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Can we wean up to 40 piglets per sow per year?

Where in some countries 30 piglets per sow per year is only a distant target, others are already talking about achieving a target of 40. The number was key in several series of presentations at this year's edition of Alltech's International Animal Health and Nutrition Conference, in Lexington, held in Kentucky, USA, in May. Below is a Danish and a British view.

Denmark is the world’s most efficient producer of weaners. We have a highly specialised production system and a breeding system, DanBred, that is quite unique. We have succeeded in breeding extremely high-performing sows that produce many piglets. At the same time, Danish sows have a very high feed utilisation. Consequently, it takes significantly less feed to produce a weaner in Denmark compared with other countries. In future, it remains crucial that the sows are capable of tending to the majority of their piglets in an acceptable manner in terms of animal welfare.
Efficient productivity levels on sow farms depend on:
1. Skilled, reliable staff who co-operates and acts with puntcual skill and care.
2. Uniform work procedures in the farrowing facility.
3. An adequate gilt population of a satisfactory quality.
4. A farrowing rate above 90.
5. Efficient management of sows’ body condition.
6. An animal welfare policy that ensures that weak sows are treated before it becomes necessary to put them down. The aim is that the number of sows not eligible for slaughter does not exceed 5%.
Employees on Danish sow farms come from many different countries. On top of that, employees differ greatly in terms of experience, physical abilities and skills.
It is important that only one member of the staff has complete and full responsibility and overview of the production. This is also the person who handles the overall external physical conditions – electricity, light, water, feed, feeding system, ventilation and gilts – thereby letting the other employees focus on their main task, ie. tending to sows and piglets. It is often an advantage to manage the physical conditions through service agreements with suppliers as you will thereby often be able to prevent problems from arising in the first place. Repairs become really expensive once parts break or systems do not function correctly.
Employees must also feel comfortable around their colleaguesas this will make for a good working environment. Language is essential to be able to communicate, and it is therefore crucial that foreign staff members learn to speak Danish. A range of Danish courses are available, but the most efficient way of learning a new language is to use it in practice.
Staff members also need a common goal: for instance, many large and healthy pigs are weaned in the farrowing facility. However, if this is done at the expense of the sows’ body condition and by using many nurse sows, you are simply passing problems on to the staff in the service facility. In the service facility, the staff can only serve sows that are subsequently capable of functioning in group-housing, and the staff in the gestation facility must be able to deliver healthy, uniform sows to the farrowing facility. Vaccination procedures is another example of activities affecting several facilities. A general understanding of the sows’ function in the other facilities on the farm is thus a prerequisite for the entire production process to function optimum.
Employees also possess a great deal of specialist knowledge depending on the section they normally work in. Each staff member works 37 hours a week, has five to six weeks off a year, may fall ill and may also change jobs. This makes it highly important that the work routines in the individual sections are described in as much detail as possible and that there is at all times at least one other staff member who is familiar with the work routines in each section. This ensures a stable production and makes the production less sensitive to staff replacements, disease outbreaks, etc.
Farrowing facility
When the owner of a sow farm wishes to increase productivity levels, the greatest challenge lies in the farrowing facility. The sows must be able to tend to more piglets per litter without jeopardising the sows’ health. A recent trial demonstrated that healthy sows are capable of handling 15 piglets per litter without compromising the number of weaned pigs. This demands quite a lot from the manager of the farrowing facility. The more pigs in the litter, the faster things will deteriorate if the sow becomes sick or if she has too few teats. However, weaning weight drops when the number of piglets in the litter increases, which can be compensated for by supplying dry feed to the piglets.
A well-functioning sow farm needs an adequate gilt population. These gilts must obviously be of satisfactory condition and index to make sure that they will last a long sow life.
Many pig producers consider whether to produce these gilts on-farm or whether to purchase them. When you purchase gilts, you get the number and age group you desire. It is also possible to complain if the gilts are not of the quality you ordered. On-farm production of gilts requires space and time and is not very flexible. On top of this, Landrace x Yorkshire pigs are more sensitive than Landrace x Yorkshire x Duroc pigs and this implies an extra work effort in the farrowing facility as well as in the weaner facility. The main argument in favour of on-farm production of gilts is ‘infection risk’.
Farrowing rate
A demonstration project made together with the local pig advisory service revealed that all Danish sow farms have the potential to reach a farrowing rate of 90 if the work in the service facility is approached the right way. We have the knowledge, but, as demonstrated in the project, the owner as well as staff must be willing to prioritise the work involved. A high farrowing rate ensures a high number of productive sows on the farm and a solid replacement basis. Furthermore, you save approximately 5% on the feed costs.
Body condition
Management of sows’ body condition will reduce the feed consumption and implies that all staff members co-operate. It also reduces the risk of having to cull sows early. Visual evaluation of body condition is a good method for evaluating sows’ condition. However, visual evaluation must be adjusted on a regular basis, and this is done by palpating a selection of the sows, which is an easy method. Sows’ body condition should be evaluated throughout the entire cycle and preferably at farrowing, at weaning, at first gestation check and approximately 70 days into gestation. These evaluations are necessary to be able to detect sows that are either too fat or too thin. Consequently, it is not enough simply to evaluate body condition; you must also react accordingly, i.e. increase or reduce the feed dose to the individual sow.
Gastric health
Digestion and transport of feed in the sows’ gastro-intestinal system must function in a healthy manner and this requires a balanced nutrient composition in the diets. Otherwise, the pigs may develop gastric changes and worst case scenario is acute deaths as a consequense of gastric ulcers. Symptoms of gastric changes are:
• Pale and unthrifty pigs
• Black or dark faeces
• Failure to eat up (possibly vomiting)
• Not optimum performanceThe content of fibre and starch and the grinding of lactation diets must also be correct to ensure optimum digestion and transport of feed in the gastro-intestinal system and thereby prevent gastric changes. Wheat is the feedstuff that has the greatest impact on gastric health and should consequently be used with care in sow diets. The optimum balance between fibre and starch varies between farms depending of housing conditions, access to straw etc., and it is therefore not possible to provide a general recommendation. Diets should be simple and consist primarily of well-known feedstuffs such as barley, wheat, oat and soybean meal. The fibre content of a diet can be increased by using green meal, beet pellets and pectin fibre. These feedstuffs also benefit the gastric health and can be used in combination with wheat. Trial results indicate that pigs’ gastric health can be improved by adding extra fibre in the form of beet pellets to gestation diets and extra fibre to lactation diets. No effect was observed on the sows’ gastric health from increasing the structure of the gestation diet. This observation was unexpected and is attributed to the fact that the structure of the lactation feed was not changed. This indicates that feed structure and fibre content must be increased in both gestation diets and lactation diets before an overall improvement can be expected of slaughter sows’ gastric health.
Animal welfare
Sows must lead a good life to be able to perform satisfactorily in a long productive life. A great deal can be done on the individual farms with punctual skill and care. Staff members will experience great satisfaction when all sows are healthy and perform well, and when only acute injuries among the sows require their attention. Some sows will inevitably die, and some will also have to be put down because of acute injuries.
It is important that each farm owner determines which percentage of dead and killed sows he/she will accept on the farm. Fixed procedures are also required on how to handle an injured sow and which sows to move to a hospital pen. However, the utmost important factor is prevention to ensure that problems stay under your control. For instance, only serve sows that stand a fair chance of managing the following gestation period, and only place sows in groups that you expect will be able to manage in the group. A good selection criterium is to look at the way the sows walk when you move them to the farrowing facility; a sow that does not walk untroubled must be slaughtered. Assess sows’ walk and body condition when they are transferred to a group; do not house thin sows and sows with a troubled walk in groups.
Sows with 40 piglets?

