Tom Dale, breeding manager, Geneseo Pork, Geneseo, IL, says farrowing room feeding cards are a crucial step to helping their 1,500-sow unit meet aggressive feed intake goals.

Dale and farrowing room manager, Gordon Inskeep, agree the goal is to get parity two and higher sows to eat 20 lb. of feed/day in the farrowing crate. They would like to see first-litter sows eat 16 lb./day. Sows are currently eating an average 17-18 lb. of feed, with first-litter sows averaging 10-12 lb. feed consumed.

"The more feed you can get into that sow when she is in the farrowing crate, the better off you will be when it comes time to breed her back," Dale says.

Step-Up Feeding Geneseo Pork sows are fed twice/day. Parity two and older sows are started at 4 lb./day after farrowing. That amount is increased 2 lb./day until the sow is eating 16 lb./day. She receives 16 lb./day for two days, then 18 lb./day for two days, and then 20 lb./day for the remainder of the lactation period.

Geneseo's average age at weaning is 15.5 days.

"Before we started using the feeding cards, we tried to push the feed up too fast," Dale says. "When we started using the cards, we could see the sow's feed consumption would drop way down and she would either eat very little, or stop eating for a few days. Then she might work her way back up. After we started using the cards and could track our progress, we slowed the incline up a little bit."

Dale says improving feed consumption is a bit of a balancing act. "We want to get as much feed in those sows as we can in the 14 days we have, because they don't eat much the day they farrow, and yet you don't want to feed them so much they drop off either."

Jim Pettigrew, Pettigrew Consulting International, Louisiana, MO, says sometimes people give more thought to what they feed their finishing pigs than they do to sow diets. Producers may be overlooking one of the hardest working members of their pork-producing team.

As modern finishing pigs get leaner, they require increased amounts of amino acids as a percent of their diets. Pettigrew says the same attention should be paid to amino acid balance and feed intake in sows.

"The modern lactating sow performs an incredible amount of work," Pettigrew explains. "Genetic selection and sophisticated nutritional and management technologies have resulted in sows with massive capacity to produce milk, reflected in rapid growth of large litters."

The sow relies not only on the nutrients consumed in the the lactation diet, but to produce larger amounts of milk, she also draws on the body reserves developed largely during pregnancy.

The amount of milk the sow produces can be affected by nutrient intake during both pregnancy and lactation.

During lactation, the sow's body is working even harder than you may think. At the same time she is producing that large amount of milk, her reproductive system is taking the first steps toward development of her next litter. "It appears ovarian follicles are recruited and make their initial growth while the sow produces milk," Pettigrew says. "These follicles will produce the eggs that will become the piglets farrowed in her next litter. We now believe the sow's nutritional (or metabolic) status during these key events has an effect on her success in producing her next litter."

Pettigrew says producers should be concerned about more than just the sow's appearance at weaning. "The most important thing is a sow's metabolic condition during lactation," he says. "We are concerned about the rate at which the sow's weight is changing during lactation, not just a body condition score at weaning time."

The Big Two Two key areas to consider when feeding sows for improved reproductive results are lactation feed intake and adequate lysine level in the lactation diet, according to Pettigrew.

One of the biggest challenges producers face is keeping sow feed intake high throughout lactation. "Producers can't just focus on an 'average' where feed intake is high at some points and low at others. They have to keep that feed intake high consistently," he says. "It is important to get sows up on feed very promptly after farrowing."

Research has shown restriction of energy intake during any one week of a 3-week lactation can prolong the weaning-to-estrus interval, in some cases, almost as much as restriction throughout lactation.

Some research has suggested that energy intake is just as important in short lactations as in longer ones. Even though the adoption of segregated early weaning practices means shorter lactations, Pettigrew says feed intake still needs to be aggressively encouraged.

It has long been recognized that overfeeding sows during gestation reduces feed intake during the critical lactation period. Pettigrew says gestation feeding programs should support a high rate of protein accretion, but only a modest rate of fat accretion. "Heavy sows need more dietary energy than light ones, but light sows need higher levels of amino acids," he relates.

Lysine Requirements Pettigrew says the amount of lysine a sow needs can be calculated based on the sow's level of milk production. His formula: for every 1 lb. of litter growth, the sow needs 12 g. of lysine. Because the sow will be contributing some lysine from her body, subtract 6 g. from the total. Then, if you know how much the sow is eating, you can calculate the percentage of lysine needed.

Another key consideration is the sub-populations that exist within a herd. First-parity sows will likely have slower growing litters, but also have less feed intake.

Pettigrew says the younger sows need a higher lysine content. "Some farms are now using two different lactation diets, a higher protein diet for first- and second-parity sows, and a lower-protein diet for older sows," Pettigrew explains. "Some people claim when they feed the two diets, they are reducing the second-parity slump. I don't think we have enough data to say that conclusively yet, but there are some people who believe it."

Top Dressing Lactation Feed Dale Rozeboom, Michigan State University, says most parity 1 and some under-conditioned parity 2 sows need about a 1.2% lysine level in the diet. Older sows need less. If the amount of lysine in the lactation diet is targeted toward the younger sows, then the older sows are being overfed.

If producers don't want to feed two different diets, Rozeboom suggests using a soybean-meal top dress for the younger sows. "Then you can feed a 1% or .9% lysine diet for the whole herd, and it's a cheaper alternative if you've only got a handful of younger sows in a group," he explains. "It's a slight increase in labor."

Rozeboom suggests top dressing with 1/2 to 3/4 lb. of soybean meal/day. That is in the range of 11/2-2 cups of soybean meal and would provide 6.5 to 7 g. of lysine/day. "That is the equivalent of changing the diet from a 1.0 to a 1.2% lysine diet," he says.

