The training video program emanating from the large flat-screen television in the break room at Fair Creek, LLP builds a strong case for improvements in pig care:

“Fifty percent of the piglet death loss occurs during the first 24 hours of life, and 65% of it happens before the piglets are 2 days old,” warns the narrator in the educational report, one of many on pork production and related issues that the 18-member staff at the Bagley, IA, 5,800-sow, breed-to-wean operation will be required to listen to during weekly training sessions.

Dave Novak smiles at the pronouncements on the importance of day-one pig care, and the success at the farm he manages after 19 months on the job.

“This staff has been through intense training, and now they’ve begun to see the results of the hard work. We are now achieving a 13% preweaning mortality, shipping 2,650 weaned pigs a week based on a born-live average of 12 pigs/litter, and a weaning average over 10 pigs/litter weighing an average of 13.5 lb. at 20 days of age,” he states.

Novak is the first to realize that as sow productivity continues to climb, it will become harder to maintain those numbers on pigs saved. The farm currently is hitting 25 pigs/mated female/year (p/mf/y), and continues to improve each month, says sow farm supervisor Brad Schimmer.

Fair Creek boasts herd conception rates of 93-94%, farrowing rates of 90%, and average non-productive sow days run below 30, Schimmer adds.

When Novak became farm manager in December 2008, the breeding staff was ensuring enough sow pregnancies to make farrowing targets, but below-average piglet liveability rates were preventing the farm from achieving pigs shipped expectations.

Focus on Farrowing

In order for the farm to start achieving pigs shipped targets, farm staff attention turned to improving day-one piglet care. “The most important thing is to have the employees buy into it, understanding how critical it is,” Novak remarks.
“I didn’t completely buy into it when we first started focusing on day-one pig care, but it really works when combined with providing the proper environment so piglets aren’t easily chilled.”

At Fair Creek, once sows start to farrow, hot boxes, or “warming tubs” as they are sometimes called at the farm, are dropped into place adjacent to the farrowing crates. Heat lamps are positioned, one over the pig area of the crate and one above the hot box.

Instead of wood shavings or special drying powders, lactation feed waste cleaned from the sow bowls is sprinkled onto piglets in hot boxes to absorb moisture. After hot boxing is completed, the feed left over in hot boxes is recycled by being fed to subsequent sows due to farrow as a means of feedback to provide immunity to existing pathogens.

“Once the pigs have all been hot boxed, all dried off and placed back on the sow, we come in and split-suckle those pigs (twice in the first day), taking the biggest half of the pigs, putting them back in the box, and for an hour and a half we let the smaller pigs nurse, because we want to make sure they get a good dose of colostrum,” Novak explains.

That task is not always as easy as it sounds, he says. When there are 80-90 sows due to farrow in one day, handling that task efficiently can challenge piglet care.

That’s when Novak will put two staff members in a room, with one following up on the other to ensure all procedures have been completed in a timely fashion.

“This farm has historically run a high mortality rate in farrowing (preweaning mortality), but as we continue to turn the breeding herd over and get better teat capacity (moving to PIC Line 42 females), we expect to stabilize preweaning mortality,” Novak says.

The results of breeding and farrowing improvements have been striking. The recent dip to 13% preweaning mortality and achieving 25 p/mf/y is the best productivity in the five-year history of the farm, Schimmer comments.

With breeding success, litter size goes up, and if preweaning mortality can just be kept at 13%, that means the single-site operation can’t go wrong as it continues to save more pigs, Novak and Schimmer agree.

Six Keys to Piglet Survivability

Suidae Health and Production (SHP) production manager Jeff Kayser says the veterinary clinic made day-one pig care the focus for 2010 because a number of managed farms in the 32,000-sow client base had been struggling with high preweaning mortality rates and stillborn rates.

Five years ago, standard operating procedures were developed and placed into binders. But those binders mostly collected dust on shelves, so customized audio-visual training software tools were developed for farms in both English and Spanish “to bring the material to life,” he says.

“Piglet livability is probably always an opportunity for any farm. A few years ago, 10.5 liveborn pigs was average. Now we see over half of our system with a liveborn average above 12,” Kayser says.

So as the hog industry emerged from the economic crisis of the last few years looking for ways to improve hog farm returns, “we identified one of the biggest ways that we can help a farm is to keep more pigs alive,” he adds.

It starts with making sure basic breeding and farrowing procedures are being adhered to, says Amber Stricker, DVM, at SHP. “When going over management and health protocols with farms that are struggling in productivity, it is not surprising to find discrepancies in what everyone thinks is getting done on their farm vs. what actually is happening, even by people who are pretty experienced. Correcting those discrepancies often is the solution to their productivity issues,” she adds.

Once the basics are set, improving pig livability is also about pointing out to clients that just a 1% improvement in preweaning mortality can return many thousands of dollars in added revenue, Kayser says.

