Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd. (CVS) found a lactation feeder to help efforts to maximize sow production in a growing number of farms they manage.

As production at the Professional Swine Management (PSM) system reaches new heights (25 pigs/sow/year and 14-lb. pigs at 21 days of age), it becomes increasingly crucial that all phases of production are hitting on all cylinders.

CVS' eight swine veterinarians oversee those efforts in the tri-state area of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. CVS co-owner and president Joe Connor, DVM, has recently set the bar higher, calling on PSM to target production for 30 pigs/sow/year (p/s/y).

As those expectations escalate, proper sow nutrition becomes a bigger part of the production puzzle.

New Feeder Provides Precision

To determine proper intake and the correct nutrient content of lactating sows, the ad-lib INTAK lactation feeding system from Automated Production Systems, Assumption, IL, is being studied at Innovative Sow Solutions (ISS), LLC.

Laura Greiner is the research coordinator and swine nutritionist at ISS, the research arm of the PSM system. She has been impressed with the results of recent research trials that have been conducted on gilts through Parity 3 sows. The feeder has demonstrated flexibility and an ability to meet the feed needs of a nursing sow.

ISS was formed in August 2005 when Cedarcrest, LLC, a 6,400-sow, breed-to-wean farm was built at Table Grove, IL. Cedarcrest features 21 farrowing rooms; the first two rooms are designated for commercial sow nutrition research for use by Greiner and her graduate school assistants.

Sows tested at ISS are actually part of the commercial herd at Cedarcrest. “We have the capability of doing 112 sows each turn (two rooms containing four rows of 14 crates), so we can get results fairly quickly,” she says. In all, 300 sows are farrowed a week at Cedarcrest.

“What makes ISS unique from the other rooms in the farm is that we have a computer that feeds our sows, individually. During that time, it records how much feed each sow gets on a daily basis,” she says. “So when we complete a farrowing study, we have total feed consumed/sow.” It represents what the sows are really eating.

The computerized feeding program provides sows with all of the feed they want to eat because it is hooked into lactation feed dispensers that let sows choose how much they want.

“With the INTAK feeders, we have some sows that will consume 30 lb. of feed a day,” says Greiner. That's almost impossible to achieve with a conventional hand-feeding system, because it would require staff to provide feed 4-5 times a day, she says.

At the research center, sows have access to about 34 lb. of feed and are fed twice a day. Sows are currently consuming an average of 14.8 lb. of feed a day. “Sows consuming 25 to 30 lb. of feed starting after Day 5 postfarrowing are not uncommon,” she points out. “But keep in mind, these sows may eat 30 lb. one day, 15 the next, and back to 30 the following day. They may consume on average 20-lb.-plus of feed/day during the lactation period, but have days when their intake is 30 lb.”

The rest of the sows at Cedarcrest have access to 27 lb. of feed dispersed during three feeding periods. These sows are consuming an average of 12.5-13 lb. of feed/day.

In contrast, hand feeding smaller portions multiple times a day can cause sows to get up and lie down more, resulting in more laid-on pigs and nervous animals, notes Greiner.

Feed Deliverance

At the research center, the computer sends feed flowing through PVC pipes and it collects in feed hopper tubes located just above the lactation feed dispensers. When sows want feed, they roll a ball located at the bottom of the feed dispenser, which allows feed to flow through to the feed trough.

Work at ISS has three main focuses:

  • Establishing the actual amount of feed a lactating sow needs for top production;

  • Analyzing the proper nutrient profile of a diet to meet lactation requirements; and

  • Evaluating other dietary ingredients that may enhance lactating sow and nursing piglet performance.

“We are really trying to understand what today's sows require on those three fronts,” explains Greiner. “We really don't know. We are looking at it in two different ways — the needs of the young gilt and the older sow.” She says genetics have advanced to produce a much leaner sow, but research has not kept up to determine specific nutritional requirements for sows in lactation.

Targets in lactation, Greiner reported at the 2006 CVS Swine Conference in August, include 18 mm. (.72 in.) backfat before farrowing, 16 mm. (.64 in.) backfat at weaning and 12.5 or more pounds of feed intake/day on a 21-day weaning program.

