Farms with a strong focus on setting pigs up to succeed can earn dividends, both in more pigs produced and more quality pigs finished.

To reach that success, it takes engaged employees who have been trained in the proper concepts and who understand what it takes to carry them out in a consistent fashion, says Sarah Probst Miller, DVM, Carthage (IL) Veterinary Service (CVS), who maintains a veterinary consulting office at Neoga, IL.

“I see a lot of farms where employees might be going through the motions, but unless they are engaged and understand what they are doing and can multitask,” working in the demanding farrowing rooms may not be the right place for them.

CVS promotes a “critical care” program that encompasses the importance of both sow and pig care in its Training Toolboxes software programs used to guide and educate farrowing room managers, according to Miller.

Three goals are pursued: getting pigs off to the best start, reducing mortalities and ultimately reducing variation, she says.

Goal One: Preventing Fallouts

Research has shown that getting pigs off to the best start begins with reducing the number of fallouts by placing the right number of pigs on the sow. “We want to practice minimal, but smart movement of pigs after they are born. This task is best initiated before the sows even farrow.

“So one thing we want employees to do, even as they load sows into the farrowing crate, is to count the number of functional teats on the sow and write that number on the sow card,” Miller explains.

During the critical first 24 hours of life, sows and pigs must be closely scrutinized. The number of pigs farrowed must be compared to the number of functional teats a sow has. “We want to utilize each functional teat — without implementing an undue amount of pig movement,” she cautions. “Doing this right prevents fallouts.”

Fallouts are small pigs that vary in size and will likely remain behind in growth their entire lives.

“If these pigs are in the group that makes it to market, they are hitting the lower end of the matrix and are not providing full value,” she explains. “We would predict that these pigs would be more likely to have health problems, perhaps because they didn't get enough colostrum or possibly (experienced) iron leakback or because they didn't have a functional teat,” she adds.

“Making sure pigs have functional teats needs to happen at the right time. If you add a pig to a litter too far past farrowing, a teat may or may not be stimulated to produce milk. If we move a pig too soon, it could be possible that you've moved a pig that didn't receive that all-important colostrum,” Miller emphasizes. “This could be a death sentence.”

Baby pigs naturally select a teat based on their size — the big, dominant piglets typically secure the up-front positions and smaller pigs are often destined to get the back teats. That aligns with the natural order of milk flow — front teats usually provide the most milk and rear teats typically supply the least.

“This lineup is okay and this natural variation in pig size is okay, too, as long as pigs have functional teats. Often a sow may have extra functional teats or not enough functional teats and this is where our opportunity to prevent fallouts lies,” Miller says.

Occupying all those functional teats must be done within 24-48 hours of farrowing in order to keep teats functioning at optimal levels, she adds. If not nursed within 24-48 hours, a teat will start to shut down.

Miller says one farm study showed that getting the right amount of pigs on the sows in the first 24 hours, based on functional teat count, along with proper pig care, reduced the amount of fallout pigs at weaning from 15% to 4-5%.

Goal Two: Warming/Drying, Colostrum

Before pigs can be moved to a new sow to nurse, several key events must take place, Miller points out.

First, it is beneficial for pigs to be warmed and dried immediately after birth, using a towel or double heat lamps. “When the baby pig is born, its temperature is going to be the same as the sow's, around 103-104°F. If we allow that pig to dry itself off, there will be a lot of evaporative cooling, and the temperature of the pig can drop drastically down to 96-98°F. That sounds warm, but it will cause that pig to shiver and shake — a high-energy activity,” she says.

Next Page: Goal Three: Runt Pig Litters

Previous Page: Goal One: Preventing Fallouts

Another warming strategy commonly recommended by CVS is to place an 18-gal. plastic tub underneath the heat lamp, which is referred to as a “survivability box.” Place up to an inch of feed in the bottom so the surface is not slippery. “Pop a pig in the box and in no more than five minutes, the pig is nice and dry, pink and ready to nurse the sow,” Miller says. Usually 1-3 pigs are placed in the box at a time.

A common scenario for just-farrowed litters would be a sow with 10 pigs but 13 functional teats that could accommodate three more pigs. Miller reminds that prior to moving any pigs to other sows, the piglets must absorb their first colostrum. “To set pigs up to accept the challenge of movement, we need to get colostrum in their belly,” she says.

Reducing variation in litters by ensuring consumption of colostrum can be highly successful through use of a management technique called split suckling. This technique can reduce the number of pigs under 8 lb. at weaning by 50%, according to research done by Tara Donovan, DVM, in 2001.

To fulfill split suckling, after a litter of pigs is farrowed, take the first born or biggest 4-5 piglets off the front teats and place them in the survival box, leaving the smaller half of the litter to nurse without competition. Leave these smaller pigs on the sow for about 30-60 minutes or until their bellies appear full of colostrum, Miller instructs.

“Often when they are full, the pigs go to sleep, just like we do after Thanksgiving dinner. This is a good sign they've had enough. Do not leave pigs in the box away from the sow for more than 1½-2 hours. This is too long without a meal for these young pigs,” she warns.

Miller says research shows the biggest pigs consume adequate colostrum within eight hours, whereas it can take up to 24 hours of nursing before the smallest pigs have achieved proper levels.

Adequate consumption of colostrum is critical to pig survival. Because colostrum is packed with valuable antibody proteins, it is important that all pigs in a litter have time to consume and absorb enough colostrum.

It's important that the proper person be designated “midwife” to follow farrowing sows and ensure all pigs have enough colostrum prior to doing some subtle movement to put the right number of pigs on sows according to functional teats.

“I believe in doing some early fostering, but I don't call it crossfostering, because I think that term is associated with continuous fostering, and we want this process to be smart, small and really focused on getting pigs to functional teats with minimal movement,” Miller emphasizes.

In contrast, continuous crossfostering (by creating one-for-one pig switches throughout lactation) is an example of too much intervention that reduces variation, reduces the total amount of pork out the door and creates a uniform group of smaller pigs.

Goal Three: Runt Pig Litters

There is one group of pigs that should be selected to make a runt pig litter — the very smallest pigs in the room. Pull those pigs off sows and place them on a Parity 2 or 3 sow that has smaller teats that are aligned better to raise those pigs, Miller says.

Gilts shouldn't be used to nurse runt pigs because these runts don't nurse hard enough, and gilts have a higher risk of shutting down milk production on their first litter, she warns. It's better to select a second- or third-parity sow with small teats to serve as a nurse sow.

“One thing we do with runt litters is put more pigs on that sow than we would normally. By putting 15-16 pigs on that sow, we can truly maximize her functional teats. We do expect more of these pigs to die due to weakness or underdevelopment. But one thing that helps is to provide supplemental milk to help these pigs out the first two days. Often if runt pigs have a chance to drink some milk in a pan, they then have enough energy to latch on and nurse better.

“I've seen some caregivers who are just phenomenal at raising these small pigs, and when done correctly, you have a hard time telling those pigs from the rest of the weaned group,” Miller attests.

But keep a close eye on sows raising these runt litters because they are more likely to get mastitis if they don't get nursed out every day. Also, be sure to check all sows in the farrowing room for early signs of this milking malady. If sows' eyes look glassy, or they are lying on their belly in the stall and their teats are hot, it's time to treat the infection and the pain the sow is experiencing,” Miller says.

Pig Processing

“Research disagrees on the best time to process pigs, but I typically recommend that Day 0 or Day 1 be a time that pigs are left undisturbed.

“When we do process, there are things that occur that have the potential to create disease, which can increase variation if we are not careful,” Miller cautions. Disinfect tools between litter treatments. Change needles frequently.

Giving iron shots is one of the most important newborn pig treatments. Studies show piglets need at least 200 mg. of iron in the first three days of life. “You skip giving a pig iron and you have created a pig that is going to be smaller throughout the rest of its life,” she declares.

