow mortality rates. “I’ve always said it’s easier to solve a sow-death-loss problem with culling than with treatment,” she noted. “It’s much easier to walk a sow off of a farm and onto a cull truck than it is to get the dead sow out.” She added that culling practices on those farms have improved sow health and overall productivity.

Brigitte Mason, DVM, Country View Family Farms, shared the operation’s culling strategy with fellow roundtable participants. Originally, the strategy was to have a cull truck come to the sow farms every week, but to reduce trucking costs they dropped it to once every 2 weeks or more. “We found that in the end, we were euthanizing more animals because the farms didn’t have the ability to cull animals sooner,” she said. “We saw a large increase in sows destroyed, so we resumed having trucks at the farm weekly.”

As a sidenote, she emphasized the importance of reviewing composting facilities and machinery to manage the farm’s sow mortality and building in extra capacity. “Our environmental manager is pulling his hair out because we’re not designed to handle 10% to 15% sow mortality,” she said.

While building in some extra space into a composting site would increase costs for the farm initially, it would pay off in the long run for labor and environmental management.