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How to properly evaluate sow condition

In addition to poor reproductive throughput, sows that are over-conditioned can have increased farrowing issues, as well as higher feed costs and culling rates. Because sows will sacrifice their body reserves to put toward their piglets, birth weights may be impaired in severely under-conditioned sows. Under-conditioned sows can also mean reduced farrowing rates, animal well-being issues and lower herd longevity.

Getting an entire barn filled with sows to the ideal body condition can be tricky. For years, evaluating the ideal body condition has been highly subjective. “It’s easy to become ‘barn blind’ when evaluating body condition,” says Mark Knauer, associate professor and Extension swine specialist at North Carolina State University. “A perceived target sow body condition can vary among individuals and even from barn to barn.

What looks like a good sow body condition in one barn might look over-conditioned in another barn.”

“It is important that employees and barn managers understand sow body conditioning, why it is important, and how to implement a program that keeps sows in good condition throughout their lifetime,” says Sergio Canavate, technical services manager with PIC. “That includes working with employees to develop a system that works and is consistent.”

While many producers have years of experience evaluating what is “good” body condition, it’s not always the case with newer employees. “A lot of employees don’t have a lot of exposure to stockmanship skills at a young age,” Knauer says. “That skill can take time to develop, especially if you have new employees who are new to the barn.”

Nearly 10 years ago, Knauer and his colleagues at North Carolina State University developed a sow caliper. It’s a relatively simple tool that uses objective measurements taken on the sow to give a body condition score. The product is now being used in more than 38 countries.

“It’s a great tool because it’s inexpensive, easy to understand and use, and takes the argument out of body conditioning,” Knauer says of the sow caliper. “That means consistent scoring across multiple barns. And it ultimately means you are hitting your body condition targets.”

Knauer says  not all producers use the caliper in the same way. “We have producers who use the caliper for body condition scores three or four times during gestation. Then there are producers who use the caliper to help confirm their visual body conditioning inspections. The bottom line is that it’s a tool that’s positive for animal well-being and standardizes body condition scores.”

Of course, there is a learning curve for the caliper. “It’s relatively easy to use, but some training is necessary to ensure measurements are being done correctly,” Knauer says. “It’s a good idea to conduct audits on a regular basis to make sure measurements are consistent among employees.”

Canavate says producers understand body condition and its importance, but successful implementation of a feeding and body condition program is a key area. “Labor is one of the limiting factors when it comes to consistent and successful implementation,” Canavate says. “A feeding and body condition program is more than body condition assessment, and it requires training.”


Five Steps to Conditioning Program

Canavate offers five steps to implement a consistent, effective program that provides useful information. While everything comes with some level of practical experience, Canavate stresses that every step is important and intertwined, and limiting one or more of the steps can jeopardize the entire outcome. 

The first step, according to Canavate, is to minimize the number of underweight and extremely overweight females bred. “Taking control of the breeding choices made is key,” he says. 

The second step is to organize weaning and breeding groups by body condition. “This step alone does require some additional labor, but it is worth it to invest time in this area, as it will save time in subsequent steps,” Canavate says. “Subsequent body condition assessments and feeder adjustments will be easier, and you will add consistency into the whole process and outcome.”

Grouping sows based on body condition can also make feeding more efficient, Canavate says. In group housing settings it is key to group sows with similar body condition and size in each pen to help you feed all sows correctly, Canavate says.

Next, use sow calipers effectively. Canavate recommends at minimum taking measurements:

  • At farrowing entry to know the percentage of ideally conditioned females at that time. The goal is to have as many ideally conditioned females as possible at any point.
  • At weaning to get an idea of the body condition lost during lactation and as a starting point for the new breeding group.

He also recommends evaluating body condition at pregnancy check or around 30 days of gestation. He advises checking body condition again at 90 days of gestation.

Fourth, Canavate says feeder adjustment is critical. “Make sure all females are fed according to protocols based on the body condition assessment at any time point,” he adds.

Feeder calibration is key, as well as making sure all feeders are delivering the amount of feed desired. “Weigh feed boxes regularly to ensure settings are accurate to deliver the proper feed amount,” he says.

“Calibration is important when feed ingredient or nutrient specification changes in gestation rations. Feed calibration is also important on electronic sow feeders as an incorrect calibration can cause significant problems.”

Body condition evaluations should be done by two people. One doing body condition assessment and the other doing feeder adjustment simultaneously, Canavate says.  “That allows for good, accurate measurements,” he says.

The final step is checking the water level. Dropping feed when the water level is high can dilute the feed. “Water levels can have a significant impact on the amount of feed being utilized by the sow, and ultimately impact body condition scores,” Canavate says.

Worth the Effort

The sow barn can be a busy place, and many tasks need to be done. Often, these jobs can be hurried because of employee shortages, new employees learning the ropes, or the belief that the time is not worth the effort.

“It’s time to break the routine and place an added emphasis on sow body condition,” Canavate says. “Successfully implementing a feeding and body condition program takes time and effort. It requires involvement from every employee. But at the end of the day, it’s a routine that can pay off with more productive sows.”

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