At the save symposium in Lexington, Kentucky, Dr William Close, Close Consultancy, UK, asked the question: “What do we mean by 40 piglets?” – Weaned, born alive or total born?”

In his presentation, he explained: “At 2.4 litters per sow per year, to achieve the above number, the sow would need to produce 20, 18 or 16 piglets per litter. All are possible, but realistically, can the sow produce 16 piglets per litter continuously throughout her reproductive life?

A more meaningful target is for each sow in the herd to produce at least 40 weaned piglets per lifetime. The latter number considers not only litter size, but also the parity distribution of the sows in the herd as well as sow longevity: these will be discussed.

It is known that organic minerals*better meet the needs of the modern hyperprolific sow by ensuring that the metabolic, endocrinal and physiological needs of growth, reproduction and immunity are met. In this respect, the total replacement of inorganic minerals with organic minerals have been shown to increase litter size by at least 0.5-1.0 piglets per litter and, in addition, boost the productive life of the sow, resulting in both an increase in annual and lifetime performance.

However, it is well known that as litter size increases, piglet birth weight decreases. Results suggest that for each extra piglet born, birth weight is decreased by 40 g and variability is increased. In addition, the percentage of water in the developing piglet increases, whereas the percentage of protein (lean) and fat decreases. Muscle development is also affected. The glycogen, mineral and vitamin reserves may also suffer. Thus the piglet at birth is more vulnerable and has a reduced immune status; this increased vulnerability results in reduced performance and increased mortality.

The provision of organic minerals in the diet of the sow during gestation and lactation also benefits the piglet at birth, at weaning and beyond. The inclusion of individual minerals*, have been shown to increase the mineral status of the piglet, resulting in reduced pre-weaning mortality and increased piglet weaning weight. These benefits are maintained through enhanced piglet performance.

Thus, the total replacement of inorganic with organic minerals not only benefits the sow in helping to achieve genetic potential for reproduction, but also the piglet in ensuring higher quality piglets at birth and weaning, and therefore greater survivability and higher subsequent performance.

* Dr Close named Bioplex Fe, Sel-Plex and Bioplex Sow-Pak, Alltech.



Gunner Sørensen, Pig Research Centre, Danish Agriculture and Food Council

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