Pig Health Management in a Down Market

Health management needs a radical re-think and must be even more closely monitored when the market is tough, writes Ed Barrie, sow and weaner pig specialist at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).
calendar icon 17 March 2009
clock icon 5 minute read

Among the more striking comments Dr Tim Loula made at the latest Shakespeare Seminar was one which talked about the need for a philosophical change. The example he used was along the lines of, if everything went perfectly, what results would we have? For example, in production agriculture, corn geneticists (in Iowa) have predicted that the potential yield at planting is 700 bushels per acre if everything goes perfectly. This philosophy, when applied to pork production, highlights the need to achieve more of the pig's potential.

Among the factors limiting the pig's potential, disease ranks highly. Disease prevention is a responsibility of both labour and management. Routine diagnosis of both live and dead animals at all ages of production will help to define the disease causal agents in the herd. Once the causal agents are understood, high risk animals can be placed on treatment programs, which may include vaccines, antibiotics, sanitation, ventilation or housing practices. A history of when the disease occurs, whether it is seasonal, chronic or intermittent goes a long way in helping define a treatment. Disease challenges in the later stages of finishing animals are much more serious financially because of the dollars invested in feed, housing, labour and management. Nonetheless, if the animal never left the weaner unit, there is still the loss of income from the unfilled feeder barn space.

In addition, better management practices would include running internal trials across a production unit to define the pathogens present more clearly, as well as serological profiling to assist in the pathogen definition.

The second philosophical point Dr Loula made was that many swine units allow poor production practices to go on far too long. It is his observation that all farms have problems but the better ones fix them sooner. Starting pigs properly in the nursery and wean to finish facility decreases mortality, fall out and variation. An aggressive euthanasia policy is necessary. Do not keep pigs around that are obviously not going to survive. This includes lame animals and those with ruptures or which are not eating or not eating adequately. Keeping these animals on the faint hope of a miracle recovery contributes to increased management and labour requirements, housing needs, feed requirements and disappointment when they eventually die. It is important to consider all the costs, especially money spent on medications and vaccines in terms of the animal's ability to survive and grow efficiently to market weight.

This brings us to the point of addressing the cost of production for each phase of pork production. It has long been proven that crowding extra animals into a facility, even for a short time, decreases the ability of the animal to thrive and grow to its potential. During difficult economic times, it is not the time to overload facilities: use facilities as they were designed to be used. A good example of this is a ventilation system which has been set for specific conditions in a weaner facility. When more pigs are added than the facility is intended to hold, temperature and moisture conditions go up, possibly beyond the range of the fans ability to move air, condensation occurs which has effects on electrical and metal equipment, drafts develop and the resultant conditions create serious health challenges for newly weaned animals.

The last area we will discuss here is the subject of weaning age. The problem of too young a weaning age is usually caused by over breeding a gilt/sow system with results that pigs must be weaned sooner and at lighter weights. Typical mid west data suggests no less than 17 days of age with a 12 lbs weaning weight as the minimum.

Dr Loula believes that in Ontario, it is more likely to see a weaned pig closer to 15 lbs and 21 day weaning age. The benefits to the sow is that later weaning ages result in increased total born alive, which in turn increases pigs/sow/year, and a better breeding success at first mating levels which in turn reduce semen requirements.

The last two points Dr Loula made were that poor health requires better labour for the observation, diagnosis, treatment, etc. and that poor health is very hard on good labour. It is depressing to work with risk animals, difficult to maintain a level of pride and satisfaction in your work, and seriously reduces any enthusiasm people have to get the job done.

This summary is based on a presentation by Dr Tim Loula of Swine Vet Centre, St. Peter, Minnesota at Shakespeare Seminar.

March 2009

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