After significant investments in time, labor and feed in the breeding-gestation barn, pork producers reap the fruits of their labor in the farrowing house. There are few areas in a pork production system that demonstrate the value of stockmanship skills as well as the farrowing process.

Further, management of the newly farrowed sow can have subsequent impacts on the level of her future productivity.

Likewise, management of the newborn piglets can have a dramatic impact on their performance throughout the nursery and grow-finish phases.

Certainly, there are many factors contributing to the successes and failures in the farrowing room and, subsequently, weaning large litters with heavy weaning weights.

Many of the factors center on the stockmanship skills exhibited by the workers in the farrowing room. Their skills in attending the sows at farrowing, induced farrowing and many other management factors will be documented when sows and litters are weaned.

A review of some key performance indicators (KPIs) provides a closer look at the impact of various farrowing room management techniques on overall productivity. The KPIs are drawn from the near-million-sow database of Swine Management Services (SMS), Inc., Fremont, NE.

Compare Best to the Rest

To gain perspective, we will first take a look at several KPIs from the top 10% and the top 25% of herds for a 12-month period and compare them to the average productivity in the database. Data is sorted by pigs weaned/mated female/year (PW/MF/Y).

Table 1 summarizes data for more than 450 herds in the SMS system. You will notice that the top 10% of herds weaned over 27 PW/MF/Y, while the top 25% of herds averaged over 26 pigs weaned. The average for all herds in the SMS database is 23.74 PW/MF/Y.

This trait, highlighted in Table 1, pigs weaned/mated female/year (PW/MF/Y) — is a good KPI that directly reflects the activities that preceded the weaning event, including the breeding and farrowing areas.

Likewise, farrowing rate follows the same trend noted with PW/MF/Y. The top 10% and 25% of herds had farrowing rates of 88.3% and 87.6%, respectively, while all herds in the database averaged 83.9% for farrowing rate during the most recent 12-month period.

Other KPIs, such as total pigs born and pigs born alive, follow similar trends (Table 1). And traits such as average or percentage of stillborn and mummified pigs are reflective of farrowing room management and herd health. In both cases, the data reflects very acceptable levels.

Goal is More Full-Value Pigs

Once the piglets are born alive, the key is to produce a pig that captures full value at the next step in the production phase. Piglet survival is a good measure of this capability. As Table 1 shows, the top 10% and top 25% of producers ranked on PW/MF/Y attained piglet survival values of 83.5% and 82.6%, respectively. This compares to a piglet survival value of 80.7% when all farms in the database were averaged.

There are many contributors to success in the farrowing crate. Inducing sows to farrow is one practice believed to improve worker efficiency, as it improves the odds that a stockperson will be present as sows farrow. Furthermore, induced farrowing reduces the variation in piglet age.

Induced farrowing is accomplished by giving sows an injection of either cloprostenol or lutalyse. Farrowing usually occurs 8 to 24 hours later, so with a little planning, most sows will farrow during a normal work day.

Caution should be exercised when inducing farrowing in sows. Sows should be at least 112 days into gestation before using an induced farrowing program. Therefore, it is critical to know every sow's exact breeding date, plus the average gestation length in the herd. Failure to know either could create a greater chance of stillbirths.

Induced Farrowing Pros, Cons

The SMS database was separated into those herds that utilize induced farrowing from those herds that indicated they don't use the induced farrowing procedures. These values are summarized in Table 2.

The induced farrowing group includes those who routinely use the management practice on 75% of sows or more. The data were again sorted into three groups — top 10%, top 25% and average — using PW/MF/Y for the ranking.

The average gestation length in the induced group was approximately one day shorter when compared to the non-induced group.

One of the key advantages of induced farrowings is the opportunity to reduce the incidence of stillborn piglets and improve the survival rate of those born alive. The data in Table 2 supports this role.

The average number of stillborns is reduced by nearly 0.10 piglets/litter across the average of all herds reporting they induce farrowing, compared to the herds that do not. Because the top 10% and top 25% of farms in the non-induced farrowing group have a greater number of total born and born alive piglets, they outperform those using the induced farrowing practice when PW/MF/Y is used as the key performance indicator.

The bottom line is that producers using the induced farrowing practice have approximately 0.5% more pigs born alive, and therefore have a comparable margin when piglet survival is recorded.

Additionally, the average weaning age is more consistent across all three induced-farrowing groups, approximately 19.5 days of age, compared to the non-induced groups that averaged 18.1 days of age for all farms. But the top 10% and top 25% of farms averaged 23.6 and 20.3 days of age, respectively.

