Individual sow care offers benefits throughout the farm

2 September 2021, at 9:29am

Pig health and performance begin with the sow, which is why it’s critical for caregivers and production managers to evaluate each sow’s health, body condition, comfort, behavior and well-being as part of their daily routine.

“By training workers, we can help them reduce sow mortality rates and culls, improve sow performance, stabilize the health status of the sow farm and ensure the well-being of individual sows in the breeding herd,” said Micah Jansen, DVM, US pork veterinary manager for Zoetis.

That was the driving force behind the company developing a comprehensive training program called

Individual Sow Care. This 1-day course teaches caregivers and managers the value of conducting health, welfare and performance assessments on every sow, in every breed group, every day.

Addressing industry needs

Sow care is always important but has become even more so as mortality rates are trending upward in recent years, with some farms seeing rates as high as 15%1, Jansen pointed out. Equally unsettling is that 39%2 of sow mortalities are categorized as “unknown,” which makes it hard to address the possible root causes. So, there is tremendous opportunity to make improvements.

From an economic standpoint, annual losses can tally more than $5 per inventoried sow for every additional one percentage point increase in sow mortality3. That doesn’t account for the negative impacts on breeding targets, farrowing or herd retention rates, not to mention the impact on the performance of downstream pigs and the farm’s overall output.

“Beyond the animal, caregivers need to be aware of the surroundings of each gestating and lactating sow’s environment,” Jansen said. “That includes monitoring things like the barn temperature, flooring, air quality, pit levels, feed and water lines.”

Classroom and in-barn training

The day-long Individual Sow Care program involves a combination of classroom and in-barn, hands-on training and is customizable to include farm-specific protocols. For example, “they will review their herd veterinarian’s health and treatment protocols, as well as learn when they need to reach out to their veterinarian for more assistance,” Jansen noted. Participants also will learn how to progress through the observations from the barn to the breed group to the individual sow.

To accommodate today’s changing needs of virtual training, Zoetis now offers an in-classroom session that is fully accessible online, Jansen points out.

The interactive classroom format focuses on “what a healthy sow looks like and what an unhealthy sow looks like,” Jansen said. It will provide specifics on what caregivers need to look for to classify sows as such.

For example, Jansen outlined some of the signs of a healthy sow:

  • Resting respiration is 12 to 30 breaths per minute
  • Appropriate body-condition score
  • Healthy skin tone
  • The sow rises to eat
  • Small amounts of chalky, clear or milky odorless discharge
  • Temperature between 101.5˚ F and 103˚ F
  • Individual teats are soft and express milk easily
  • Piglets are healthy and full-bellied
  • Softly grunts when nursing

In the barn, the trainer and participants will apply those details to real-life examples of sows and piglets that the caregivers work with every day.

Applying a hands-on approach, the participants will practice how to:

  • Approach the sow in a calm, assuring manner
  • Observe sow behavior and patterns
  • Evaluate the sow’s environment
  • Check feed and water access and availability
  • Rate sow posture, body condition, lesions, teat condition
  • Examine the sow for vulva damage, vaginal discharge
  • Inspect the sow’s feces and urine
  • Watch for signs of lameness and lesions
  • Assess the lactating sow’s milk supply, as well as the health and behavior of her piglets
  • Take and record the sow’s temperature
  • Check the sow’s respiration rate
  • Contact the veterinarian at the first sign of trouble

With the herd veterinarian’s guidance, participants will address questions specific to the types of issues that caregivers encounter and then identify possible options or solutions.

The objective is to identify sick or compromised sows earlier in the process and instill in the caregivers the importance of taking timely action. It also improves the caregivers’ ability to consistently communicate abnormal sow concerns and trends to their managers and veterinarians.

“As a result, caregivers and management can use the sow assessments to make decisions about what is needed for an individual sow, as well as identify broader trends for the herd or farm,” Jansen said.

Benefits beyond the sow

Certainly, the sows will benefit from prioritizing individual assessments, as will the farm, but so will the caregivers. Bottomline, there is a much better chance of a positive outcome when challenges are identified and addressed early. Treating and handling piglets or sows is rarely easy, and reducing those tasks also reduces labor and costs. Equally important is that working with healthy animals is more satisfying than the alternative and results in better employee morale.

“Caregivers become more engaged in their jobs,” Jansen said. “They are more confident in what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how to do it.”

To find out more about the Individual Sow Care program, click here. For producers or veterinarians interested in setting up Individual Sow Care training, Jansen suggested contacting their Zoetis representative or technical services veterinarian.