A heavier piglet usually translates into a healthier pig. But the key is getting baby pigs to gain more weight before you wean them. To help out the process, veterinarian Phil Hardenburger, Crete Veterinary Clinic, Crete, Neb., provides these tips.

1. Use the Right Genetics

It's common knowledge that the U.S. sow herd is highly productive and that total hog numbers are increasing without an increase in sow numbers. In addition, seedstock suppliers are continually improving the reproductive abilities of breeding animals. More efficient use of high-quality maternal breeds and lines, breeding systems that efficiently utilize heterosis and improved management have led to more pigs per sow per year and heavier weaning weights.

2. Jump Start the Process in the Breeding Barn

The most important personnel on the farm work in the breeding and gestation area. With most operations utilizing artificial insemination or a combination of AI and natural matings, this area is becoming more specialized. Proper estrous detection, semen handling, number and timing of inseminations and thorough AI techniques are critical starting points.

3. Keep Your Sows in Condition

Sow nutrition and feeding must be aligned to the genetics that you are using in your herd. The sow's dietary energy intake during lactation is an important factor when you're trying to maximize sow and pig performance.

Inadequate energy intake during lactation results in decreased litter weaning weights.

For starters, feed nutrient-dense diets with approximately 1.50 kcal. of energy per pound of feed. Proper feeding is essential in the farrowing barn to bring the sow up to full feed.

Other factors relating to sow condition are housing (crated barns vs. group penning), parasite control and maybe the most important aspect – water intake.

4. Maintain a Proper Sow Vaccination Program

Hardenburger recommends the following sow vaccination protocol:

Administer an E. coli vaccine at five and two weeks pre-farrowing.

Vaccinate for Leptospirosis and parvovirus at weaning or with a porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome vaccine, depending on your herd's needs.

Using a PRRS vaccine is a variable in most herds. Before using a PRRS vaccine, however, you and your herd veterinarian need to ask the following questions: Does the vaccine increase or decrease your herd's litter size? When should I vaccinate for PRRS? What type of PRRS vaccine should I use – modified-live or killed?

5. Sanitation is a Must

Properly cleaning and disinfecting your farrowing barn can be a boring job, but it's extremely important. You and your employees must adhere to an all-in/all-out rule before cleaning and disinfecting a building. Hardenburger likes to rotate disinfectants from time to time to ensure that organisms don't build up a resistance to any one disinfectant.

Once you're finished washing a room or entire facility, always leave time for the rooms to thoroughly dry before putting sows into their crates. Another tip is to wash the sows with a disinfectant soap prior to crating them to further avoid any potential contamination.

6. Proper Management at Farrowing Time

Induced and assisted farrowing can increase the number of weaned pigs. You must know the average gestation length for your herd to properly time induction.

In addition, farrowing employees must pay close attention to cleanliness. Use a new obstetric sleeve on every sow that needs farrowing assistance, and plenty of lubricant. A proper time frame for a sow is to have a piglet every 30 minutes; longer than that and you risk losing piglets.

7. Properly Process Piglets

The No. 1 rule here is to start with clean equipment and keep it that way. Always disinfectant piglet processing tools between litters. Use sharp castrating knives and eyetooth clippers.

Hardenburger perfers using iodine to spray navels, castration wounds and ear notches. If infection problems occur, you can use a strong tincture. Plus, he recommends giving a 100-mg. dose of iron dextran on the day of processing and when the piglet is 7 to10 days old.

He also notes that research shows that using ceftiofur sodium increases pig survival and reduces preweaning mortality by up to 47 percent. This also translates into an 8 percent increase in weaning weights and up to a six-day advantage in getting the animal to market weight.

8. Concentrate on Piglet Comfort

The piglet's environment can be a real challenge. The hot, humid summer days give farrowing employees many problems. One of the big questions is how do you keep the sow cool and the piglets warm enough? Zone heating and cooling is the key. Drippers on the sows with lots of air movement are a must in hot weather.

Meanwhile, piglets need heat lamps, heat mats and boxes or hoovers to keep them comfortable. And they need to be positioned such that it directs the piglets away from danger of being laid on.

The style and dimensions of crates are important for piglet safety and sow comfort.

9. Provide Supplemental Nutrition

"Although a highly debated subject, I firmly believe that feeding milk replacer to piglets will become common practice in the near future," says Hardenburger. He believes there are four main advantages to supplementing baby pigs' diets with milk replacer:

a. It can reduce mortality by at least 50 percent.

b. It can increase baby pig weights.

c. It helps sows maintain body condition.

d. Supplementation especially helps large litters, gilt litters and litters of poor milking sows.

If you do provide milk replacer for baby pigs, keep these feeding tips in mind:

a. Begin feeding within 12 hours after birth. If you wait longer, pigs get used to nursing the sow and are harder to switch to milk replacer.

b. Dip the noses of small pigs in the milk to encourage consumption.

c. Feed milk replacer cold to minimize gorging.

d. Never let milk run empty. Pigs will over consume when milk feeding begins again and this may lead to scouring.

e. Never mix to dilute or pigs will consume large volumes of liquid that can cause scouring.

f. Keep equipment clean.

g. When you stop feeding milk replacer, make sure there is plenty of clean, fresh water available.

He adds that most producers stop feeding milk replacer after 14 days to encourage consumption of creep feed.

10. Hire and Train the Right People.

"This is the hardest rule to achieve," stresses Hardenburger. "If producers had all the right people fitted to the job that best suits them, we would have very few problems." Make sure that your employees fully understand their jobs and the impact on the success of the entire operation.