Equipment and the environment no doubt play big roles in the comfort, ease of care and ultimately piglet survival in the farrowing house.

But when all nine veterinarians at Swine Vet Center were polled, boasting a combined 115 years of practice experience, the consensus among the group was that the biggest driver of top performance was the people managing the farrowing house.

Management involves understanding the advantages and disadvantages of the equipment in the facility you are dealing with and managing around its weaknesses (Table 1).

In this article, we'll attempt to provide insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the equipment we commonly see and the management procedures that we recommend for this equipment.

Farrowing Crate Flooring

The floors in the farrowing crate should provide a surface that comfortably supports the sow and litter, is easy to completely clean and sanitize and is durable. Floor options include woven wire, cast iron or plastic, each having unique advantages (see (Table 1).

In general, plastic flooring retains heat better, which offers additional comfort for the piglets when compared to metal flooring. However, plastic floors can become slippery and are routinely harder to sanitize, especially between floor junctions and along the underside surfaces.

Metal flooring designs have always had the advantage of keeping sows cooler and being easier to clean and disinfect compared to plastic flooring surfaces. However, over time, metal flooring can become worn and corroded, requiring repairs or replacement.

Plastic coating over the metal surface of the floor does reduce wear, but the coating can crack, making it difficult to clean and disinfect.

Crates that combine two different flooring materials — a metal surface for the sow and plastic for the piglets — reap the benefits of each of these flooring types and have been the most successful farrowing crate flooring.

Farrowing Crate Design

Farrowing crate size and design varies. The research on which crate designs are best for the sow and litter has not provided completely clear answers. We believe the crates with a mechanism to reduce crushing of piglets as the sow lies down, both at the side and the rear of the crate, result in less preweaning mortality.

Additionally, crates that use bowed bottom bars or have a finger design have been highly preferred because that makes it easier for piglets to nurse shortly after birth and throughout lactation.

Feeding Programs for Sows

Managing feed intake of the lactating sow is critical to her milking ability. It has also been shown many times that failure to maximize feed intake during lactation decreases future reproductive performance and sow longevity in the breeding herd.

Preparing a sow for maximum lactation feed intake starts well before her entry into the farrowing crate, as sows that are overweight will have lower feed intake compared to sows with ideal body condition.

There are a number of things that we do each day in the farrowing house that influences daily feed intake, including the frequency and amount fed, the environmental comfort of the sow, and the recognition and treatment of sows that are eating poorly due to infection or fever.

When sows are fed by hand, usually the amount of feed they receive is based on the farrowing room manager's observation of the sows' daily appetite. Subsequently, the amount fed each day is a subjective decision based on an estimate of what a sow will eat until the next feeding, a practice that can lead to feed waste for sows that don't eat well at the next feeding, and likely shorts the sows that want to eat more each day.

The implementation of self- and/or automated-feeding systems has helped solve these concerns, while providing ad-lib access to feed. These systems have increased feed intake of lactating sows, as well as reduced daily labor requirements in farrowing rooms.

When feeders are adjusted properly, sows have access to the desired amounts of feed, while ensuring the remaining feed stays fresh and dry. Less feed is wasted due to spillage and moisture buildup at the bottom of the feed pan, especially during warm times of the year.

There are several self-feeding systems available to producers, including those with manually filled feed hoppers or tubes that hold larger amounts of fresh feed, as well as automated feeding systems that store feed in drop boxes and dump feed at scheduled feeding times into self-feeders or tubes.

Automatic feeding systems have increased the frequency of feeding within a farrowing room, commonly allocating feed up to four times per day in an attempt to encourage sows to eat more.

Although the systems are automated, they are not management-free. Some sows and gilts may have to be trained to use the feeders, although most catch on quite quickly. Loose feeder adjustments can lead to feed wastage in self-feeding systems as sows work excess feed into the feeder. Moisture build-up within self-feeding systems usually leads to feed spoilage inside tubes or self-feeders and can inhibit feed flow.

Other problems include feed bridging in feed boxes or outside bulk bins, leading to erratic feeding, especially for systems set to feed automatically after workers have left for the day. Automatic systems increase the potential for mechanical problems, plus some producers are reluctant to adopt the technology due to the initial cost of installation.

Certainly, automated or self-feeding systems in the farrowing house have shown great benefits in total feed intake during lactation, which in turn has had a positive impact on the milking abilities and future reproductive capabilities of the sow.

