Individual pig care offers path to better health, uniformity

When sorting pigs for market, one priority is to keep variation to a minimum, as a more uniform group is more likely to receive top dollar. But making pig uniformity part of the management strategy from birth can maximize profitability throughout the growth cycle.
calendar icon 23 January 2018
clock icon 6 minute read

“We need to understand the individual pig dynamic to understand growth and mortality in more detail,” said John Deen, DVM, University of Minnesota, a proponent of focusing less on averages and more on the variation within a litter, group or barn.

“Averages hide a lot when it comes to challenges that pigs are facing,” he said.

He points to producers in the top 25th percentile of productivity versus those in the middle or bottom 25th percentile to illustrate the room for improvement. For example:

Average pre-weaning mortality increased from 15.5% in 2011 to 17.3% in 2016, according to the Summary Analysis of US Pork Industry Productivity.1 During that time, herds in the top 25 percentile recorded no change in annual mortality rates, while the bottom 25 percentile increased 1.26%.
In the wean-to-finish segment, mortality averaged 33% in 2011 and 7.52% in 2016. Annual mortality for the top 25 percentile increased by 0.15%, while the bottom 25 percentile increased by 0.26%.

“It’s all about people and stockmanship,” said Valerie Duttlinger, a production analyst for Swine Management Services in Fremont, Nebraska. “It’s about having enough staff, in the right place, well trained and low turnover. It’s important that producers put emphasis on having workers understand what we do and why it matters.”

Larger litters, lighter weights

Larger litter sizes have been a priority over the past several years, but it has come at a price. “This has created some challenges, not only in the farrowing house but also through the grow-out phase,” said Deen, who serves on the industry’s newly formed Pig Survivability Working Group, along with Duttlinger.

Duttlinger has seen some farms continuously increase total born but then let pre-wean mortality rise along with it. “There are other producers who have implemented day-1, neo-natal pig care and focused on individual pig care and have really made a difference in piglet robustness and survivability,” she added.

On their own, lightweight pigs at birth never really catch up with their littermates. “They’re always challenged — from a health standpoint as well as a muscle-tissue standpoint and their ability to grow as efficiently as a heavier pig,” Duttlinger said. “Then, in the finishing phase, pen competition increases and they continue to fall further behind.”

According to past research, pigs weighing less than 2 pounds at birth have higher mortality rates and lower weaning weights, Deen noted. Weaned pigs weighing less than 10 pounds have significantly higher mortality rates and are less likely to reach an optimal market weight.

It starts at birth

A rising goal on many farms today is to produce more robust pigs. And while birth weight matters, many other factors are involved. Yes, genetics play a role as does the gestation-sow feeding and management process; also, whether the dam is a sow or gilt. While it’s common knowledge that a gilt tends to produce lighter birth-weight pigs, there are questions about the gilt’s immune-system maturity and ability to transfer immunity to the piglets.

Simply put, a bred gilt is still developing, which makes it more vulnerable to limitations. That’s why it’s beneficial to keep gilt replacements in the breeding herd in the 30% range.

Of course, day-1 pig care starts with trained workers attending farrowings and ensuring that each newborn pig gets dried off and warmed. But most important is that each piglet gets its share of colostrum.

Colostrum quality decreases hour by hour from when the first piglet is born. After about 24 hours, it’s nearly depleted. “If after 24 hours a piglet hasn’t gotten colostrum, its survival chances are almost zero,” Duttlinger said.

She applies a split-suckling protocol, whereby farrowing attendants mark the first 10 pigs or so with a permanent marker or paint stick and start removing some of the first born off of the sow to give those born later time to suckle. “We do these shifts twice so that the later-born pigs have a chance to nurse by themselves at least twice,” she added.

The staff needs to keep a watchful eye on the litter to ensure that each piglet continues to have access to the udder, Deen said. Train workers to look at each piglet, and instill the importance of quick treatment or euthanasia when necessary.

Moving on to grow-out

As pigs move on to the growing phase, Duttlinger and Deen agree that individual pig care should follow as well. Duttlinger recommends identifying workers who are in tune with identifying lameness, illness and off-feed events. “Assign one or two people to walk the barns every day, with their only focus to evaluate individual pigs, the building environment and the equipment,” she said.

This approach can be especially useful with recent changes in subtherapeutic antibiotic use on farms. By focusing on individual pig care, it allows workers to identify specific pigs for treatment with injectable antibiotics, as well as allowing them to recover in a hospital pen, rather than medicating an entire group.

Deen likes the idea of conducting sort of an on-farm research project, by identifying poor-doing pigs and following them through the growing phase to see how much they deviate from the rest of the group. Do they die at a higher rate? Do they grow more slowly? Do they require more health interventions? “This could tell you more about what risks are actually at play and which areas need action,” he said.

Of course, the idea of individual pig care can feel overwhelming to workers at first, but it doesn’t have to involve more than a few seconds per animal. The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of pigs that need individual attention and, consequently, the extra labor required.

Moving forward, Deen sees individual pig care gaining importance as producers use fewer antibiotics. “Not just in terms of more individual therapies, but also in preventive measures and managing at-risk pigs,” Deen added. “Outside criticism on pork production tends to center on mass therapies and at-risk pigs; stockmanship and individual pig care speak to those issues.”

[1] Stalder K. 2016 Pork Industry Productivity Analysis. National Pork Board Research Grant Report. 2017 National Pork Board, Des Moines, IA, USA.

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