I don’t know about you, but with the issuance of each USDA Hogs & Pigs report, I have this nagging little thought in the back of my mind that this could be the quarter that the “pigs saved/litter” tally stalls out.

The nine-year upward trajectory actually began with the December 2003 report. It’s a pretty remarkable trend.

But as many producers and farrowing room managers will tell you, the closer you get to 30 pigs/mated female/year, the tougher it is to maintain average birth weights. It is not unusual to hear a producer lament that with the larger litters, birth weights are more variable.

Been There

This is not a new phenomenon. Many of us have memories of the sow that consistently shelled out eight or nine pigs with each farrowing. We excused her for the short nose count because they were
all “nice-sized pigs.” And we remember the sow
that amazed us with two dozen, often undersized newborns that sent us scrambling to warm them, making sure each got its fair share of colostrum, then trying to find foster moms that could nurse a couple more pigs.

Countless times I have heard a producer say, “I’d rather have eight or ten 3½- to 4-pounders than 15 or 20 lightweights.” I’ve said it myself.

It’s the 2-lb. or smaller pigs that give us fits. But it’s in our DNA to try to save them, and it hasn’t dampened the drive for larger litters.

Those who are successful at weaning large litters will tell you a lot of things have to go right. Good heat detection and insemination techniques are critical. Gestation diets and sow body condition must be scrutinized constantly. Farrowings should be supervised and Day-1 pig care mastered. Sow feed intake during lactation is critical to achieve good weaning weights. 

With modern genetics and solid farrowing room management, it is not uncommon for sows to consistently farrow 12-15 pigs and wean most of them. Pigs born late in the farrowing process — particularly if they are smaller than their littermates — are the “at risk” pigs that will benefit from a little extra TLC. Dry them off quickly to avoid loss of body heat, help them get their first meal of essential colostrum and their odds of survival are vastly improved.

Hope for More

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that we get really good at saving most newborn piglets and the steady march to more pigs weaned/litter continues upward. Most scientists and practical pork producers will agree that there is a biological limit to the number of pigs that a modern-day female can support. In all likelihood, the litter size trend will stall someday.

Today’s not that day. Some new and exciting tools are coming on line to help produce and save more pigs, plus help identify subpar boars and gilts well before they reach breeding age.

Last fall, I received a very interesting e-mail from Jeff Vallet at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Clay Center, NE. The USDA scientist described a simple test that could not only determine whether a newborn had received its critical first meal of colostrum, rich with essential immunoglobulins, but the assay could also help identify the day-old boars and gilts that would not develop the reproductive equipment needed to be prolific later in life. (See story on page 15).

With this newfound capability, it would be possible to screen out the gilts that would not cycle normally or were incapable of developing a fully functional reproductive tract, as well as prescreen boars that would eventually have poor reproductive capabilities and would flunk their fertility test.

Eliminating those common fallouts early in life would naturally improve the national breeding herd and continue to nudge average litter size higher.

Think of it. Genetic suppliers and internal gilt multiplication units could not only rearrange pigs within the first 24-48 hours after birth to balance litters, they could also identify non-productive females and place them with their littermates in the grow-finish barns.

The “select” females could then be reared and developed with special diets that support their pubertal and skeletal development. Armed with this and other management tools, sow herd cull rates should decline and reproductive efficiency improve.

The work at MARC is exciting because it supports the unprecedented gains we’ve seen in the pigs weaned/litter reports. If there’s a better argument for ongoing, generous support of peer-reviewed university and USDA research funding, I’ve not heard it.