Sows should ideally be in a minimum score of 3 at farrowing, with an optimum of 3.5 and a maximum of 4.
Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal.
Condition scoring provides a quick and simple method of assessing sow body condition, which can be used as the basis for setting feed levels. It also provides a means of assessing the effectiveness of the overall feeding policy in achieving the required body condition within the herd as a whole.
While sometimes criticized as a technique for assessing the effectiveness of the sow feeding program, it has the advantage of being simple to carry out and requires no equipment. On the other hand, it is a subjective measurement and does have some limitations.
Measurement of backfat, another practical alternative, involves the use of ultrasound equipment and is more objective. However, it does require expert nutritional input and information about the optimum fat depths at various stages of the reproductive cycle for the specific genotype being used in order to be effective. Therefore, for most producers, condition scoring will be the method of choice.
Ideally, scoring should be done by the same person each time to ensure consistency. There are a number of standard condition scoring protocols available, with varying degrees of description, usually based on a five-point scale, from 1 (extremely thin) to 5 (very fat).
The most important point is to evaluate the score by feeling the degree of flesh and fat cover over the spine, hip bones, ribs and the base of the tail, in addition to carrying out a visual assessment. This is done by running the palms of both hands over the sow’s body, from the middle of the back down to the tail root.
Feel first, look second
The “palm pressure test” should always be done before attempting a visual assessment. Once it is complete, a visual assessment is made by standing back from the sow and looking at her from head to tail, observing the prominence of ribs, spine and hip bones and the degree of flesh and fat cover. It is worthwhile developing the accuracy required to score to half points because in a well-managed herd a high proportion of sows will be in a fairly tight condition range and whole point scoring is not accurate enough. Half-point scoring will give greater accuracy when developing feed scales based on condition and in defining target condition scores for particular stages of the cycle.
In most herds, scoring sows at 4-5 and 9-10 weeks of gestation and adjusting feed levels accordingly will be adequate, although some production systems score three or even four times. Normal procedure is to increase the feed allowance significantly for thin sows immediately after breeding in order to regain condition quickly, so a first scoring at 4-5 weeks will identify how successful this has been. Most sows will have regained enough condition to be placed on a lower feed level.
Target condition scores for different stage of the cycle can be developed by experience, but are not hugely different for most modern genotypes. Sows should ideally be in a minimum score of 3 at farrowing, with an optimum of 3.5 and a maximum of 4. Overconditioned sows at farrowing are likely to experience a range of problems, including higher stillborns. At weaning, the minimum score achieved should be 2.5 and the optimum 3. A score of less than 2.5 at weaning is very undesirable and will lead to a loss of performance. Routine scoring of sows just prior to farrowing and after farrowing is a very valuable indicator of the effectiveness of lactation feeding and ideally sows should not lose more than half a point during this period.
In addition to using condition scoring as the basis for feeding individual sows, herd condition scoring data can be valuable too because it provides a “snapshot” at a particular time. Whole-herd checks can be used for a variety of purposes, for example to look at seasonal changes, to check average sow condition and the degree of variation in condition at critical stages in the production cycle such as farrowing and weaning and to look at condition in different parities.
Both individual-condition scoring and whole-herd scoring can be very valuable tools in managing sow condition. However, the information should also be evaluated alongside other measures of the effectiveness of feeding policy and its implementation in the breeding herd, especially measures such as wean-to-service interval, litter size, farrowing rate and replacement rate.