Water Intake

Water is one of the most important nutrient requirements of the lactating sow, yet water intake often goes unchecked or under-evaluated, especially in those sows that tend to have a poor appetite or those with poorly performing piglets.

Nipple watering systems are most commonly used in farrowing crates for both sows and piglets because they are easy to clean, maintain and replace. Crate hygiene is also easier with nipple waterers vs. cups.

Granted, nipple waterers create more water wastage than other systems. And, because of unfamiliar surroundings, gilts may have a hard time adjusting from watering troughs to the nipples in the farrowing crates. The problem is easily solved with some training, however.

Often neglected, checking to make sure each nipple is working should be a routine part of a daily farrowing room walkthrough. Also, flow rates for sow watering systems should be measured to ensure that adequate water is being provided. Recommendations from the Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) Plus program call for around a quart of water per minute for lactating sows.

Wet-dry feeders that have the water source within the feed trough usually reduce water wastage, but feed wastage/spoilage often increases if troughs are not cleaned daily.

Piglet Comfort

One of the most important concepts in maintaining piglet health and increasing preweaning survivability is providing a warm, dry and draft-free environment. We create this area in specific zones of the farrowing crate to encourage piglets to lie away from the sow, which reduces the number of piglets that are laid on. Creating this environment for piglets has been most successfully accomplished through the combination of heat lamps and mats.

Maintaining heat lamp adjustments is a daily task that requires close attention to the piglets and their lying patterns (Table 1). A relatively straightforward observation, how piglets lie in the zone we create, indicates their level of comfort. Piglets that pile on top of each other under the heat lamp or are found lying on or tight against the sow are a clear indication that the environment is too cold and heat source adjustments need to be made. Alternately, pigs that are spread out away from supplemental heat sources are often too warm, and this requires lamps to be raised.

Keep the positioning of heat lamps in mind also. Poorly positioned lamps can draw piglets to rest closer to sows. A heat lamp that is angled so that heat is directed on the sow will increase her level of discomfort within the crate.

Mats are also successfully used in farrowing crates to maintain warm lying areas and to reduce drafts from beneath the flooring surface. Rubber mats are commonly used because they are durable and reusable. Disposable mats have become popular with producers who are concerned that rubber mats cannot be disinfected effectively. Disposable mats offer a lying area that is initially free from environmental contamination, a real plus during severe scouring episodes. Disposable mats also serve as good feedback material for a herd immunization program.

Heated mats have also been used, but often they do not eliminate the need for a heat lamp in the crate to provide a comfortable lying area for piglets. Much like plastic flooring, heated mats can be difficult to clean and sanitize over time, plus maintenance costs are greater compared to rubber or disposable mats.

Controlling Heat Sources

With increases in energy costs, many producers are finding success with new technologies that allow for more precise control of electrical heat sources. These environmental controllers provide just enough energy to the crate's supplemental heat lamps or mats to maintain a desired temperature. This reduces electricity use as pigs get older or their need for continuous supplemental heat decreases. Savings in energy costs have been remarkable.

Thermostatic control of supplemental heat sources is another excellent way to reduce energy costs in farrowing rooms.

Hovers Can Help

As an alternative to heat lamps and farrowing mats, hovers have been used to provide supplemental heat and draft protection within the farrowing crate. Research trials comparing hovers with traditional supplemental heating methods have not shown a large difference in piglet survivability, but they definitely reduce the amount of energy used in farrowing rooms because the desired temperature can be reduced more than with mats and heat lamps alone. Table 2 shows a daily log of recommended farrowing room temperatures.

Critical Colostrum

The first 24-48 hours after farrowing is a critical time for the newborn. Piglets that spend time shivering in the corners of farrowing crates quickly become chilled, have a decreased ability to seek out the sow, and often do not receive adequate colostrum. Pigs that do not get sufficient colostrum within the first 6-12 hours after birth are more susceptible to disease and more likely to perish.

That is why it is important to get pigs warm, dry and nursing as soon as possible. Warming and split-suckling techniques that increase the probability that each pig has been dried off, warmed up and received colostrum are very popular among successful sow farms.

This warming and split-nursing process requires a clean container with a layer of wood chips, preferably a drying agent and a supplemental heat source. After newborn piglets are dried, warmed and allowed to nurse to ensure they've received adequate colostrum, they are placed in the container so their littermates that follow have a chance to nurse without competition. This process gives the piglets the best start possible.