Fat In Lactation Diets Pettigrew encourages the use of supplemental fat in lactation diets, especially when sows may be heat-stressed.

Palmer Holden, Iowa State University, says high-oil corn can be a good option for lactating sows because it offers more calories. If a sow ate 12 lb. of a high-oil-corn diet instead of a comparable amount of normal-corn diet, she would do better, for example.

"Remember you need to get high-oil corn analyzed for oil content and lysine before using it," Holden cautions. "You can't substitute it pound-for-pound for regular corn. You have to make some dietary adjustments. Since high-oil corn has more calories, you would also feed more protein in the diet."

Holden says most dent corn runs about 3.5% fat and about .25% lysine. High-oil corn is variable, but typically would offer more than 7% fat and .28% lysine.

Holden says if a producer is not weaning at least 12-lb. pigs at 21 days of age, and if the sows don't come back to estrus in 4-7 days, then it is time to look again.

He suggests starting with feed intake - actually weigh the feed as is done at Geneseo Pork. Keep track of feed intake by keeping a card at each farrowing crate to record how much feed is put in at each feeding, and how much disappears.

"You might think that sounds like a lot of work unless you are having a problem," Holden says. If a problem crops up, being able to analyze where the problem starts will help find a solution.

Increasing Consumption Holden suggests feeding lactating sows at least 2-3 times/day to improve feed intake. Clean out feeders at least once/day so there is always fresh feed. Feed shouldn't get sour or stale.

And, don't overlook the water supply as a possible problem area, he reminds. If sows aren't getting enough water, it may affect feed intake. Check all waterers. The flow rate should be somewhere between 1 pint and 1 quart/minute. "Be sure to at least check the waterer farthest from the water source," Holden says.

Make sure the sows aren't too hot. Holden says the farrowing room shouldn't be hotter than 70 degrees F. According to Holden, 60-65 degrees F is actually better for the sow, but this would make heat lamps or heat mats crucial for baby pigs.

The more feed a sow gets during gestation, the less she will eat during lactation. Holden suggests feeding gestating sows an average of 4-5 lb. feed/day, particularly indoor sows. Outdoor sows could receive an extra 1-2 lb./day in cold weather.

Michigan State's Rozeboom says he always tries to combine a sow's nutrition program with the animal's environment.

"If we have sows housed outdoors, we adjust the nutrient density, especially for amino acids, calcium and phosphorus. It saves money because the animal actually only needs the added energy to keep warm," Rozeboom says. "We've done that with the gestating sow herd by feeding 6-7 lb./day just to keep the animals in good condition, as well as to provide maintenance heat. This compares to the 4 lb. that is often fed indoors. The outdoor sows are getting the same total amount of amino acids, calcium and phosphorus as if they were indoors. We are just diluting the diet with more energy."

Rozeboom says indoor gestating sows may be colder than producers realize. Even in partially slotted gestation buildings, if the sows are laying on wet concrete the temperature for them may be 5-7 degrees cooler than the recorded room temperature.

"Sows laying on wet concrete may not be getting adequate feed if they are getting 4 lb./day, especially when it is cool outside," Rozeboom says. "The animal's effective environmental temperature could be below the thermal neutral range and she may require more feed just to keep warm."

When To Put Weight On Sows Rozeboom says the most appropriate time to provide additional feed to put weight and condition back on sows with low condition scores (condition score 1-2) would be during days 35-70 of gestation. During this time, he suggests feeding 6-7 lb. feed/day.

"If you feed additional feed any earlier than that, you may compromise litter size. If you do it any later, you may compromise feed intake in the next lactation," he says.

Selenium and Vitamin E Rozeboom recommends producers pay attention to vitamin E and selenium needs of gestating sows, too, particularly in areas of the U.S. where soils are low in selenium. "We recommend .3 ppm selenium and we also recommend 30 IU/lb. of vitamin E," he says. This helps prepare the sow for lactation by helping avoid MMA problems that can be associated with low vitamin E and selenium levels.

As sows have become more productive, many producers have pushed calcium and phosphorus levels higher. Rozeboom cautions that some of the first research done with pigs years ago showed if the ratio of calcium to phosphorus widened, feed intake could suffer. "We need to be careful not to get our calcium and phosphorus ratio wider than 1.2 calcium to 1 phosphorus," he says.

Sows In The Dark Rozeboom says feed intakes can be affected in other unexpected ways, too. He saw evidence of this during a recent consulting visit to a farm. Sows in the farrowing house were being fed 2-3 times/day. All other variables seemed to be taken care of, but the sows still weren't eating well.

It was discovered that employees were only leaving lights on in the windowless unit during feeding times, and the rest of the time the sows were in the dark. When the lights were left on for 12-16 hours/day, feed intakes improved. Rozeboom suggests leaving lights on for at least 10-12 hours during the day.

1. Minimize heat stress Use heating devices for the litter that do not add to the heat load of the sow.

When possible, keep the farrowing room temperature at 68 "degrees" F or cooler. When this is not possible, use drip coolers, a high rate of ventilation, and floors that conduct heat.

2. Do not overfeed sows during pregnancy.

3. Provide feeders that offer easy access and still avoid excessive feed wastage. Sows eat more if the feeders allow them to mix feed and water.

4. Ensure an adequate water supply, including an adequate flow rate through the nipple drinkers.

6. Feed at least twice daily.

5. Avoid fibrous (low energy) feed ingredients in lactation diets.

7. Avoid mycotoxin-contaminated feeds.

8. Handle sows gently.

9. Record feed intake of each lactating sow every day. Monitor the patterns of intake over time from farrowing to weaning.

10. Sows tend to eat more feed when smaller amounts are fed two or three times/day instead of one large feeding/day. (Source: University of Minnesota.)