Sow mortality records need an overhaul

The upward trendline of sow mortality over the past several years is noteworthy and needs to be addressed. But until farms have a clearer understanding of why a gilt or sow leaves the breeding herd, progress will be limited.
calendar icon 14 September 2021
clock icon 7 minute read

Although the average annual mortality rate among US sow herds is likely to push well beyond 10.5% this next year, as estimated by Swine Management Systems (SMS), it’s the “unknown” category that calls for more attention. As noted in a 2018 Iowa Pork Industry Center sow farm survey, the leading cause of sow mortality at 39% was recorded as unknown.

That begs the question: How do you improve sow mortality if you don’t know the cause or what to address? Among the areas that panelists discussed during an industry roundtable, “Optimum sow care: Keys to improving well-being and longevity,” were mortality recordkeeping challenges and needs.

Establish a uniform list

Sow mortality and culling records are often left to the caregiver’s interpretation and, if in doubt, mark it “unknown.” Often, the list of reasons is simply too long to provide useful insight and are recorded after the animal has died or is on the cull truck.

Ron Ketchem, co-owner of SMS, cited a production group that had 67 reasons listed for sow culls and deaths. “We would like to see the industry come up with some standardizations of reasons for culls and deaths — a uniform list,” he said, “to narrow down possible causes to a specific area, which gives us a chance of figuring out what was going on.”

Ketchem and his colleagues outlined the idea in an article citing a shortened list of reasons — such as, disease, performance, locomotion, reproduction, intestinal — limiting it to a dozen or so.

Some farms do a better job of distinguishing between deaths and euthanasia and the causes that lead the animal to that end. As a sidenote to euthanasia, Ketchem pointed out that in recent years sow packers have taken a stronger stance on the animals they will accept. For instance, the sow must be mobile on all four legs, and large abscesses and such deformities are not allowed. His point is that “1% or 2% of the [sow] mortality rate change is probably due to the inability to market some of those animals and having to euthanize them. That needs to be looked at more.”

Also, not to be overlooked, culling rates can muddy the perspective of what’s happening in a herd. Although culling an animal is a better outcome than euthanizing it or an eventual death, it benefits the farm to have a clear understanding of the reason for the cull.

The path to mortality

John Deen, DVM, PhD, swine epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, raised the challenge to think in terms of: What is the path to mortality? What are the steps we see in a sow developing a high risk of mortality? “I think culling often fits into that same chain of events,” he told fellow roundtable panelists.

There is a basic question,” Deen continued, “whether sows that die are different from sows that don’t die,” noting there is little research or understanding of the biology to refine the hypothesis.

“Part of that may be due to the fact that death is just a partial expression of the problem; death may just be an extension of processes resulting in culling,” he said. “Conversely, death may be the result of something that happened much earlier, and we lack the records to identify it.”

Start gilt records earlier

Individual animal observations and data collection should begin earlier for both sows and replacement gilts, the panelists agreed. On many farms, gilt records don’t begin until an animal is bred, but any number of factors could have already affected the animal’s productivity and survivability outcome.

“We need better gilt-development data,” Ketchem said. Say you started with 100 gilts: How many farrowed their first litter, their second litter, and those that didn’t, why not?

That data doesn’t exist because farms aren’t recording it and making it a part of their sow productivity or longevity analysis, he said, which makes it difficult to know what’s happening and what to address. He would like to see sow farms start the recordkeeping process once the replacement gilt arrives at the farm or reaches 100 pounds. “The information is out there; we just need to be able to collect it and work with it,” Ketchem said.

This sparked an idea for Brigitte Mason, DVM, Country View Family Farms, who oversees that system’s gilt-multiplication process. Because replacement gilts arrive on the sow farm at 10 weeks of age, it’s feasible to expand their data collection and use it to identify trends and make decisions. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t start doing more tracking ourselves, especially with how we flow our gilts,” she said.

Track sows earlier

As for sows, mortality insights would improve by having more accurate sow records and earlier data collection as well. “Instead of simply relying on looking at a dead sow, and in many cases not doing a necropsy, we need to start recording risk factors prospectively and putting them into the sow records,” Deen said.

For example, if every sow was scored for lameness going into the farrowing crate it would provide a much better understanding of what is going on in the herd. More importantly, Deen added, “we’d understand the insidious effect [lameness] has on sow mortality, reproductive performance and culling. We need to start understanding the factors earlier in a sow’s life and consider them risk factors rather than looking at them as simply descriptive factors at time of mortality.“

He cited lactational feed intake as a significant predictor that a sow is in trouble and may not survive. Specifically, if the sow is not getting up, it’s not eating or drinking, caregivers know that’s a bad sign. “But if we name that as part of the pathway, then we can start talking about functional aspects,” Deen said.

In other words, make that part of the information that’s recorded and establish a plan of action.

Ketchem cited another practical example of evaluating sow body condition a few weeks pre-farrowing to identify potential problem animals. “On some of the farms I work with, we do a body-condition score when we vaccinate at about 80 days into gestation,” he said. “We can give a sow a little more diet and maybe fix her,” before she enters the farrowing room.

‘Totally spot-on’

Mason agreed that the comments about the void in breeding herd records and mortality response were “totally spot-on.”

“We started a [sow] mortality initiative, looked at the information we had and found it told us a lot of nothing,” she relayed to the group. “Our records weren’t helping us solve the issue until we started asking more questions and including the information in our records.”

So, she started adding more detail to the data collection. For example, was the sow treated before she died? Was she lame before she died? Was she lame on one leg, two, three? Was she injured?

“We started asking farms for more information about what was actually happening with that sow prior to her death,” Mason said, “because we had farms reporting that 60% of their sow mortality was ‘sudden deads.’’”

That level of “sudden deads” could suggest that it’s due to a major health issue. But upon digging deeper, Mason found that most of the sows had been treated, so those were not actually sudden deaths. Rather, it was known that a sow was having an issue.

She now uses this upgraded data collection to prompt action on the farm. One such example relates to data showing how many times a dead sow had a missing or excessively long dew claw. “We started doing some dew claw trimming,” Mason said. “In short, we tried to put in some extra steps to make our information more useful,” and to redirect caregivers’ efforts on the farm and provide resources to better meet the needs of each individual sow.

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