If the nursing sows on your farm consume enough feed -- say, 15 pounds per day or more on average -- you can turn the page; this article is not for you. It means you are already doing the things necessary to get sows to eat well.

Many farms achieve this goal, but many do not. The lower the feed intake within your unit, the more critical it is to follow the suggestions provided here.

The amount of feed that your lactating sows consume is not something that just happens -- it’s something that you can manage. Like many other pork production tasks, the steps are simple in concept but challenging to accomplish every day. This list is restricted to the things that people working in the barn can address. There are other important factors that affect feed intake during lactation, such as building design and diet formulation, but they are beyond the barn crew’s control and are not part of this discussion.

You need to focus on getting lactating sows to eat enough because it’s important. If sows don’t eat enough, their milk production runs low and the pigs will be light at weaning. More importantly, the sows’ wean-to-estrus intervals are extended, and both the farrowing rates and next litter size will fall short of potential. 

It’s not good enough to simply ensure that sows are in reasonable condition at weaning. You can achieve that by overfeeding sows while they are pregnant, so even after excessive weight loss during lactation they retain what appear to be adequate body stores of protein and fat. The problem is that the rapid weight loss while the sow is producing milk sends the wrong signals to the reproductive tract, interfering with ovarian follicle development that will become the next litter. You should direct more attention to the rate of weight change during lactation than to the body condition at weaning.

To encourage sows to eat enough while they are nursing, review the following items. These things are not new, but they are sometimes forgotten in the midst of daily pressures.

1) Feed pregnant sows moderately

Feed enough to allow sows to grow and replenish body reserves lost during a previous lactation, but not so much that the sows get fat. Be sure that sows at farrowing do not exceed about 23 mm of backfat depth at the P-2 position. If sows are too fat, they will eat less during lactation.

2) Check the thermostat Set it at about 68° F. Higher room temperatures reduce feed intake dramatically. Heat stress may be a fact of life during summer, but you don’t have to accept it during winter.

3) Cool the sow during summer (plan now) Clean the fan blades and be sure that the entire ventilation system is working properly, with adequate air flow. If you have an evaporative-pad system, pay special attention to it. If you have in-room circulating fans, be sure you are operating them as recommended.

Drip cooling is the most powerful method available to reduce heat stress in lactating sows. If you have a drip-cooling system, use it effectively with appropriate pressure and on/off cycling. If you don’t have one, consider getting or making one. The downside of drip cooling is wet floors, especially if the system is not managed well.

4) Ensure an adequate water supply If sows don’t drink enough, they won’t eat enough. If you have nipple drinkers, check the water flow at regular intervals. Always check it when you have a sow that’s reluctant to eat. Each nipple should provide at least 2 quarts of water per minute. If your farm uses cup drinkers, ensure that they are clean and working well.

5) Manage the feeding process If possible, use properly designed feeders with hoppers to allow sows free access to feed at all times. Otherwise, feed at least three times each day. Remove wet or stale feed from the feeder pan.

Sows eat more from well-designed wet/dry feeders than from dry feeders. If wet/dry feeders are not available, consider mixing feed and water for difficult sow cases. Take special care to manage it properly and ensure sanitation.

6) Care for the animals Do what you do best -- use your “animal sense” to know when a sow is uncomfortable or needs special attention. Stockmanship is a fine art and is important.