Experience with the new feeder is currently at Parity 4 in sows at ISS.

Stepping Up Feed

When sows farrow, the goal has been to keep feed consumption at a low level for Day 0 and 1, and to slowly step it up for several days, assuming that is what a sow needs and that it reduces sows going off-feed, according to Greiner.

But when sows have gone on the ad-lib INTAK feeder, and were allowed after a few days to set their own level of consumption, the feeding patterns increased much faster than anticipated.

“We thought that there was no need to increase feed much for a few days after farrowing, and not waste feed, but truly they ate everything they were given when levels were increased,” says Greiner. Surprising to her, some of those first-litter sows have eaten 18 lb. of feed/day.

Greiner noted that new information from ISS studies on nutrient profiles of first-parity sows will be presented by Pairat Srichana, a previous graduate student, at the Midwest Animal Science meeting next March in Des Moines, IA.

Kevin Soltwedel, new swine nutritionist for the PSM system, will soon launch a side-by-side study comparing sow performance in units with the INTAK lactation feeder vs. units with standard lactation feeders, to pinpoint differences in feed consumption and performance.

Included in that study will be an analysis of reproductive performance of the females. Greiner says farms with the lactation feeder typically have a six-day wean-to-estrus interval (WEI), which is due to the fact that the herds are young and gilts average higher WEI.

“Research trials have shown that by getting our feed intake up past 13 lb. a day, we can get WEI under six consistently,” she says.

Feed Management

For the best results in feeding sows using the new INTAK feeder (one of the top selections at World Pork Expo in the National Hog Farmer New Products Tour, July 15, 2006, pages 16-17), maintain proper management of the system, stresses Greiner.

“The biggest thing that you have to watch is making sure that the ball at the bottom of the feeder is rolling, that there is feed coming down, and there is no moisture on that ball to cause it to stick,” she says.

One of the related issues experienced at Cedarcrest (including the research rooms) is that the waterers are located inside the feed troughs. A sow will put water in her feed trough when she is drinking. In the summer heat, when she splashes water to get cool, some of that water gets up into the feeder ball and can cause it to stick, limiting access to feed.

Three miles away in Table Grove, IL, is Eagle Point, LLC, a sister farm to Cedarcrest. Their INTAK lactation sow feeders have the waterers located on the outside of the feed trough, which keeps feed dry.

Despite the occasionally stuck feeder ball, Greiner still prefers the waterers in the feed trough because she says when sows are sick, they prefer wet feed or a mash to dry feed, as they are coming back on feed.

Overall, the INTAK feed dispenser along with clear feed hoppers enhance feed management. “With the clear tubes, we can go into the farrowing rooms before the sows are fed and visualize what the sows are eating in those rooms. If you find a tube that is still full of feed, then you identify the sow. If the feeding ball is working, then you make a note on her sow card for treatment and you are done,” she notes.

A flow adjuster tab on the side of the lactation feeder determines how freely feed flows around the ball when it is activated by the sow, Greiner states. By locking the feeder at a 0 or 1 setting just prior to and just after farrowing, the sow is strictly limited in consuming feed. If a sow gets bored or wants to play, she may spend extra time rolling feed into her trough. That's another time it may be prudent to lock down her feeder at 0 or 1 until she cleans up the feed in her trough, says Greiner.

Training Gilts to Eat

The swine nutritionist says the main issue that was learned very quickly about the lactation feeder, especially with gilts, was that gilts need training. She says the process is simple: turn the feed adjuster up to about a 5, the highest open setting, for a day. Check the feeders and roll the ball once or twice, and in an hour or two, the sows should have figured out the system.

“We tend to leave our settings at about a 2 or 3 — it gives sows access to feed as they want it — but it does not overfeed them. Nine times out of 10, sows can't clean up the feed as quickly as it falls out when the adjuster is completely open at 5. Whereas at a setting of 2 or 3, as the feed rolls out, the sow can usually catch most of it in her mouth,” says Greiner.

At both Cedarcrest and Eagle Point, sow lactation feed is delivered automatically using a chain-disk fill system that sows hear and know when feed is being delivered.

