Like a sibling rivalry, a pair of 6,000-sow units in west-central Nebraska have pushed production past 30 pigs/mated female/year.

A 10-year age spread, the occasional preference for handling management tasks a little differently and some miles are about all that separates the two farrow-to-wean units as the personnel of both farms openly share their successes and failures in a congenial and competitive spirit as they raise the production bar even higher.

Data from the most current 52-week period available from the Swine Management Services’ (SMS) benchmarking database, which guides Pigeon Ranch and Prairie Dog Hill, has them ranked first and second with 30.20 and 30.01 pigs/mated female/ year (P/MF/Y), respectively. The database includes 81 farms with over 3,000 sows, a total of 382,992 sows.

“I think the fact that we have two farms, basically the same size with identical numbers, helps us verify our credibility. A lot of that is due to sharing of information,” notes Tim Friedel, production manager of both units and the nursery-grower-finisher facilities that raise the pigs. He has logged 33 years in large-scale pork production systems in Nebraska and Minnesota,

The Prairie Dog Hill unit was built near Broken Bow, NE, in 1999; Pigeon Ranch construction followed 10 years later near Sumner, NE. Personnel are sometimes swapped between farms, giving employees new challenges and opportunities with a constant goal of making everyone better and each stage of production more successful.

Leadership Prevails

Sow unit managers Dana Hawk at Prairie Dog Hill Farm and Steve Horton at Pigeon Ranch agree the key to exceeding the 30+ pigs benchmark centers on enabling their employees to make many of their own management decisions. In the end, this level of engagement invites input from all employees, regardless of rank or tenure. This flexibility also means the farm staffs may approach daily management and pig care differently.

Horton, a 34-year veteran of pork production, oversees 20 employees, while Hawk, who spent five years in the dairy business before switching to pigs 23 years ago, oversees 22 employees.

Clearly proud of their production achievements, all are quick to recognize the commitment of their employees and the stability of their workforce, which has held at less than 10% turnover in the last 12 months.

At the outset, they have an atypical approach to assigning job titles and responsibilities. The person in charge of a production area is referred to as the “lead” — such as farrowing lead, breeding lead or replacement gilt lead.

The concept is to identify and develop “leaders” who work closely with others assigned to the production area, serving as a sounding board and a production mentor.

Friedel is not a fan of standard operating procedures (SOPs). “I think SOPs limit your people from being able to follow a leader because they are given a sheet of paper telling them exactly what they have to do and the way they have to do it. I want our guys to be able to think, to be given some rein.

“We have procedures, but we don’t have them written anywhere; you shouldn’t need something in writing telling a person how to castrate a pig. They are trained. A piece of paper too often ends up being an excuse for not thinking or not doing it on their own,” Friedel explains. “We don’t give people a crutch that they can use as an excuse because they have done what a SOP says.”

He adds, “I have worked in systems where good ideas could not happen. A lot of the new ideas that I have seen develop in the years I have been working with confinement operations came from people not following SOPs. If those people would have been restricted by SOPs, their ideas never would have been tried. Something that is totally against an SOP yesterday might be the new idea of the future.”

Delving into the SMS benchmarking data (Table 1) during an actual walk-through of Prairie Dog Hill and a virtual walk-through of Pigeon Ranch, it soon becomes apparent that the latitude allowed for free thinking has served the sow unit managers well.

Gilt Management

The tour begins at the earliest common denominator of the breeding herd — the gilt development units (GDU). PIC delivers 110 gilts/week to each isolation/acclimation unit, or 550 gilts for every five-week group. Space and facilities dictate that 11-week-old gilts are delivered to Prairie Dog Hill, while 8-week-old gilts are delivered to Pigeon Ranch.

Boar exposure begins when gilts reach about 150 days of age. The replacement gilt lead and his assistant work four boars through the gilt pens every day. They begin by placing one boar with a pen of gilts and spending 15-20 minutes identifying, tagging and recording those in standing heat on a pen card. Identification tags are color-coded by week.

Satisfied that all cycling gilts in the pen have been recorded, they leave the boar behind for another 15-20 minutes of stimulation and move to the next pen of gilts, where they introduce another boar. Again, the gilts displaying heat are documented. This procedure is repeated until each pen of gilts has been checked.

“Two guys spend about four hours/day checking heat, seven days a week,” Friedel points out. They doubled the number of heat-check boars from two to four to allow boars more time with the gilts.

At Pigeon Ranch, gilts recorded with a second heat cycle receive a second tag and then are bred on their third heat cycle. “I need 11 gilts every day, so I take out the gilts that have had the most skipped heats,” Horton explains. Generally, gilts are moved to gestation stalls at 170-175 days of age and are not bred until they are at least 210 days old.

Hawk at Prairie Dog Hill manages the gilts in similar fashion, although he simply moves the largest, likely the oldest, gilts to gestation stalls.

Stall Acclimation is Essential

A three-week acclimation period is a critical step because gilts virtually go off feed when moved to a stall; it is totally different than being on a self feeder in a pen with other gilts, Friedel says.

It often takes a week to get gilts back up to full feed, which he describes as “as much as she will eat.” For some gilts that’s 6-8 lb.; for others, it’s 12 lb. “The pounds don’t really matter, so long as she’s eating as much as she wants. It comes back to Mother Nature — it’s not a stress to her as long as she is getting as much food as she wants. If you limit what you feed her, it tells her something’s not right. The more time you have to acclimate the animal to the stall, the less stress she is under at breeding,” he adds.

The task of feeding gilts is assigned to an individual whose job is to get the gilts up to full feed. How the goal is accomplished is flexible. For some it is a second feeding soon after the first feeding. Others may choose twice-a-day feeding, dialing up the feed drop for the second feeding.

Likewise, someone is assigned to feed newly weaned sows. “Most sows nursing a large litter are energy-deprived when they leave the farrowing crate. Some will eat a crazy amount of feed the day they are weaned. Sometimes I have to feed them 2-3 times a day. Some will eat 12-15 lb./day between weaning and rebreeding,” Hawk says.

“On a lot of farms, that animal is being given 4-6 lb./day,” Friedel adds. “If you take the time and effort to do it right, you can get her to 15 lb. before rebreeding her. So often it becomes a time issue. They have cut back on help, trying to cut corners. I will guarantee you that units our size trying to run with 15 people, that job’s not getting done. They lose track of the little things that aren’t getting done right, and pretty soon production isn’t where it needs to be.”

“Be the Boar”

Both farms use boar carts for their daily heat-checking rounds. This is even more critical because newly weaned sows and replacement gilts are not loaded in the barn by filling open rows of stalls, commonly referred to as “snake” loading. Instead, sows and gilts are placed in single stalls or in small groups throughout the breeding-gestation barn.

Not only does this scattered loading make heat checking more efficient and effective, they feel their artificial insemination (AI) technicians are more attentive.

With snake loading, barn staff tends to anticipate which animals should be cycling during a specific time period, Friedel explains, so they spend less effort checking for recycles elsewhere in the barn. In addition, the more widespread sows in estrus help stimulate estrus in others; the expression of estrus is stronger, and the daily presence of the boar helps maintain pregnancies, he adds.

Each farm breeds about 300 animals per week, so the quality of mating and pregnancy maintenance is critical to their top reproductive performance.

Another plus for the boar carts is that it gives the person operating the remote control from behind the sows direct control of where the boar’s nose is. Boar exposure is restricted to one side as a solid panel blocks the other side.

“The first thing we do with a sow that’s in heat is grab hold of the flank, because that’s what the boar would do. That actually stimulates the oxytocin in her body,” Horton says. “When she locks up, the technician puts his weight on her back to make sure she is ready (for insemination). Usually it’s enough to sit on most of them, but all of the time the technician is watching her to make sure she is paying complete and total attention to the boar. Tap your feet against her sides — that’s what the boar would do. We tell the technicians, ‘be the boar.’”

The scattered loading of sows and gilts also helps avoid the common problem of females going into a refractory phase before insemination is attempted. This occurs when a row is stimulated and there are too many to breed at once or inadequate staff to get the job accomplished. The common response is to assign more technicians to the job — some lacking the focus and training required for successful insemination. “In some cases, they are putting an unqualified person in a very technical position, and conception rates suffer,” Horton says.

