Take the quiz below to rate your score for managing sow mortality.

High sow mortality has been and continues to be a significant problem within our industry. It is troublesome enough to catch the attention of the public eye.

In March 2009, HBO television began showing the documentary “Death on a Factory Farm.” The film originated with the Humane Farming Association (HFA). Care of cull sows and sow euthanasia were two highlighted issues.

The National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council recently launched their “We Care” program demonstrating producer responsibility and accountability for maintaining ethical principles and animal well-being practices. Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) Plus and Transport Quality Assurance programs are already in place. As a certified PQA Plus advisor, I have performed many site assessments.

Jim Collins' best-selling book Good To Great describes how some companies did well by keeping with the status quo, while others soared to the top of their fields by going the extra mile.

That's also true of sow care. I see farms going the extra mile to ensure good production, and it's no coincidence that their sow mortality rates are less than 7% vs. over 10%.

To see where you stand, take this multiple-choice quiz. Be brutally honest when selecting an answer:

  1. A 275-lb. potential replacement gilt has marginal leg conformation. You should:

    a. Tag the gilt into the herd, breed her if she comes into heat and cull only if necessary, because you already have the genetic investment and need to try to get at least a couple of litters to recoup your investment.

    b. Wait until the gilt weighs 300 lb. and is eligible to breed. That way you can reassess her conformation and gilt pool numbers to make a more informed decision.

    c. Market the gilt now while you can still get full market value, because you know your chances of keeping her in the herd past two parities are slim and you don't want that type of animal in your genetic pool.

  2. A lactating sow is developing a shoulder sore on her 16th day of lactation. You should:

    a. Pour extra feed to the sow for the next five days, because you are weaning pigs at 21 days and are almost there. Treat the shoulder sore during gestation.

    b. Split-wean two or three pigs from the sow to reduce lactation pressure and get to weaning day.

    c. Wean pigs early or put on a nurse sow for the last five days of lactation, but wean the sow to prevent the shoulder sore from becoming severe.

  3. A long-term employee has been very loyal and dependable. He gets a great deal of work done in a day, but he's a little rough on the sows when loading them into farrowing. Today, he caused a heavily pregnant gilt to jump into another farrowing crate during loading and she injured herself. You should:

    a. Do nothing, because you have already talked to him about taking more time to load sows and some gilts are just crazy.

    b. Fire the guy because this is blatant abuse and he has already been warned.

    c. Sit down with the employee, review your animal handling policies and try to get input as to how you can prevent this from happening again.

  4. A gestating sow is slow to get up in her crate at feeding time. Her temperature is normal, and although the problem seems to be in her front leg, you don't see any specific injury. You should:

    a. Record her ID number and see how she does over the weekend.

    b. Give her a shot of penicillin and recheck her tomorrow.

    c. Write down her ID, treat the lameness according to the treatment protocol outlined by your veterinarian, and move her into a pen where she can be observed and get the treatment needed early on.

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In accordance with PQA Plus standards, your answer should be “c” to every question. Even though the answer is sometimes obvious when it is spelled out, it's not that simple to apply in everyday production. Labor is short, holidays wreak havoc with our schedules, profits are low and family obligations take priority.


Finally, if HFA and HBO come to your farm to film a documentary, the best-case scenario would be if they got bored and went home. We must get to the point where we are completely comfortable allowing any meat-eating consumer off the street into our facilities and their response would be, “Oh, that's nice.”

If your sows are ready for that kind of transparency, then I'm guessing that your sow mortality is already under control. If not, what are you waiting for?