Health is key for efficient grow-finish performance. Without good health, an animal's potential cannot be fully expressed.

Lower health status is a leading cause of increased variation in grow-finish performance. Improved health in grow-finish also reduces the need for feed-grade medications. Management tools must be used to optimize individual and group health.

Because health is so important to efficiency, the industry is developing more high-health systems, including efforts to control porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) and raise PRRS-negative grow-finish pigs.

Achieving High Health

Depopulation and repopulation have been used to rapidly increase the health status of farms. This is no small task and must start at the sow farm.

Very often, grow-finish sites are used to house the replacement females for an off-site breeding project. The off-site breeding approach reduces the downtime to four weeks. Without pigs on the sow farm site, the new herd is ready to farrow once pregnant females are cleared to come back to the site. This makes the economics of the depopulation much easier to justify — especially in multi-site production systems.

In evaluating the economics of depopulation and repopulation, the greatest financial impact is from the grow-finish phase of production. In one model, over 74% of the financial benefit was from the improvement in finishing, reducing the cost of production by over $10/pig.

Sow herd stabilization and disease eradication programs are also being used to control PRRS and Mycoplasmal pneumonia. These protocols are based on the gilts being in the area where disease agents continue to circulate in herds. For these eradication programs to be successful, the farms first must be stable to these disease agents.

In the case of mycoplasma, herd stabilization may involve vaccination and medication. Once the herd is stable and generating negative pigs, it is closed to gilt additions for 6-12 months. A whole-herd medication and vaccination program is used at the same time to reduce potential shedding of the organism. Protocols must be farm specific.

Maintaining High Health

Maintaining high health is just as important as achieving it. This means that herds must have biosecurity guidelines to reduce the opportunity for disease introduction.

Many farms are working on animal transport to ensure protection. Using dedicated trucks, trailers and truck washes protects pigs from cross-contamination in different flows and sources.

New Vaccinations

Ileitis vaccine (Boehringer Ingelheim's Enterisol Ileitis) has been working very well to control the late-breaking hemorrhagic form of the disease, which traditionally was difficult to control and very costly due to the loss of marketable pigs.

There are a number of new erysipelas vaccines that extend immunity throughout the finishing phase. Both injectable and oral products are available.

After last summer's many severe outbreaks in the Midwest, use of erysipelas vaccines has increased dramatically for pigs finished in the summer. Start vaccinations in mid-February for protection through the summer. The products need to be re-boostered in the finisher.

Oral salmonella vaccines are also being used more to reduce feed-grade medications.

Oral vaccines make compliance easier on the farm. Precautions must be taken during administration to prevent inactivation.

All feed-grade medications must be out of the feed for at least five days before and after the use of oral vaccines to avoid the inactivation of vaccine and allow time for the immune system to be stimulated.

When water medicators are used, the medicator and containers used to hold the vaccine must be clean and free of antibiotic or disinfectant residue to protect the vaccine. If the water source is chlorinated, it must be treated with sodium thiosulfate to bind the chlorine.

Combination Vaccine Products

New injectable vaccine combinations include swine influenza virus, mycoplasma and erysipelas. These reduce injections, improve farm compliance and reduce the risk of broken needles and injuries to the pigs and employees.

However, use of combination products can present some challenges because the amount of maternal antibody in the herd will dictate when these products can be used.

Farms may not be able to use all the combination products, but can probably reduce at least one injection.

The most common example is the mycoplasma-influenza combination from Pfizer. We want to and can vaccinate nursery pigs for mycoplasma. This doesn't work for flu because the first mycoplasma injection is at 6-8 weeks of age, which is too early for flu. However, the second dose of mycoplasma and first dose of flu can be given together. Then the second dose of flu vaccine can be given later in the finisher.

Each herd will need to do its own monitoring to determine the proper timing and placement of vaccine.

Concentration of Finishing Production

More and more finishing buildings are being built near the corn crop to lower feed costs. The change in corn prices this year reinforces the value of this strategy. Consequently, the Corn Belt is becoming more and more concentrated with finishing buildings. This will impact vaccination protocols, resulting in more vaccinations to reduce disease.

Do your homework to get set up correctly for the next finishing group.

Make sure that the barn has been properly washed, dried and disinfected.

Make sure the barn is warmed up to the proper operating temperature before the pigs are placed.