The scattered loading of gestation stalls also helps avoid the boredom or fatigue that often comes with breeding large groups of females without a break. “The simple act of moving to a new location in the barn helps, and our technicians are encouraged to take a short break when they are losing their edge,” Friedel explains.

The high conception rates and farrowing rates on both farms provide the added luxury of culling any sow that does not cycle within seven days of weaning or recycles after successful insemination. “If you can run 95% farrowing rate, you don’t have to breed the returns to keep farrowing crates full,” Friedel notes. “Whether it is her fault or not, they are high-risk animals.”

Matching farrowing rates of 94.6% in both units reinforce their technicians’ success.

“Not to take anything away from saving pigs at farrowing — it is extremely important — but when you are talking about pigs/mated female/year, so much of the breeding efficiency figures in. What you are doing with acclimation and breeding, what you do with culling is just as critical as saving pigs in the farrowing house. You don’t want to undersell half of the story,” Friedel reinforces.

In the end, about 130 days are spent preparing a female to have a litter of pigs; one day is spent keeping as many pigs alive as possible on farrowing day. “Of course, the breeding guy is relying on the farrowing guy to make sure the sow gets the proper nutrition through her lactation, making sure she is well taken care of, and any injuries are treated, so the weaned animal gives him another good breeding and a subsequent litter,” he reassures.

Farrowing Focus

Horton and Hawk agree it is the “little things” that have nudged them into the top-end ranking in the SMS database.

Little things, such as a farrowing crate that is 6 in. longer (7½ ft.) and wider (5½ ft.) to give sows and pigs a little more room. “With more length and width, it is more comfortable for the sow to get up and lie down and have easy access to water and feed,” Friedel notes. The extra 6 in. of width gives pigs more space to get away from the sow — a bigger factor when litters contain 13-14 pigs.

Crates are equipped with floating lay-down bars that encourage the sow to lower her body slowly against the crate side rather than just plopping down. “It takes some of those girls three minutes to lie down; I’ve timed them,” Horton says. “We have some sows that have never lain on a pig and they’re on their fifth litter. It’s amazing.”

Also unique to both farms is their use of two creep-area mats — one lying on top of the wire-mesh floors, the other fastened to the underside of the floors. While it is common for producers to raise and lower a heat lamp to adjust the warmth and comfort level for the pigs, these farms use a heat sensor gun to set the height for 95° at the center of the mat, and the standard, 100-watt lamps remain there. When the farrowing staff notices pigs are moving away from the crate divider panel — subsequently moving them closer to the sow — the top mat is pulled.

“The mat on the underside of the decking prevents drafts and still provides a warm zone. By just reducing the heat of the top mat, the pigs will move back toward the divider and away from the sow,” Friedel explains.

Nearly three years ago, both farms decided to go to 24/7 farrowing attendants. At first, they focused on preventing preweaning mortalities, but weaning averages didn’t improve markedly. So they changed their focus to reducing stillborns, and weaning numbers improved. Stillborns dropped to 2.9% and 3.4% at Prairie Dog Hill and Pigeon Ranch, respectively.

The farms schedule the farrowing attendant shifts a little differently, but both have overlapping shifts to make sure someone is in a farrowing room at all times — even during lunch breaks.

Jose Hernandez, the farrowing lead at Prairie Dog Hill, says the details of each sow’s farrowing are recorded on a sow card — time of first pig, time between pigs, whether oxytocin was administered, and when a sow is “sleeved.”

Generally, once a sow begins farrowing, they do not intervene for the first two hours. If two hours pass without a birth, they will manually check for pigs in the birth canal. Thereafter, 30 minutes or less between pigs is acceptable.

If a sow has a stillborn pig and appears to be struggling, the attendant will sleeve her, Hernandez says. As a general rule, oxytocin is not administered until near the end of farrowing.

“The only time we use oxytocin is if she stops having contractions or if she’s a late-parity sow and she’s not pushing,” Horton explains. “But before we give oxytocin, we get the sow up and walk her around — that works almost as well as oxytocin.”

