Treat Sows As Individuals, By Todd Thurman, SwineTex Consulting Services

Todd Thurman, SwineTex Consulting Services

I consider myself a practical consultant. I often share with young managers the idea that 100% of 80 is better than 50% of 100…doing a great job of implementing a good plan usually yields better results that doing a poor job of implementing a perfect plan. Shakespeare, not surprisingly, put it more eloquently when he wrote in King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”

Because I’m focused on helping clients get results on farms, when I make recommendations, the odds that my directions will be implemented factor in heavily. I once helped a client prepare a production manual. That client then shared their manual with another client and the second client approached me saying, “There are some things in there that we disagree with.” My response was that there are some things in there that I disagree with. I explained that the manual was THEIR best practices, not MY best practices.

It’s not that I don’t argue for my position; I present my case along with evidence and try to

convince them to implement my recommendations. I often chose, however, to make concessions on more minor issues in an effort to ensure that managers have ownership in their practices. It’s easier to hold people to their own standards than to hold them to my standards. The more important the issue, the more vigorously I argue my position and the slower I am to compromise. There are some issues that are so important that I decide to stand my ground and refuse to back down. The rest of this article is about one such issue…an issue so important that even a practical consultant who is focused on results and carefully choosing his battles, cannot, in good conscious, concede on.

Sows are individuals and must be fed as individuals in lactation. For me, this is a non-negotiable. We can discuss different ways to achieve our goal of feeding individual sows but they must be fed individually, not in a regimented way that wastes feed with some sows and drastically limits the potential intake of others. In any given farrowing house, there are sows of a variety of different sizes, ages, body conditions, health statuses, litter sizes, genetic potentials, metabolisms, and even behavioral tendencies. This results, not surprisingly, in huge variation in nutritional needs and ultimately, in potential lactation feed intake…the amount of feed they would consume under ideal conditions.

Some feeding systems are designed to provide a set amount of feed to each sow regardless of the factors noted above. I call these systems limit-feeding systems. Some go a little further by segregating sows by parity or weight or even litter size. That’s better but, in my opinion, still not sufficient to address the natural variation that is observed even within these groups. Some systems will have a fixed system for the first 5-7 days. Proponents of these systems argue that variation in potential intake is relatively small for the first week or so. I disagree. I have observed wide variations in natural intakes in hand fed and ad lib feeding systems as early as day 2.

Basically, limit feeding systems do an adequate job of feeding the average sows, roughly the middle two quartiles. These systems fail because they underfeed (in some cases dramatically) high-intake sows and waste a lot of feed with low-intake sows. With the performance levels we expect form these sows in modern production systems, this is simply unacceptable in my opinion.

I recommend systems that account for individual sow needs, minimize feed wastage and get sows on full feed as soon as possible. Some opponents of aggressive feeding programs will argue that feeding too much early can cause reductions in feed demand in week two that are associated with poorer overall performance. They argue that the best way to address this issue is to slowly bring sows up to full feed during the first 5 to 10 days. I agree that those dips in consumption in week two are concerning but I only observe this phenomenon in about 20% of the farms I work with. So, for 80% of the farms I work with, this is a non-issue and we get sows up on full feed as soon as possible after farrowing and keep them on full feed for the duration of lactation. For the farms that do observe this trend, I still recommend feeding aggressively for the first week but to hold sows at a specific feeding level for a few days in week two. In almost all cases, this resolves the issue with little impact to overall feed intake. It is important to note that total lactation feed intake is around 15% lower in systems that limit feed intake in the first week.

I want to be clear, I am not opposed to programs that set target intake levels for groups of sows. I think this is a useful practice that gives managers a good idea whether or not they are achieving their overall goals for lactation feed intake. What concerns me is the risk that workers interpret those average daily targets as the amount they should feed all sows. Workers need to understand that averages are just averages and there will be sows that eat much more (and much less) than the average amount on any given day and that targets for average daily lactation feed intake should not influence the amount that is fed to individual sows.

So what programs do I recommend? A complete discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but there are basically two types of programs that meet my requirements. The first is an ad lib feeding system. Ad lib feeding systems can be achieved with a variety of different equipment (some better than others), but the idea is the same…providing fresh feed to sows 24 hours a day. The second system is what I call a managed feeding system. Some people use the term “hand-feeding” but I am trying to stay away from that term as technologies are emerging that offer additional ways to achieve the same goals without requiring manual feeding. The managed feeding system is designed to provide a sow with an amount of feed that is at or very slightly below their maximum intake per feeding. Some research has indicated that this system, when properly managed, will outperform ad lib systems.

I help clients choose a system that best fits their situation after considering management quality, equipment, labor availability etc. Once we’ve selected the best of the two systems, we can discuss the best way to implement the system including equipment and procedures for workers to follow. Clients are often concerned that my recommendations will require a significant amount of labor. My response is that it’s important to focus on the right things and getting sows fed effectively in lactation is one of the most high-impact activities on the farm so we need to work together to make time to ensure this gets done right. If that means compromising in other areas, so be it. I’m open to compromise in a lot of areas, but feeding sows as individuals is not one of them.

About the Author: Todd Thurman is an International Swine Management Consultant and Founder of SwineTex Consulting Services, LLC. SwineTex is a US-Based provider of consulting and training services to the global pork industry. To learn more about SwineTex Consulting Services, send an email to or visit the website at