Understand the health status of incoming pigs. This goes back to the health status of the source herd's nursery and farrowing. If the health status has changed, the flow of animals may need to change as well. Vaccination protocols may need to be modified to reflect the changes in the source farm, area or season.

Management of the grow-finish pig revolves around providing a good environment, minimizing disease, and early detection and treatment of disease on a daily basis. Daily care is vital and makes the difference between good and average groups of pigs. Steps include:

  • Check the barn twice a day and walk pens daily to identify potential problems;

  • Monitor barn temperature, humidity, drafts, fans and heaters;

  • Check pig activity; focus on pigs that don't get up. Look at pigs lying in protected areas such as corners. Look in the pen you just left to see if individuals are lying back down right away. This is usually a sign of problems.



Look at every pig every day. Develop a system to evaluate the pigs from snout to tail:

  • Respiratory (cough, labored breathing, runny nose and gaunt);

  • Enteric (loose stool, discolored stool and gaunt);

  • Lameness;

  • Systemic (purple ears, belly); and

  • Central nervous system (down, paddling).



Observe the disease timeline (Figure 1) to help with diagnosis. Early identification is the key to successful treatment.

Having specific treatment protocols broken down by these conditions allows everyone to know how to respond when sick pigs are identified.

If we can identify the problem pigs early on, we can intervene and help them recover and become productive quicker. The only way this occurs is if staff is fully committed to this task daily.

When filling the barn, set aside some space to sort out unhealthy, unthrifty pigs to enable them to recover. Don't just sort for size. Identify and move sick pigs to sick or sort pen areas (yellow pens in Figure 2). As they recover, move to graduation pens (pink pens in Figure 2). When 6-8 head are accumulated, move to recovery pens (blue pens in Figure 3).

Taking action on problems is also a key to success. For example, if there is a variation from the desired barn temperature, investigate why the heater isn't working, rather than just recording the high-low temperature and going on to other tasks. Then repair the heater.

Health Monitoring

Diagnostics are a very important part of health monitoring — walking the pens, recognizing areas of concern and investigating the problems. Today, the best pen-side diagnostics are the observation skills of the people taking care of the pigs. Then a complete diagnostic plan can be implemented, including:

  • Postmortem examinations of problem pigs;

  • Serology samples taken from the group which can often be set up as an ongoing monitoring program, and

  • Slaughter checks of specific groups.



Understanding Immunity

Understanding pig immunity is important to efficient performance. Realizing when maternal antibodies are lost and when the pig will be vulnerable to pathogens are important points. Avoiding exposure is still the goal, but for some pathogens this can't be done and we must have control strategies.

Vaccination timing involves knowing when the maternal antibodies subside to a point that the vaccines can be effective.

Pulse dosing of antibiotics can be an effective method to avoid overwhelming the pigs while they have a chance to develop their own immunity.

Recording Systems

These systems continue to improve with many farms and systems developing real-time monitoring systems. With all-in, all-out production, we have achieved good records, but we were always evaluating past performance. That's still valuable information, but it doesn't help improve group performance.

Monitoring weekly (and soon to be daily) changes in mortality, number of injections, coughing indexes and stool scores are good in-process monitors providing earlier identification of problems within groups and for detection of a trend within the system. Table 1 provides an example of average weekly mortality rates.

The information comes from the daily barn record sheet. These sheets usually include:

  • High/low temperatures
  • Injectable medications given
  • Number of mortalities
  • Water medications given
  • Vaccinations given
  • Any other special events (curtain broke, pumped pits, etc.)


This data is forwarded to track across groups. Metafarms is developing a program to record this type of information on a daily basis via data downloading over telephone lines. Then daily reports can be generated even faster to identify problems and trends.

In this way, peak periods of mortality can be identified so you can intervene at the best time. Charting the performance can help identify trends in the production system.

Also, statistical process control charts can be used to identify the difference between normal variation and true changes in production.

Pig Flow

As swine production facilities have become more specialized and expensive, pig flow must be optimized.

Variation in weaned pig production and growth rate are reasons why pig flow is such a challenge. Since pig production is a biological process, there will always be some variation in systems. The challenge is to minimize this variation to make pig flow easier to manage.

Variation in the system must be detected as soon as possible if throughput of all the facilities is to be maximized.

