There are two kinds of people: Those who keep “to-do lists” and those who don’t. Okay, maybe there are three kinds of people — those who keep to-do lists and actually check them off. Mark Whitney, University of Minnesota Extension swine specialist, wants your farrowing room crew to fall in that third group.

Whether you call it a to-do list, standard operating procedures or a production handbook, they all serve a similar purpose — to ensure proper techniques and procedures, and that tasks get done in a timely manner. They also provide a way to check the staff’s work, as well as flag brewing problems with workers or the animals.  

Whether it’s animal health, equipment function, facility repair and maintenance or environmental deficiencies, “the earlier your response, the fewer negative effects,” Whitney says. “You will save more time and money than if you have to address the issue later.”

When a daily routine becomes comfortable, that’s often when details get overlooked or pushed aside, especially when time is tight and staffing is short. So, while it’s one thing to train workers on farrowing-room tasks, it’s another to provide them with daily guidance — especially for the seemingly small things.  

The farrowing room is an effective place for a daily to-do list because there’s little room for error. Those little pigs with developing immune systems and low energy and nutrient body reserves respond quickly and dramatically to small challenges.

“Observation and action during routine care is really the first line of defense,” Whitney says. “First and foremost that means looking at the pigs and meeting their daily needs.”

The farrowing room is unique in that it has animals in two extremes — the sow is 150 times the size of her piglets. Consequently, the care requirements differ greatly. Not to minimize the importance of the sow’s role or needs, but the emphasis here is on the piglets. It’s not excessive to expect caretakers to check off the to-do list twice a day as part of routine chores. Managers also should conduct a daily review, actually walking through the facility and double checking the list to see that things have been addressed. “Properly train workers so they know what, why and when to do things, but then check on them,” Whitney says.

Of course, not all tasks are created equal. As Whitney notes, “A heat lamp that is out on a new litter needs to be addressed right away. A dripping waterer can be handled later that day.” Things that don’t impact the animal or production, say a loose hinge on a door, can be dealt with even later.  A separate “repair list” can help keep track of those tasks. 

The daily list needs to start by focusing on the animals. “The first walk-through should occur without disturbing the animals,” Whitney says. That’s because their natural body language and behavior can tell you a lot about their health and environment. Note the way the animals are breathing, how they’re lying, their general body condition and look for signs of scours or injuries.

“Piglet body condition is the best method of determining whether a sow is milking well,” Whitney notes. Gaunt or unevenly sized piglets as well as thin, dry skin or a dehydrated look tells you the sow is not meeting piglets’ needs.

Quick action to address a sow’s lactation failure, whether it involves illness, water or dietary shortfalls, will greatly impact the litter’s survival and health.  

Once the animals are up and about, there are other signs to check. Healthy, well-nourished piglets are active and playful. These piglets have tight, shiny skin and a plump, thrifty look. Following a successful nursing, piglets will settle down and sleep. Anxious or squealing pigs would indicate that they’re not getting enough to eat.

While that may all seem obvious to you, is it obvious to everyone in the farrowing room? Emphasizing the need to look for and check off these signs should be part of the routine. 

Of course, it may not be the sow’s fault. A pig or two may have gotten chilled or is dealing with a health challenge. “Workers need to be able to recognize the difference between normal and disadvantaged piglets,” Whitney adds. (See sidebar.)

Other observations are specific to health challenges as piglets get a bit older. Get your veterinarian involved to outline symptoms and talk about action steps.

Have workers look for depressed or lethargic pigs, as they are universal red flags and could relate to numerous health issues. A piglet standing with its ears and tail down, as well as having a thin, gaunt body and a fuzzy hair coat signals a problem.     

Convulsing or central nervous system signs such as trembling, excessive salivation and uncoordination could flag Streptococcus suis. Sudden changes in some of the healthiest pigs — becoming listless, lying down and paddling, sinking into unconsciousness — suggest E.coli septicemia. “You will lose these pigs,” Whitney says. “This requires immediate attention.”

Sneezing can signal environmental contaminants such as dust or ammonia. If the pigs are a week old or more, atrophic rhinitis or porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome could be the cause. 

Diarrhea and scouring can involve numerous factors. The point is to ensure that your staff looks for and can spot the difference between “normal” bright, yellow, solid piglet fecal material and soft, watery scours, causing frequent defecation and wet piglets and flooring. “E. coli scours can begin within a few hours of birth and piglets can dehydrate quickly,” Whitney notes. “Bloody scours raises concerns about potential Clostridium perfringes infection.”

Look for swollen, painful joints in older pigs (10 to 14 days old), as that can be caused by rough handling, a Streptococcus infection or Haemophilus parasuis — all of which require different interventions. 

Physical signs related to facilities include injuries such as cuts, abrasions and abscesses. These could be the result of sharp edges on equipment and flooring or they could be due to an aggressive or anxious sow, both of which require action.

Other environmental factors on the to-do list include:

• Ensure there’s no moldy, discolored or smelly feed remaining in the sow feeder. Clean the feeders, including the corners, before adding fresh feed. The same approach applies to supplemental milk systems and creep feeders.

• Check water systems for leaks; also check quantity and flow rates for all waterers. With nipple drinkers, make sure the pressure is less than 10 psi, as the piglets will access them and you don’t want them to be scared off.

• Build awareness of stray voltage — the signs being a tentative sow or if feed or water consumption drops. Bring in an electrician to investigate grounding issues.

• While you wash facilities between sow groups, hygiene is a daily priority. Scrape behind the sow throughout the day but especially right before farrowing.  

• Don’t let workers rely on air temperature. Have them record pig-level temperature as well as observe pigs in an undisturbed state for clues. If piglets are lying in a group just touching each other, they’re comfortable. For each litter, check temperatures involving heat lamps, mats or hovers, and make adjustments as needed.

• Air quality and ventilation — “We don’t think about or look at that often enough,” Whitney contends. A daily check of fans and inlets should include notes on what needs to be fixed or cleaned immediately and what needs to be scheduled for later. