Piglet survival — focus on “The Big Five”

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Focusing on five key aspects of management is the route to maximizing piglet survival, Dr. Tim Loula from the Swine Vet Center, Saint Peter, Minnesota, told delegates at the Banff Pork Seminar.

The “Big Five” he refers to are correct preparation of the sow prior to farrowing, provision of a clean, warm and draft-free environment for the piglet, an efficient work plan, good colostrum management and not allowing starve-outs to occur.

During gestation, it’s important to feed sows as individuals, Dr. Loula says. “Feed to condition up to three to four weeks pre-farrowing, striving to have all sows at a body condition score of 3.0,” he advises. “Then increase the feed by two to four lbs. to provide adequate nutrition in order to get a big pig at birth. Sows should farrow at a body condition score of 3.25 to 3.50.”

Dr. Loula cautions against inducing sows to farrow too early, saying that this results in smaller, weaker pigs at birth.

“This can easily be checked by stopping the induction program for a couple of weeks to determine true gestation length,” he notes. “Gestation length in swine varies from 111 to 119 days and if a farm is inducing on day 114, they may be farrowing piglets four to five days early, reducing the piglets’ chances of survival. Farms inducing early often have more scour problems, which can elevate death loss.”

Good environment crucial

Newborn piglets come from an environment of 40 C in the sow’s uterus and are born into one of 20-23 C which is a 17 C drop in temperature in a few seconds, Dr. Loula points out. “Placing heat lamps behind the sow during farrowing reduces mortality by three per cent and we recommend using two heat lamps during farrowing,” he says.

He advises the use of two heat lamps, one near the back of the crate at farrowing and one alongside the sow for the first 24-48 hours. “Use a thermometer or an infrared ray gun to determine the actual temperature at piglet level. Optimal temperature there is 35-38 C.”

Ideally, a telescoping swing arm should be used to hang the lamps, allowing them to be moved towards the front of the pen after farrowing is complete.

Minor ventilation problems resulting in drafts can also increase pre-weaning mortality, adds Dr. Loula.

Piglets should be dried off immediately after birth, either using a towel or with a drying powder, says Dr. Loula. Split suckling boxes can initially be used as dry-off boxes, he suggests. “A small amount of rolled oats or sow feed is put in the bottom of the boxes and a heat lamp placed over them. Pigs are placed in the boxes immediately after farrowing and allowed to warm up and dry off before they are put back on the sow. Newly farrowed pigs continually replace the pigs in the box,” he explains. “The result is a much more vigorous piglet that will nurse much more aggressively and ingest maximum amounts of colostrum. Of course, the hot boxes also accomplish split suckling since not all pigs are nursing at the same time. This process of warming the pigs and split suckling is the most important thing you can accomplish on the day of farrowing.”

Colostrum essential to survival

All pigs must get colostrum within the first six hours after birth, stresses Dr. Loula. “A high percentage of mortality occurs because pigs never received colostrum.” He says that many producers mark piglets that they have observed suckling colostrum so that they can stop worrying about those individuals. “Most of them also mark the ‘at risk’ piglets on their heads and observe them to make sure they are getting sufficient colostrum,” he notes.

Dr. Loula advises that piglets should receive colostrum from their own mother prior to fostering and that piglet movements should be kept to a minimum. He suggests that where litter size is 11-14, pigs should only be moved if there are insufficient functional teats. Excess piglets from litters of 15-21 can be moved to sows with 10 or less piglets, moving the biggest piglets where possible.

Dedicated staff beneficial

Dr. Loula notes that many farms now have dedicated “Day 1” staff that stay in rooms that are farrowing. “Today’s sows very often have 15 total born and 13-plus born alive, which is a big challenge,” he notes. “The dedicated Day 1 staff must be able to provide a high level of TLC, be decision makers and goal oriented, be good work organizers and also capable of multi-tasking.”

The focus is to get colostrum into all piglets within the first six hours after birth, he says. “Many farms are extending hours for Day 1 coverage and some are even going to 24-hour coverage.” However, he cautions against doing too much to piglets soon after farrowing. “Clipping teeth, docking tails, notching ears, tattooing and injecting with iron and antibiotics is too much stress for the piglet and can be a subtle cause of increased mortality,” points out Dr. Loula. “Some producers have stopped clipping teeth altogether.”

Proper care and management of the sow is critical in piglet survivability, Dr. Loula stresses, and close observation of the sow to ensure that she is eating, drinking and defecating normally is essential. It is also important to check that her piglets are full bellied, indicating they are suckling well.

“With high sow feed costs, it is important to maximize piglet output,” Dr. Loula says. “By saving more pigs, feed cost/pig is reduced. More and more farms are paying attention to this and are achieving 30 pigs/sow/year or better.”

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