Farrowing attendants constantly monitor sows and piglets. If a small pig is born into a litter of bigger pigs, he is immediately moved to a litter of pigs of similar size. Hernandez says this accomplishes two things — moving him ensures he will be able to compete and nurse and the early move is better than waiting 2-3 days because pigs take “teat ownership” within the first couple of days. Moving them later may disrupt the pecking order for teats, and that not only bothers the sow, it also takes a while for pigs to select another teat, he explains.

“We don’t say that a pig has to get colostrum from its mother; what is important is that it gets colostrom from ‘a mom,’” Friedel says. The goal is to ensure each pig gets 100 grams (3.3 ounces) of colostrum the first day.

Split suckling is also standard procedure. The first 6-7 pigs are allowed to nurse and then are placed in a tub to allow the second half of the litter to nurse. This is done twice.

“Because we put a lot of pigs on a sow, there are lots of pigs that get pushed away,” Hernandez explains. “The person who does the split-suckling checks every pig so he knows which ones have full bellies. Those that have eaten are placed in the box and the rest are allowed to nurse for one hour.” On the second day, he places the biggest, fullest pigs in a box and leaves the others to nurse for two hours. The plastic tubs are washed and disinfected between litters.

Normally, there are two attendants in a room during the peak farrowing period. Night shift attendants are paid 50¢/hour more than the day shift. The key is finding people who are working for more than a paycheck, Friedel explains. “If you get a system where people understand how important it is, that it saves pigs, and that it makes everyone in the system more successful in the jobs they are doing, then you won’t have many problems. You might have to be a little flexible to get the people you want working in the farrowing rooms,” he adds.

Litter Processing

At Prairie Dog Hill, needle teeth are clipped when all transfers are complete. Teeth are not clipped at Pigeon Ranch.

Hernandez and his farrowing crew clip teeth because they feel the teeth irritate the sow, causing her to get up and lie down, thus increasing the risk of pigs getting laid on. The key to teeth clipping is using a sharp clippers and clipping at the proper angle, he says. Teeth clippers are washed and disinfected every day.

Iron shots are given, all pigs are tattooed and males are castrated at 6 days of age — late by industry standards. “That’s when the pigs are more ready for it,” Horton explains. “The testicle area is more developed after 5 days of age and you are apt to get less scrotal ruptures.”

Friedel agrees. “Pigs have more vigor at 6 days old and that makes processing less stressful.”

Hernandez is a firm believer in walking every farrowing room, getting the sows and pigs up every day for the first six days after farrowing. “We check them for lameness, injuries or other problems and treat them right away,” he says.

Farrowing room checks are less intense at Pigeon Ranch, where the staff makes sure every sow gets up in the morning. Pigs are visually checked but not rousted up every day.

They do agree on the importance of checking sows’ temperatures, however. Hernandez’ staff checks every sow 2-3 times a day, depending on when she farrowed and whether she is showing signs of not feeling well. Sows that farrowed in the late afternoon are checked at 7 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. “We want to find them at the first sign of a high temperature,” he says. At Pigeon Ranch, temperatures are taken on sows that don’t eat, usually twice a day.

Weaning Day

Sows and litters are weaned three times a week at Prairie Dog Hill, while Pigeon Ranch weans daily. Weaning schedules are driven by facility and transport needs, not a difference in philosophies. The 52-week weaning age averages were 20.6 days at Pigeon Ranch and 21.3 days at Prairie Dog Hill, with weights averaging 14 and 14.5 lb., respectively.

Horton feels the common practice by some producers of turning off feed lines on sows the day before weaning is a mistake. “Some of those sows are not being fed for 12 hours,” he reminds. “It’s amazing what some of those girls can eat the last few days before weaning. We’ve got some eating 32 to 36 lb., so feeding just 4-6 lb. in the breeding-gestation barn will affect her cycling and conception,” he adds.

Prairie Dog Hill weans 260 sows/week and culls about 30 at weaning. Pigeon Ranch weans 270 sows/week and customarily culls about 40.