Committing time, attention to pig’s first 24 hours key to health, uniformity


The farrowing room is a demanding place — one that needs to accommodate the divergent needs of a 500+-pound sow and her 10, 15 or 20 piglets weighing anywhere from 1.5 to 3 pounds.

Unquestionably, nothing is more vulnerable on a hog farm than a newborn piglet. On the other hand, the sow accounts for a major investment before she even farrows her first litter.

So, which set of animals gets priority? Well, both — especially during farrowing and the following 24 hours.

“For us, the breeding department’s priorities are conception and farrowing rates, and day-1 pig care. They are all important to the overall operation and meeting its goals,” says Julio Quiroz, production manager at Eichelberger Farms, Wayland, Iowa. “Especially in the farrowing room, you have to make sure the details are getting done, and it can be easy to steer away from that.”

To keep the six sow units under his watch on track, Quiroz talked to Eric Greiner, senior strategic accounts manager at Zoetis, about the company’s training program aimed at improving piglet care at this critical stage.

With a recent influx of new Spanish-speaking caregivers, Quiroz needed to step up training efforts. He also wanted them to build an understanding of how the US swine industry approaches certain production practices, as well as instill uniform terminology and protocols. But equally important was the opportunity to refresh his veteran caregivers on important details of sow and piglet care.

Although there weren’t any dramatic farrowing-house issues in terms of stillborns or pre-weaning mortality, Quiroz wanted to see improvements. “The ultimate goal is to see how many pigs we can save on each of the sow farms,” he notes. “I also want to provide our caregivers with continuing education and the drive to keep getting better.”

Laying the groundwork

To get things moving, Ezequiel Guzman, project manager continuous improvement with Zoetis, spent time with Quiroz to review Eichelberger Farms’ current newborn-pig-care protocols, identify their goals and expectations and then schedule dates for the training.

“Through this interaction we are able to tailor the on-site training to Eichelberger Farms’ approach to daily farrowing-room tasks and processes,” says Greiner.

Another priority for Quiroz was that the information needed to be presented thoroughly and accurately in Spanish, because the caregivers need to be trained in their own language. “If they can understand only 20% of the information, it doesn’t help,” he says. “We’ve had some other training and the caregivers asked a lot of questions, but the trainers couldn’t translate the answers.”

The Zoetis training program is presented by native-Spanish speakers, including Guzman. And of course, it’s also available in English.

The actual training takes place on the farm with three or so Zoetis representatives, providing 3 to 4 hours of classroom instruction and answering questions. “The instructors share data and give examples of areas we can focus on and improve,” says Jose Castro, who manages Eichelberger’s 5,500-sow Merrimac farm. “Our caregivers were trained like we were trained, so it’s helpful to have an outside perspective. It’s good to have a chance to ask other people questions.”

In the afternoon, the session moves into the barn for hands-on practice and observation. “It’s not just about going in and presenting information,” Guzman notes. “It’s about engaging caregivers.” In fact, if Castro could tweak one thing about the program, he would like to see more time spent in the barn — allowing 1.5 days versus 1 day per site.

Eichelberger Farms conducted two sessions — one in the fall of 2017 and one in February 2018 — reaching a total of five sow units, 16,000 of the company’s 45,000 sows and 25 caregivers.

The why versus what

Too often caregiver training focuses on what to do and stops there. But the day-1 pig-care program gives equal priority to understanding why a practice or task is important, explaining the biology behind the process. For example:

  • The importance of drying piglets soon after birth (Their low energy reserves can’t maintain adequate body heat.)
  • Making sure each piglet receives adequate colostrum (Within 24 hours post-farrowing, colostrum is no longer available — it’s milk.)

“Those are the ‘ah-ha’ moments,” Guzman says. “Understanding those things empowers caregivers to make the best decisions for the animals, which translates to greater success, and they feel better about themselves and their jobs.”

Start with the sow

Eichelberger’s sow farms are set up with 52 crates per room, 20 rooms per unit and roughly five caregivers assigned to a farrowing room, with three committed to day-1 pig care. One person is responsible for chores and sow treatments, one attends the farrowing sows and one person handles the piglets — split-suckling, drying pigs, removing and recording stillborns.

The first shift runs from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m.; another caregiver comes in at 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., with the last person working from 5 p.m. until 2 a.m. “We’re serving animals 21 hours a day,” Quiroz says. They do not induce sows, but he points out that peak farrowing times are roughly 5 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. and then 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

A significant take-away from the training involved when to physically assist a sow, as well as reviewing the proper use of oxytocin. “Sometimes monitoring a sow means leaving it alone,” Guzman says. “People can get too carried away; they have to learn to read the sow’s behavior before they sleeve or reach in to assist a sow. There’s benefit in having a more refined approach to be more efficient in your decision making for the benefit of the piglets and the sow.”

Each farrowing sow is checked every 20 to 30 minutes until she’s confirmed to be done. Castro points out that more focus is placed on problem sows — specifically, paying attention to the sow cards and what they indicate about an animal’s history, looking at stillborns, farrowing delays and which sows might need extra attention.