To prevent iron leakback, which could cause the pig to be iron deficient, try this technique: stretch the pig's neck a little, give the iron shot in the neck and release the neck as you pull the needle out. “When you release the skin, the hole in the skin and the hole in the muscle from the iron shot don't quite line up, creating a cap over the hole where the iron went in, thus holding the iron in,” Miller says.

Use a sharp blade for castration. To repair scrotal ruptures, consider a nonsurgical taping method that has a very high rate of success. The method was featured in National Hog Farmer (“Less Invasive Rupture Repair,” Jan. 15, 2006, pages 20, 21).

Whether it is spotting a pig with iron leakback or a pale pig, intervention must be timely. “We need to look at every litter, every day, and if there is a pig that needs to be treated, treat it and treat it appropriately,” she says.

Farm Fallout Problems

One of the biggest problems is that farm staff wait to pull fallouts until 10-12 days of age, not giving them much opportunity to recover.

At 3-7 days of age, find and pull these pigs and place them on a nurse sow, and they should have a good chance of recovery. Miller says a good technique is to move a good-milking, weaned sow back to an empty farrowing crate to become a nurse sow.

She adds: “We know that our gilts do better on their subsequent litter if they are nursed longer, so this is one area where we may actually use gilts as nurse sows.

“We like bumping the sows down (back into farrowing) better than bumping litters up (weaning pigs early), because bumping litters out can create variation in your finisher barn because those pigs didn't get to nurse as long as other litters,” Miller notes. Every day pigs are weaned later than Day 14 up to Day 22 is worth 89 cents to $1.50/pig in additional profit, she adds.

Next Page: Pig Processing

Previous Page: Goal Three: Runt Pig Litters

Pig Processing

“Research disagrees on the best time to process pigs, but I typically recommend that Day 0 or Day 1 be a time that pigs are left undisturbed.

“When we do process, there are things that occur that have the potential to create disease, which can increase variation if we are not careful,” Miller cautions. Disinfect tools between litter treatments. Change needles frequently.

Giving iron shots is one of the most important newborn pig treatments. Studies show piglets need at least 200 mg. of iron in the first three days of life. “You skip giving a pig iron and you have created a pig that is going to be smaller throughout the rest of its life,” she declares.

To prevent iron leakback, which could cause the pig to be iron deficient, try this technique: stretch the pig's neck a little, give the iron shot in the neck and release the neck as you pull the needle out. “When you release the skin, the hole in the skin and the hole in the muscle from the iron shot don't quite line up, creating a cap over the hole where the iron went in, thus holding the iron in,” Miller says.

Use a sharp blade for castration. To repair scrotal ruptures, consider a nonsurgical taping method that has a very high rate of success. The method was featured in National Hog Farmer (“Less Invasive Rupture Repair,” Jan. 15, 2006, pages 20, 21).

Whether it is spotting a pig with iron leakback or a pale pig, intervention must be timely. “We need to look at every litter, every day, and if there is a pig that needs to be treated, treat it and treat it appropriately,” she says.

Farm Fallout Problems

One of the biggest problems is that farm staff wait to pull fallouts until 10-12 days of age, not giving them much opportunity to recover.

At 3-7 days of age, find and pull these pigs and place them on a nurse sow, and they should have a good chance of recovery. Miller says a good technique is to move a good-milking, weaned sow back to an empty farrowing crate to become a nurse sow.

She adds: “We know that our gilts do better on their subsequent litter if they are nursed longer, so this is one area where we may actually use gilts as nurse sows.

“We like bumping the sows down (back into farrowing) better than bumping litters up (weaning pigs early), because bumping litters out can create variation in your finisher barn because those pigs didn't get to nurse as long as other litters,” Miller notes. Every day pigs are weaned later than Day 14 up to Day 22 is worth 89 cents to $1.50/pig in additional profit, she adds.