Just a few years ago, a sow farm averaging 26 pigs/sow/year (P/S/Y) was considered a leading performer. But the Danes have demonstrated that more is possible, which has many top managers in the United States targeting 30 P/S/Y and hitting it.

Getting to 30 P/S/Y is not for the faint of heart, according to reproductive physiologist Mark Wilson of Minitube of America. Wilson, the firm's vice president of technology transfer, says achieving the 30 P/S/Y goal requires extreme drive and a laser-like focus on increasing the number of pigs born and weaned, while minimizing non-productive days.

Wilson offers sow unit managers and their staffs this checklist:

  • Start with the right animals

    Genetics affect a variety of factors contributing to pig production. Wilson says sows must possess the genetic potential to farrow 13.4-13.7 live pigs/litter. If your sows consistently come up short of that mark, 30 P/S/Y is probably out of the question.

    But, Wilson warns, there is some data suggesting that 15-20% of sows are having more than 30 ovulations and that embryo losses are occurring later in pregnancy. These two factors — increased number of eggs ovulated and later embryo losses — may impact pig uniformity, muscle development and pig performance later in the grow-finish period.

    Sows must also be bred to be excellent mothers with 14 functional teats. They must be capable of weaning lots of pigs while minimizing loss of body condition and muscle mass (protein).

  • Increase weaning age

    Today, the trend is to wean older pigs — close to 21 days of age. If you haven't moved in this direction, you might consider it because it can impact pig performance, mortality and subsequent litter size, Wilson says.

    Quoting 2004 research in Denmark by L.V. Himmelberg, Wilson notes that with each additional day in weaning age from 15 to 21 days, there is an average production increase of 0.12 pigs/day. However, genetics may impact the magnitude of this response, he adds.

  • Achieve a 4- to 6-day wean-to-estrus interval

    Given that longer lactation periods are beneficial, and the fact that you have relatively little control in adjusting the gestation period, wean-to-estrus interval is a biggie when it comes to shortening the length of the reproductive cycle.

    Good nutrition is essential for a quick return to estrus after weaning, especially among Parity 1 females. If you are seeing wean-to-estrus intervals over six days, Wilson recommends taking a close look at your nutrition program and the factors that affect sow feed intake.

  • Optimize sow nutrition and intake

    Wilson offers six basic tips for encouraging high feed intake in sows during lactation:

    1. Keep ambient temperature below 70° F if possible.

    2. Check water flow to make sure 0.5 gal./minute is being delivered.

    3. Keep fresh feed in front of sows so they get all they want without wasting it.

    4. Feed multiple times per day.

    5. Use flavor enhancers.

    6. Avoid moldy feed.

  • Pay attention to gilt development

    Whether you breed gilts at an older age and heavier weights, perhaps to avoid a second-parity slump, or you stimulate gilts to cycle early and breed on the second or third estrous period to optimize litter size, Parity 1 females have a huge impact on reproductive performance because they make up a large percentage of most herds.

    Successful gilt development helps prevent disease and improves reproductive performance.

  • Be vigilant about heat checking

    Often, boars get too much credit for heat detection, says Wilson. While consistent, dedicated contact with high-libido, mature boars is a valuable tool for identifying females in heat, careful observation by the technician is critical. Standing response to the boar is the best determinant of which animals to breed.

  • Inseminate at the proper time

    A successful mating program can impact litter size and also improve conception rates.

    Although artificial insemination technique is important, Wilson says the exact timing of insemination is even more critical when it comes to fertility. Ideally, semen must be in the sow or gilt 8-16 hours prior to ovulation. Wilson says a review of the literature in the past 10-15 years shows that ovulation occurs about two-thirds (67-75%) of the way through standing heat.

    Another way to look at timing of insemination is that most ovulations occur within 36-42 hours after standing estrus. Wilson says breeding regimens should be farm specific. It is important to understand the total length of time your sows stand in heat in order to figure when they will likely ovulate.

    One simple and practical approach often used is to breed when sows are found in standing heat, and then again 24 hours later.

    You can also verify the exact timing of ovulation by using real-time ultrasound, Wilson says.

  • Use high-quality semen and handle it properly

    Adequate sperm cell concentration is necessary for good litter size. Although only approximately 40 sperm cells are directly involved in fertilization, a larger concentration of sperm cells must be inseminated to ensure plenty of viable cells are delivered in the sow.

    A concentration of at least 2.5 billion viable cells/dose is considered ideal for semen shipped and stored prior to insemination. Handling semen properly is very important, which includes keeping semen stored at 60-64° F (15-17° C) and avoiding quick fluctuations in temperature.

  • Train your employees

    Wilson says it takes just one poorly performing stockperson to have a negative impact on reproductive performance. He believes that formal training to teach all technicians proper procedures decreases reproductive problems and contributes to improved pig production.

  • Keep accurate records

    If you don't have a precise understanding of what's happening with your sows, it is difficult to know where to concentrate your efforts to improve reproductive performance.

For example, you'll want to gauge whether shortening the wean-to-estrus interval or improving insemination timing, or both, will yield the best P/S/Y results. Accurate records are important tools for improving performance levels, Wilson emphasizes.