Sow mortality is a complicated issue. Many factors have contributed to a dramatic increase in sow deaths in recent years. One veterinarian says the time has come to address the role people play in this management challenge.
"A lot of people in the industry use excuses, such as confinement production, genetics, etcetera," says Tim Loula, DVM, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, MN. "Yes, we see increases in sow death loss, but we can use training programs to take mortality back down."
Loula says that a goal of 4-6% sow death loss is attainable for large commercial farms.
Here are several simple steps that managers can take to address the people issues related to sow mortality:
1. Train workers.
Unit managers and veterinarians need to take the time to properly train workers when they begin working in the sow unit, he says.
New employees may need to be taught basic husbandry skills because they often do not have a farm background or have no experience around animals, Loula says.
2. Observe individual animals.
In addition, employees need skills to recognize if an animal is sick, such as a rough hair coat, listless, lame, thumping, labored breathing, not eating, etc., losing weight, needs treatment, needs to be moved to a pen or should be culled. Those observation skills should be backed up by decision-making skills.
"They should look at each animal every day and make a decision as to what that animal needs," he says.
Observing individual animals should be part of the routine workers go through every day or on a routine basis.
He suggests managers divide the unit into sections. Rotate employees through the sections of animals so they observe different groups and gain knowledge about proper sow condition. By rotating, they aren’t burdened with looking at every sow on the farm.
Everyone should learn how to judge sow condition and backfat. That takes time, Loula reminds. Workers need a trained eye and experienced touch to accurately grade a sow on a condition scale of 1 to 5.
3. Leave space for sick animals.
Managers should always allow space for sick or debilitated animals, Loula says. If employees have no space to put an animal requiring special attention, that animal will not get the treatment needed.
Avoid the urge to fill every available space with extra sows, Loula says. Work on improving farrowing rates in other ways, such as examining the breeding techniques, disease issues and management.
"If you don’t have a high farrowing rate, don’t add 100 sows to the mix. Just go back and figure out why you don’t have a good farrowing rate, rather than just piling on more sows."
4. Remember selection and isolation.
Managers need to remember that very few of today’s workers participated in 4-H, took judging classes or were educated on livestock care. Therefore, they may not have the ability to recognize good phenotypic traits that lead to sound, productive sows.
Animals with buck knees, excessively muscled hams, improper set to the hock and fetlock, sickle-hocks and potential splay legs can create real problems later.
Replacement gilt isolation pens are often crowded. It is difficult to observe soundness in a crowded pen.
5. Reduce employee turnover.
Loula stresses that these skills are not only learned but are gained by experience. And experience is limited by high employee turnover and labor shortages.
"The industry has a high turnover rate. Much of that is due to the fact that there are not enough people because of historically low unemployment, and poor job satisfaction. (Too often) there’s too much work, and they don’t get the results they are looking for," he says.
Loula offers two solutions to high turnover.
First, increase the base pay offered for production jobs. More pay will draw applicants who may be better suited for the work and who may stay on the job longer.
Second, budget for additional labor. Loula suggests hiring part-time workers who use the job as a second job, who are part-time farmers or high school students looking for evening or weekend work.
"More people around the barns usually equals more pigs because employees spend more time with individual animals," he says.
In addition, more labor will allow workers to address barn maintenance issues, employee training and cleaning that otherwise won’t get done with a minimal workforce.
"Put people to work after that goal, and they will change the numbers," Loula says.
The people and how they treat animals and how much time they spend with individual animals is the key, Loula says.
"The difference between 3% and 12% sow mortality is the people," he says. "As we take better care of the sows, they have always performed better. The time and money spent taking better care of the individual sows will pay off in more productivity."