A few weeks ago, a client asked us to review his production numbers and give him some suggestions on how to improve using the current labor pool.

Producers are putting more effort into saving more pigs in the farrowing area. One of the key challenges to this focus is keeping weekends fully staffed. With this in mind, we took a closer look at the day of the week sows are weaned and created a model that will help us look at the weaning question.

For the model, we selected 10 farms that represent over 17,000 sows. These are mature farms in the United States and Canada with different genetic makeups. All Parity 0 information was dropped from the dataset, and we used farms that do minimal or no inducing of sows before farrowing. The data represents the last six months of 2010. The combined average for pigs weaned/mated female/year averaged 25.23 and piglet survival was 79.9%. Remember that piglet survival is a combination of stillborns and preweaning death loss percentage taken from 100%.

Since inducing sows was minimal, we took a closer look at average gestation length in this mixed population. In this dataset, we are seeing more farms averaging over 116 days of gestation (Chart 1). Average gestation length was 116.2 days, with 99.6% farrowing from Day 112 to Day 122. By comparison, 7.97% farrowed on Day 114, 19.65% on Day 115, 30.6% on Day 116, 24.06% on Day 117, and 10.61% on Day 118. These five days make up 92.89% of the farrowings.

We also decided to look at the spread in wean-to-first service interval (Chart 2), which averaged 6.1 days; 90.35% were bred in Days 3-8. The breakdown was: 4.57% at Day 3, 43.84% on Day 4, 29.67% on Day 5, 8.68% on Day 6, 2.33% on Day 7 and 1.26% on Day 8 after weaning.

Next, we looked at what is typical in the swine industry when sows are weaned twice a week. We used Monday and Thursday as weaning days. Chart 3, Farrow Day Based on Monday/Thursday Weaning, shows that twice-a-week weaning evens out the number of farrowings per day, peaking on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday with 15.5, 15.2, and 16.3% of farrowings, respectively.

That still leaves 26.7% of the farrowings on the weekends, which usually means a smaller crew working less hours on the weekend, but they are responsible for over 26% of the farrowings.

What does the twice-a-week weaning look like in the breeding barn? Chart 4 shows service day based on Monday/Thursday weaning peaked on Monday at 15.06%, followed by Thursday at 14.6%, and Friday at 14.5%. That still leaves 28.3% of the breeding taking place on Saturday and Sunday.

Often, when we are analyzing data and studying farrowing rate by the day of week bred, we see farms with lots of variation in farrowing rates for females bred on the weekends. Is this a result of less labor on weekends for breeding, semen quality, and fewer hours and less afternoon breeding?

To answer that question and to see if a farm could shift the number of farrowings and breedings per day, we put together two models based on weaning sows once per week on Monday or Thursday. Charts 5 and 6 show how weaning on Monday moves farrowing days to mid-week (77% farrow on Monday through Thursday, leaving only 13.6% to farrow on the weekend).

Farms that are trying to work on attending more farrowings to improve piglet survival can now have a second shift four nights a week (Monday to Thursday) and attend 77% of the farrowings. If you went to five nights, attended farrowings increases to 86.5%. It is probably easier to find a person to work late-afternoon/evening than it is finding someone to work that shift on weekends.

In this scenario, the breedings/day did not shift much – Fridays increased to 15.6% and Mondays dropped to 14.5%. Weekends stayed the same. There may be more shifts on farms that have wean-to-first service intervals less than six days. You will still need to have plenty of breeders and semen for the weekend breeding.

Charts 7 and 8 illustrate the second model – weaning once a week on Thursday. Chart 7 shows how farrowings shift to the weekends – 63% farrowing on Friday through Sunday. That may make it difficult to find people to work the second shift to attend farrowings, assist sows, dry off pigs, and do a good job of split suckling to improve piglet survival.

In this model, the breedings also shift to more on the weekends, with 13.7% bred on Saturday, 14.7% bred Sunday, and 15.6% bred on Monday. Another problem with the shift is more sows will be bred using semen that could be 2-6 days old. This could have an effect on conception/farrowing rates.

We know if you go to weaning just once a week, there will be some decrease in average weaning age and more week-to-week variation. However, with more total pigs being born, some changes are needed, especially in the farrowing area, to save more of the pigs. It is very possible that by adding or moving some personnel to a second shift in farrowing, you could lower stillborns by 0.3-0.6 pigs/litter. In a 1,250-sow farm, that would be 20 to 40 more live pigs/week. The added attention to drying off the pigs and split suckling all pigs on Day 1 will lower preweaning death loss.

What to do?
Maybe you should consider what a pork producer from Denmark suggested at a meeting this spring as he explained how he weaned over 33 pigs/mated female/year. Because of their labor laws – 37-hour work weeks and extended holidays – he weans once a week on Sunday. He pulls the sows from farrowing crates on Sunday and leaves the pigs in crates until Monday, when they are moved to the nursery barns. This procedure shifted both farrowing and breeding so there would be very few farrowings and minimal breedings on the weekend.

If you still want to wean twice a week and keep most of the work during the week, you might consider weaning on Sunday and Tuesday or Monday and Wednesday. It is important before you make changes that you model your farm to match your gestation length variation and your wean-to-first service variation to determine the best weaning day.

With the challenge of finding and keeping quality and caring employees, you might consider making some changes to your weaning day and how you manage your staff to maximize production numbers.

Key Performance Indicators
Tables 1 and 2 (below) provide 52-week and 13-week rolling averages for key performance indicators (KPI) of breeding herd performance. These tables reflect the most current quarterly data available and are presented with each column. The KPI’s can be used as general guidelines to measure the productivity of your herd compared to the top 10% and top 25% of farms, the average performance for all farms, and the bottom 25% of farms in the SMS database.

If you have questions or comments about these columns, or if you have a specific performance measurement that you would like to see benchmarked in our database, please address them to: mark.rix@swinems.com or ron.ketchem@swinems.com.

Click to view graphs.

Mark Rix and Ron Ketchem
Swine Management Services, LLC