That assurance has made sow feeding a much quieter experience than hand feeding. Sows get a set amount of feed that they can choose when to eat, virtually without wasting any feed. Sows get fresh feed at all times, protected from the elements.

Steve Baker, farm manager at Lone Hollow, LLC, Augusta, IL, a 5,800-sow, breed-to-wean system, likes INTAK feeders because they give sows freedom of choice and precision feeding. Sows are fed three times a day, 9 lb. at a time, meaning they could potentially consume 27 lb. of feed a day. They are fed morning, noon and late afternoon before staff leaves for the day.

“The feeder saves us an amazing amount of time throughout lactation,” he remarks. Average weaning age is about 19.5 days.

Baker says staff certainly doesn't miss pushing a feed cart around several times a day. The lactation feeder frees them up to take care of other jobs.

At Lone Hollow, sows are limited to 4 lb. of feed at or before farrowing, and are stepped up to full feed by Day 3. In summer, when it is hot, sows can choose to eat in cooler weather, regardless of when their feed is actually delivered to them, he adds.

Bill Beckman, director of sow operations for PSM, says cleaning out the feeders is also very efficient, as they easily come apart and can be pressure-washed as the room is emptied, he says.

Beckman reiterates automatic feeding has drastically reduced the noise levels in farrowing rooms, and thus lessened sow agitation vs. the noisier, conventional feeding system with staff delivering feed several times a day.

For producers who prefer manual feeding, the INTAK feed dispensers can be hand-filled into 15-lb. hoppers that are sold by the company.

A farrowing crate can typically be converted to ad-lib feeding with an INTAK dispenser and hopper for around $90.

Automated Production Systems can be contacted by phone (217) 226-4449, fax (217) 226-3540 or via their Web site, www.automatedproduction.com.

Sow Feeding Checklist

The first six days after sows farrow is the most critical time for ensuring that sows return on feed, says Laura Greiner, research coordinator, Innovative Sow Solutions (ISS), LLC, Carthage, IL.

“I like to have sows up and eating within 24 hours after they farrow for sow and piglet health,” she says. “If a sow doesn't get up and eat and drink, she is not going to milk and her piglets are going to be thin.”

With the lack of proper nutrition comes stress to the sow, lack of milk production for colostrum and increased susceptibility of piglets to disease and scour problems, says Greiner.

“Our general rule of thumb in the research rooms at ISS is if the sow has not eaten within 48 hours of farrowing, we've got a problem,” she notes.

If there has been no activity by 48 hours, sows need to be checked for illness, pig retention or other indications of problems.

Greiner provides this quick checklist for improving feed intake of lactating sows:

  • Control initial intake to a few pounds of feed a day for the first few days.

  • Feed sows at least twice a day to ensure fresh feed.

  • Reduce sour and wasted feed from the trough.

  • Treat off-feed sows that may have ulcers, lameness issues, illness or retained pigs.

  • Consider adding flavor enhancers to boost consumption patterns.

  • Keep sows comfortable; room temperatures should be 68-74°F. during the lactation period.

  • Provide ad-libitum access to water (flow rate should be ½ gal./minute).

  • Remember, feeding levels may need to be adjusted, as some sows can consume up to 30 lb. of feed a day.

Sow Research Center Open for Business

Innovative Sow Solutions (ISS), LLC, Carthage, IL, affiliated with Carthage Veterinary Service (CVS) of Carthage, IL, was developed to focus mainly on sow lactation nutrition research.

ISS is distinctly different from a typical research farm. Trials are conducted in two, 56-crate farrowing rooms that are part of Cedarcrest LLC, a 6,400-sow, breed-to-wean farm located in Table Grove, IL. The farm's regular sow population is used in all of the research trials. Virtually all of the equipment in the two rooms mirrors the other farrowing rooms at the farm, stresses Laura Greiner, research coordinator and swine nutritionist at ISS.

The research center conducts swine research for a wide variety of companies who want to test their products.

To learn more about ISS and its requirements for conducting research, or for educational opportunities, contact Greiner by phone (217) 357-2811, ext. 167 or e-mail lgreiner@hogvet.com.