Pork producers need to improve management skills to meet animal welfare needs and extend sow longevity.

The nagging 10-15% sow mortality problem in U.S. breeding herds can be fixed by sow care, says swine veterinarian Tim Loula.

“The system for managing sows is not broken, we've simply gotten sloppy,” he stresses.

Producers should set a daily barn routine and stick to it. Loula says follow these four steps:

Step 1: Sow Observation

This needs to be practiced daily, at different times of the day, by everyone who works in the sow barns, explains Loula, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, MN.

Don't just rely on the breeding manager to be responsible for managing sow care. If left up to one person in a large operation, sows will finish eating and lie back down long before the manager has a chance to observe the whole group, he points out.

The best time to pay particular attention is during the morning feeding. While sows eat, walk behind to check for discharges, lameness, off feed, constipation or loose bowels, poor condition, rough hair coat, pale skin color, wounds or sores. Watch for balance problems, mastitis, signs of retained pigs, prolapses and listen for coughs, he says.

Walk the sow barns differently each day and rotate assignments among employees to help spot problems.

Step 2: Diagnosis

Once you've found a problem, the next step is to make a diagnosis.

Diagnosis requires careful attention. “Every sow should be gotten up gently and observed every day,” he stresses. Make sure the whole body is observed, walk as necessary and take body temperature.

Likewise, don't blame the equipment or the flooring for poor performance until you've looked at every sow, every day, declares Loula.

“It's not often sows get debilitated overnight. Careful observation will often indicate what's going on before things get so bad the sow needs to be destroyed,” he states.

We typically look at every nursery pig each day. If they are gaunt or sick, treat them or transfer them to the sick pen. “We are not following that same level of management in our sow barns. Sows are much more valuable than a little nursery pig,” Loula reminds.

Step 3: Prognosis

If you find a sick or injured sow, assess the likely outcome for this animal. Will she respond to treatment? If she's not likely to improve, decide if she can make it onto the cull truck and whether short-term medication would be appropriate and economically feasible. If not, make plans to humanely destroy her immediately.

Step 4: Treatment

Set a time to go back to treat compromised sows. Bring a variety of treatment options, plus items to mark sows and record treatments.

The best medicine for lame sows may be to put them in a pen to provide more space and comfort. Sometimes topical treatments, trimming toes or putting a mat under them can help. Sick or thin sows can benefit from being placed on a self-feeder.

Be careful what you treat sick sows with. If she's a candidate for culling, avoid drugs with long withdrawals or you may have to keep her 2-4 weeks, he cautions.

Loula says part of the problem with treating large numbers of sows is the staff charges in and starts giving shots and ends up injuring sows legs. “We've got to have people who take their time,” stresses Loula.

In the end, excessive sow mortality carries a high cost. You don't just lose the older animals, he says. High mortalities ruin parity distribution, add rendering and labor costs, and the potential loss in pigs when bred sows go down.

Some producers add more sows to make production targets. Others don't add sows and lose efficiency because barns aren't full.

Loula's approach may be easier and more cost-effective: take care of the sows you have and they will take care of you.