Multi-site production has made pig flow more challenging to understand and manage because of the opportunity for variation in numbers and health status from all the various sites. Generally, the variation among farms never balances out the production flow because when one farm is under-producing, you don't have another farm over-producing to make up the difference.

Health status in farrowing sites can change, altering the pig flow. Multi-site production does offer some flexibility. A disease may not exist in all sites of production; therefore, an alternative pig flow can be used until the health concern has stabilized.

Health status, season, nutrition, genetics and management changes can affect performance. These factors will change pig flow but not necessarily affect the entire system.

Health changes between sites will make predicting flow even more difficult. Health monitoring will help to predict problems. Monitoring growth performance will also help predict changes in flow.

Predicting Pig flow

Time of breeding is the best place to begin predicting pig flow. Specific breeding targets should be set and tracked.

Monitoring pig weights is the best way to predict pig flow for pigs in grow-finish. In most systems, this can be done at weaning and when pigs are transferred to the finisher.

Production records can be used to predict system performance. This can be especially important to predict seasonal effects, for example.

Models can be developed to more accurately predict pig flow using simple spreadsheets with these parameters in the model: number of sows bred per group, pregnancy check results, any fallout recorded, average weight and number at weaning. The farrowing rate report in PigCHAMP contains most of the data needed and can easily be dropped into the spreadsheet model.

Modeling nursery and finishing performance can be done by using some basic assumptions and production records. Numbers required in the model include: average starting weight, average market weight, average daily gain, days to finish for the group beyond the average finishing date, days before the average group finishing date that the first animals will be ready for market and days needed to clean up the site.

These numbers can be adjusted to match what's happening in the system when there are differences from predicted values.

Average daily feed consumption is another production parameter that can be modeled to predict group performance. Using the group's feed budget is one way to see if the group is staying on track with the projected dates. This can be done by monitoring feed deliveries without having to weigh pigs to compare against the model.

Use of Antibiotics in Feed

This is an important topic. Changes have already occurred in the European Union (EU), where the only approved use of antibiotics in feed is for therapeutic use.

These types of regulations can be very difficult to work with because the pigs have to get sick before the feed-grade medications can be prescribed. Therefore, use of strategic and pulse dose medications cannot be done.

Some reports from the field indicate that actual use of therapeutic feed-grade medications has risen in these countries because treatment is always after the fact and not as effective. This type of system can't be more efficient nor provide the best animal welfare.

The use of growth promotants in the grow-finish phase has been debated in the scientific literature. There is little debate that if a disease is present, a positive effect is seen with feed-grade medications. In the field, it is difficult to separate the effects of disease control and growth performance.

The cost of feed has a great deal of influence on the value of growth promotant products. As feed prices increase, the value of increased efficiency, average daily gain and feed conversion is much higher.

There are a number of other factors, such as the amount of finishing space available, and the cost of that space, to be considered in the decision process. Using records and farm trials are good methods to evaluate the value of these products. Evaluate the use of growth-promoting products on a farm and system basis.

Large Pen Finishing

There has been much discussion about this new technology, but little data published that shows a consistent growth advantage.

The use of the large pen has challenged some of the conventional wisdom about grow-finish pen design. Feeder and water space needs probably don't change with the pen size. Just as in all phases of swine production, the personnel doing the daily chores play a critical role in the performance. There are some interesting opportunities for these systems, however. For example:

  • Cost of construction — less gating is required and there is better use of the square footage in the barn.

  • The pig can find the best environment in the barn. Pigs have the ability to move away from a draft or cold area.

  • Less concern with social order and dominance. Large pens promote less fighting as submissive pigs can get away from more aggressive pigs. Pigs don't pursue over 30 ft. That translates into better competitive advantage.

  • Health status may be improved as less differences within pens should result in fewer disease subpopulations. Immunity within the group is more even. This may be even more important with wean-to-finish facilities.

  • Large pen systems also have limitations:

  • Individual pig care may be compromised as observation becomes more difficult. You must make sure that you see every pig every day. Treating and sorting out pigs that are not competitive is more difficult.

  • Sorting loads for market has been one of the bigger challenges of wean-to-finish systems. This may be addressed by new automatic sorting technologies.



Because large pens are relatively new, there is still more to learn. How well they are managed will determine if they will be successful. Experience has shown that if problems with management show up, they can be magnified in these types of systems.