Farrowing Room Ventilation

There are usually two primary goals that we are trying to achieve with the ventilation system in the farrowing room. First is the removal of excess moisture and gas without over-ventilating, which wastes energy and causes drafts on the piglets. Second is to assist in cooling the sows to keep them comfortable during warmer months.

It is very important to evaluate the ventilation equipment to ensure the best environment for the sows and litters. Figure 1 provides a set of farrowing room environmental standards.

Many farrowing rooms are ventilated through a negative pressure system, so in general, the equipment to assess includes: exhaust fans, air inlets, heaters and the controller that ties some or all of these together.

To ventilate properly, a farrowing room must have adequate fan capacity to meet minimum ventilation requirements, yet be able to operate at levels that do not over-ventilate during cold times of the year.

A range of minimum ventilation cfm (cubic feet/minute) requirements from several sources can be summarized into the following recommendations for a sow and litter:

  • Cold weather, 20 cfm;
  • Mild weather, 80-100 cfm; and
  • Hot weather, 500-1,000 cfm.

The simple calculation in Figure 2 will help determine if a farrowing room has adequate fan capacity.

Being able to cover fans that aren't in use during the winter is a must for reducing room heating needs and saving energy.

Assessing Air Inlets

An assessment of air inlet capacity and condition is another important part of evaluating farrowing room ventilation.

A wide variety of air inlets exist among farrowing facilities. End wall and ceiling inlets are often designed to bring air into the room from an inner hallway, which helps control air temperature before entering the room. Many air inlets are manually adjustable or can be weighted to self-adjust as fans turn on and off.

Actuated inlets, which have become popular for farrowing rooms, allow for more precise control of the amount of air coming into a room, and prevent drafting that can occur on windy days when the attic becomes pressurized. Regardless of style of inlets, if not adjusted properly and routinely, they will allow drafts to enter the room and chill piglets.

Heating and Cooling

Forced air heat remains a common part of farrowing room environmental control. Furnace placement is important. They should not direct heat toward minimum ventilation fans, as that would directly remove heat from the room without benefit.

Likewise, forced air heat near temperature probes in a room will give inaccurate readings and often lead to excess speeding up of fans. When multiple heaters are placed within a room, they should be spaced evenly and staged together so that heat drifts evenly throughout the room.

Cool cells have undoubtedly become an important tool for keeping the farrowing room environment comfortable for sows during warmer months. Cool cells can decrease incoming air temperature by 10 degrees or more.

Being able to keep sows cool and comfortable during hot months, when lactation feed intake is historically decreased, has helped with milk production and reduced the number of sows removed from lactation prematurely due to poor conditioning. The operation of cool cells can also reduce electrical demands in farrowing rooms by lowering the number of fans required because rooms maintain cooler air temperatures.

Management and Training

Daily understanding of the farrowing house environment and what is considered normal vs. abnormal comprises an important part of not only the environmental control program, but also sow and piglet health, well-being and productivity.

What is considered normal for farrowing room management can be straightforward for many of the objective measurements including temperature, humidity and, to some extent, fan and inlet settings.

Other areas of farrowing room management, including sow and piglet behavior in relation to their level of comfort in the surrounding environment, certainly take more training.

In theory, if we make sure those areas that can be measured are normal, the comfort of animals within the farrowing room should be quite good.

Considerations for training and correcting of farrowing room environmental problems should include:

  • When abnormalities in sow and piglet behavior or the farrowing room environment occur, use this time as a teaching opportunity for everyone involved in the day-to-day management of the farrowing house. Review the causes of the situation and the actions taken to resolve them.

  • When a situation is recognized as abnormal or when a problem occurs, ensure that all are involved and understand the solutions implemented.

  • Establish some measure to monitor and ensure that the changes made correct the abnormality within a room.

The Bottom Line

The comfort of sows and piglets in the farrowing house has a large impact on the health and production of an enterprise, and relies on the interaction of the facility's daily management and equipment. To this end:

  • Manage crate microenvironments with heat lamps and mats to keep piglets warm, dry and draft-free;

  • Monitor sow and piglet environments daily using visual assessments and available monitoring tools;

  • Use warming and split-nursing techniques early to ensure adequate colostrum intake;

  • No matter the feeding system, strive to maximize sow feed and water intake each day;

  • Be familiar with the entire ventilation system so that problems that are identified can be fixed; and

  • Train farm staff to be observant of environmental challenges and monitor to ensure that satisfactory solutions are found.