Farrowing Supervision

Another practice gaining some favor in the pork industry is extending the working day to ensure a stockperson is present during farrowing.

SMS identified a group of producers who practice extended hours, defined as providing at least 12 hours of attendance in farrowing.

Table 3 summarizes and compares the “extended hours” farms to the average of all farms in Table 1.

The farrowing rate of sows from producers using the extended farrowing hours was 2.4% higher when compared to the average of all producers (Table 3).

The percentage of pigs born alive relative to the total number of pigs born was from 0.6 to 1% greater for the average to the top 10% of producers practicing extended worker hours when compared to all producers in the database. On average, this translated into 1.1% greater piglet survival when compared to the average of all herds (81.8% for herds with extended hours vs. 80.7% survival across all herds).

However, this did not translate into more pigs weaned per litter as the values for number of pigs weaned per sow farrowed were nearly identical for producers using extended hours compared to all farms (Table 3), while PW/MF/Y was over 1.5 pigs greater for those using the extended hours practice when compared to all herds. This advantage was largely attained by a higher farrowing rate from the extended-hours group.

Some Farrowing Practices Pay

From this data set, it is clear that some practices can improve farrowing room performance. Pork producers should evaluate all practices, such as extended farrowing hours and induced farrowing, to determine whether they provide the level of performance improvement necessary to justify the additional expense associated with them.

The data does not show, however, the variation in performance that some farms realize, while others fail to experience a similar advantage.

Checklist of Farrowing Room Practices

The three key stockmanship skills needed for success in the farrowing room include:

  1. The stockperson needs great observational skills to identify both normal and abnormal occurrences in the farrowing crate.

  2. Having identified an abnormal event, the stockperson must know what to do — even if the intervention is as simple as asking a more experienced person or supervisor what to do about a situation.

  3. The stockperson needs to have an action attitude so the intervention can be successfully completed.

To accurately identify sick or injured sows and piglets in the farrowing house, ask the following questions:

  1. Did you induce farrowing? If so, was the sow at 112 days of gestation or greater?

  2. Once farrowing has begun, how long has it been since the last pig was born?

    If no piglet has been born in the last 40 minutes, and there is no placenta being expelled, the stockperson should consider intervening.

  3. If all piglets are dry and the stockperson is reasonably sure the sow is not done farrowing, should he/she consider intervening?

Yes. Intervention can start with the administration of oxytocin and/or manual assistance with the labor process, depending on the situation. For example, the stockperson may suspect that a large piglet is stuck in the birth canal.

A post-farrowing observation checklist should include:

  1. Has the sow gotten up to drink and eat after farrowing?

  2. Is the sow lying on her side or belly?

    A sow lying on her belly may indicate a case of mastitis.

  3. Is the temperature of the farrowing room conducive for sow performance (15-18°C or 60-65°F)?

    A temperature in this range helps ensure that sows are cool enough to eat well, which translates to adequate feed intake, a key ingredient for good milk production and piglet weaning weights.

  4. Are piglets warm, dry and draft free?

    Zone heating should be provided for the piglets (29-35°C or 85-95°F). This heating zone is necessary to prevent chilling and encourages piglets to lie near the heat source and away from the sow to prevent crushing. Avoiding piglet chilling will also help the piglet resist pathogens, particularly those causing scours.

  5. Are the piglets dry?

    Drip cooling is often used on sows in hot weather in an attempt to keep them comfortable and near temperatures that are conducive to greater sow feed intake.

    However, excess water will run off sows and onto piglets or the flooring around them. If the piglets become wet, they are more susceptible to diseases, chilling and crushing.

  6. Have all of the piglets obtained adequate colostrum within 12 hours after birth?

    Crossfostering should occur after piglets have had adequate time to obtain colostrum from their birth dam. Crossfostering helps improve the odds for the weaker pigs in the litter.

  7. Do you notice any foul odors upon entering the farrowing room or around specific farrowing stalls?

    Odors and wet, runny and discolored diarrhea call for immediate attention by a stockperson. Consult your veterinarian.

  8. What is the incidence of scrotal hernias, umbilical hernias, splay-legged piglets and other abnormalities?

Some traits, like scrotal hernias, have a genetic cause and should be identified and treated to increase the number of full-value pigs at weaning and at marketing.

Other traits like umbilical hernias have an environmental predisposition and can be addressed by improved stockmanship. Still other traits, such as splay-legged piglets, are costly to treat and the benefit of treatment should be evaluated.

Processing piglets should occur around 3 days of age. This could include castration of males, administering iron shots, clipping needle teeth and tails (optional), identification (ear notch, tattoo, etc.), and administering antibiotics as needed (consult your veterinarian).