SHP emphasizes six keys to help clients achieve high piglet survival rates:

  • Herd health. “Everything starts with health,” Kayser emphasizes. “PRRS and flu issues affected some sow herds last winter, but you must always focus on sow care and piglet survival,” he says.
  • Proper sow and piglet environment. “Everybody thinks about the environment during the coldest time of the year, but you’ve got as many opportunities in the other seasons to make sure you’ve set the right temperature for the piglets and the sow,” he explains.
  • Day-one pig care. First, observe and assist sows when farrowing, sleeving sows and providing products like calcium and oxytocin as needed, assuring good crate sanitation, including removing the afterbirth, and documenting the actions taken. “If you don’t record what you are doing, you can’t communicate to others what has been done to the sow,” he says.

On the piglet side, the job is observing the piglets, helping them to get warm and dry by putting them in hot boxes, assisting piglets having a hard time finding access to a teat, or helping them avoid getting chilled in the crate.

“One of the things that often comes up here is that day-one piglet care sounds like a lot to do, and employees think they are so busy right then that they do not have time to hot box or split suckle newborn litters. But as the industry evolves and continues to set the bar higher to become more efficient, and the margins become tighter, we need to figure out what is going to give us the best returns for our efforts — and it is clear that keeping more pigs alive is one of them,” Kayser stresses.

“If you provide safety, warmth and colostrum to that pig in the first 24 hours of life, you are going to actually have less work at the end of the day,” Stricker asserts.

Working with farm staff to make sure they have buy-in and understand the economic impact of saving more piglets on farm profitability has helped improve compliance on day-one pig care protocols, Stricker adds.

SHP training programs have been an invaluable resource in helping managed farms in our system learn to work smarter, not harder, in achieving day-one pig care goals, Kayser says.

Farm staffs perform the best when they understand day-one pig care is an evolution. Do the basics of providing feed and water to sows, proper placement of heat lamps and attending farrowings every 20-30 minutes, Kayser says. Then focus on more detailed tasks such as hot boxing to warm piglets and split suckling newborn litters to ensure adequate colostrum intake.

As at Fair Creek, Kayser believes the best colostrum management is to simply leave the smallest pigs born later in the litter on the sow to nurse for 90-120 minutes and place the bigger pigs in the warming tubs. Follow this procedure twice a day.

Sorting is minimized. “We try to leave pigs home with Mom. If she has 12 functional teats, and if she has 12 piglets, we don’t move a pig,” he notes. “Never move more pigs than you have to.”

  • Timely identification and treatment of sick sows and piglets. See every sow and piglet during morning farrowing-room walks. Record the room, crate and necessary treatment activity in your pocket notebook as you walk the barn, Kayser advises. Then when you come back and treat the sows or piglets, mark the treatment on the sow card as well as the farrowing barn treatment register.
  • Proper piglet processing techniques. Target three days of age to process pigs to enable them to better handle the stress of tattooing, castration and tail docking. Ensure processing equipment is in good condition and sterilized between piglets. Go slow during castration, especially if rupture problems are prevalent.
  • Fall-behind piglet management. Within the constraints of the farm’s health protocol, pull pigs that are falling behind into a nurse litter in the room they were born in. Bump wean sows or pigs as needed to make space for them. Less attention is placed on fall-behinds in the SHP system until a farm gets day-one pig care perfected. It’s better to focus efforts on where 65% of pig livability concerns fall, usually in the first day or two of a pig’s life, Kayser suggests.

“It’s important to have an absolute commitment to piglet survivability, and we want clients to focus on those six key areas,” he says.

“SHP has shown a 4-5% improvement on piglet livability rates on client farms since we started day-one pig care focus the first of the year,” Stricker adds.

Hiring Right Advances Farm Productivity

Improving farm productivity and preweaning mortality won’t happen by just hiring more people, states Jeff Kayser, production manager for hog farms managed by Suidae Health and Production (SHP), Algona, IA.

That job gets done by changing your focus to proper sow and pig care, he says. Incremental improvements in farms managed by SHP show that message is getting through as staffs strive to boost profits in these times of tight margins.

The staff at Fair Creek, LLP, at Bagley, IA, has a strong focus on sow and pig care, but the results were not achieved by adding extra employees or filling staff vacancies with the first individual who applied for a job, says unit manager Dave Novak.

All job applicants for SHP-managed farms go through an extensive interview and selection process before being offered a position. Background checks, reference checks and work history verification are done on all candidates.
“We look for individuals who have a genuine interest in livestock production and have personalities that match those of current farm staff,” Kayser explains. “Harmony is a key ingredient in ensuring that employees work together effectively.”

Plus, in these days of growing numbers of Hispanic employees, SHP focuses on hiring bilingual individuals who can communicate well with both English- and Spanish-speaking employees.

“In the SHP system, our belief is that it is much better to take the time to hire the right individual than it is to rush to fill an open position,” Kayser says.

Fair Creek unit manager Dave Novak agrees, saying that “we realize that we may have to work an extra 20-30 minutes a day sometimes during staff vacancies, but would rather do that than make a rushed or bad hiring decision.”