Lowering pre-wean mortality starts at day 1

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Pre-wean mortality continues to be a challenge to producers across the industry as genetic improvements allow sows to be more prolific and achieve higher total born. As a result, producers face the difficult task of reducing mortality rates that are as high as 15% on some farms.

A big part of the solution starts with a focus on the first few days of a piglet’s life when roughly 50% of pre-wean mortalities occur, reports Henry Johnson, DVM, Swine Veterinary Center, St. Peter, Minnesota.

Day-1 focus

“It all ties back to day-1 care and getting those pigs started right,” Johnson said. “You really want to identify piglets that are cold, in the corner or isolated and don’t have a belly full of milk. These are no-brainers, but it’s really hard to do consistently on the larger farms today.”

There’s pressure on farm employees to be fast and efficient when checking over litters and still catch all the problems.

“That’s what makes it a challenge, especially on farms dealing with a lot of labor shortages,” Johnson added. “But once [employees] get to a level of understanding what it takes to be successful from day 1, that’s where we see the best farms really start to excel.”

After day 1, the focus continues on managing the smaller, left-behind pigs, often with the use of a nurse-sow system. Johnson says they do a lot of two-step nurse-sow collections, which usually involves a newly weaned sow to nurse a younger litter from a donor sow. The donor sow is then available to nurse the youngest, poor-performing piglets.

Bump in gestation feed

Gestation feed also affects piglet weight at birth and the ability to thrive.

“Farms that are most successful are the ones managing feed correctly at the beginning and end of the gestation period to avoid those low birthweight pigs,” he said.

“It seems to have an effect when we increase feed intake the last 2 to 3 weeks of gestation. [We are] just trying to add some extra ounces on those piglets right before they farrow.”

Important metric

During visits to client sow farms, Johnson focuses on the farrowing house and pre-wean mortality rates.

“It’s definitely a metric that all our clients are looking at every day, every week and comparing from farm to farm,” he said. Good farms strive to be under 10%. Really good farms target 8%, and farms with challenges will be 12% to 15%, he added.

On farms with challenges, it is difficult to lower the mortality rates because there are many possible scenarios and causes. It also requires a lot of employee training to help “understand what risks are presented to those young pigs and how to mitigate them through the farrowing house,” he explained.

But clearing these hurdles to lower pre-wean mortality rates pays off. Few metrics have a bigger impact on the bottom line than this rate. Saving one or two more piglets per litter means more market hogs out the door.

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