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3 Tips for High Litter-Weaning Averages

This is getting ridiculous: the number of pigs that top sow farms wean per litter. You think 10 pigs per litter is good? Well, how about 14?

That’s what some of the very best herds in the industry are achieving, says Keith Aljets, a consulting veterinarian to many top herds in eastern Iowa. Some producers shoot to farrow 14 to 16 live pigs born per litter and then go the extra mile to keep ALL of them alive. “If you want to average 12 pigs weaned or higher, you have to think that way,” he says. “You have to get creative.”

Here are some of the things he sees these top managers do to save more pigs.

1. Attend farrowings

Many sow farms become task-oriented: feeding sows, weaning pigs, washing rooms, and processing piglets. “Those are all important tasks, but if you want to save more pigs, you also need to spend time attending sows as they are farrowing,” Aljets says. 

When piglets are born, they leave an environment inside the sow that is around 103°F. and enter an environment that is 30°F. cooler. “They’re also wet at birth, so those two factors can cause piglets to become chilled easily,” Aljets says. “Chilling uses up body stores of energy, reduces the pig’s ability to aggressively nurse the sow, and results in higher mortality.

“A common practice we see the best farms do is to attend farrowings and then dry the newborn piglets immediately with either towels or powder. It encourages them to suckle the lifesaving colostrum,” he says.

2. Split suckle

This involves removing half of the pigs from the udder for a short time to let the others nurse colostrum. The pigs are then rotated. It reduces competition at the udder and helps all pigs – especially the smaller ones – get colostrum, by which sows and gilts pass on early disease protection.

Typically, Aljets says, good farrowing managers will practice split suckling for 30- to 60-minute intervals, two or three times in the first 24 hours after birth. Half the pigs are put in a homemade box or a large PVC ring while the others nurse uncontested.

“These farms will typically do this before they cross-foster pigs to even out litter size,” says Aljets. “That gives all pigs access to colostrum from their own mother in that first day of life.”

3. Cross-foster

“Despite our best efforts, most piglets that die, die of starvation,” says Aljets. “They get hypoglycemic [low blood sugar] and weak from not nursing enough milk. Then they are more susceptible to getting laid on by the sow.”

To reduce losses from starvation, cross-foster pigs – after they’ve received colostrum – to other sows that have fewer pigs. This gives more of them a chance to latch onto a good milk-producing teat that will provide nutrition to weaning. 

There are a lot of different ways farms cross-foster, says Aljets, including by piglet size and by sows or gilts. “Before moving piglets, talk about it with your herd veterinarian to make sure there are no disease issues.”

Aljets says about 65% of pigs that die preweaning do so in the first three days of life. 

“If you want to wean more of them, that’s when you need to be there doing all these caretaking procedures,” he says. “Anything you can do to keep that pig alive for another day gives you more of a chance to wean it as a healthy nursery pig.”

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