Castro and Quiroz found that oxytocin use varied among caregivers. So, training emphasized proper timing and use, as well as some alternatives such as rubbing the sow’s udder to help it relax and produce her own oxytocin. If a sow is having trouble farrowing, they may let her out of the crate to walk around.

“Ever since training, I don’t think we’ve ordered another bottle of oxytocin,” Castro says. “Now, everyone is on the same page on how we want to use it.”

Prioritizing piglets

A seemingly minor but important change that resulted from the session is to dry pigs off more thoroughly. Although they had always used a drying powder, caregivers sprinkled it on the pigs and mats. Now, they grab a handful of powder and rub it on each pig, including the umbilical cord. They also provide two heat lamps and a heat mat during farrowing.

“The drying process and giving greater attention to split-suckling was valuable information that really changed what we do,” Castro notes. “We’re seeing it pay off in more filled-out pigs and uniform litters.”

Of course, the driver behind split-suckling is to ensure every pig gets colostrum to enhance its immunity. The farms’ protocol is to place four or five of the most robust, full-bellied pigs in a plastic tote, letting the smaller/empty-bellied pigs suckle for 30 to 45 minutes. Then they mark and rotate the pigs to ensure everyone gets to suckle. They continuously check belly fullness to see which piglets need more time to nurse. For litters of less than 14 pigs, they rotate at least three times in the first 24 hours; litters of 15 or more are rotated five to eight times.

Eichelberger Farms also swaps whole litters instead of cross-fostering within litters. For example, if a gilt has seven pigs and a sow has 15, they will swap the two litters (provided the gilt’s udder can accommodate that number) in order to stimulate the gilt’s mammary development.

Payoff for pigs and people

The unit managers follow up to ensure that caregivers are implementing day-1 pig care. While Castro monitors onsite events daily, Quiroz visits each sow farm monthly. He reviews production records and ensures details are written on the sow cards, such as farrowing monitoring, birth intervals, split-suckling rotations, heat-lamp settings and such. Naturally, if negative trends surface, the managers go back and review the training steps.

Quiroz is going to keep a close eye on pre-weaning mortality. Although stillborn rates are influenced by health challenges, he points out that the farm’s stable-status herds managed by caregivers trained in day-1 pig care have lower stillborn rates — 3% to 4% — than those yet to be trained. “On Jose’s farm, we’ve seen a gain of 0.5 to 1 pig per sow. We’ve definitely seen an improvement,” he says.

Overall, they’re seeing more uniform litters, more pigs weaned (at heavier weights) and reduced treatments. “We also have fewer retained sows, which I think past rates were due to a misuse of oxytocin,” Castro adds.

From the personnel standpoint, Castro and Quiroz have received positive feedback about the training, the depth of information and the useful takeaways. “Practices change and develop as time goes by and we need to keep caregivers informed,” Castro says. “We can’t stand still; we always want to improve.”

Quiroz agrees and is committed to providing caregivers with continuous education and training on many topics. Eichelberger Farms has conducted other training programs, including one on vaccinations and an individual pig-care session designed specifically for their gilt-development unit. They’ve also requested an enteric disease session and a follow up to day-1 pig care for the entire farm staff.

“I want to expand day-1 pig care to the other farm caregivers so they understand where the pigs start and how it fits into the big picture,” Quiroz says. “Knowledge is key for the caregivers’ and the operation’s success.”

Pig care from beginning to end

The center of Zoetis’ day-1 pig-care program is providing the knowledge and training to ensure the sow and piglets are properly cared for and empower caregivers to make the right decisions. After all, actions in the farrowing room impact performance throughout the production system.

“Better treatment for piglets and sows often means better conception rates in the breeding barn and higher-quality pigs at weaning,” says Ezequiel Guzman, project manager continuous improvement with Zoetis, who conducts program training.

The day-1 program covers a lot of ground but focuses primarily on three areas:

  • Farrowing assistance — How to identify at-risk sows; understanding what is abnormal and how to quickly manage problems during the farrowing progress.
  • Dry and warm piglets — Why it’s critical to dry the piglets and ensure they access a heat source quickly after birth to maintain a healthy body temperature.
  • Colostrum access — The importance of ensuring every piglet gets colostrum to boost its immune system, as well as ensuring the sow’s teat health and access to meet the litter’s needs.

Explaining the “why” behind a specific practice builds the caregiver’s knowledge, understanding and comfort in performing the task day in and day out.

“If caregivers have a good understanding of why they are doing something, they’re more apt to complete the process correctly,” says Eric Greiner, senior strategic accounts manager at Zoetis. “I’m always surprised at the number of questions we get during a training course. It’s clear that swine caregivers have a strong desire to learn and get better every day.”

Within day-1 pig care, there’s also the opportunity to customize the program to include farm-specific messages and protocols. “The goal is to work with customers to provide solutions that best fit their herd and staff needs,” Greiner says.

To learn more about on-farm training programs, he advises producers to contact their area Zoetis representative.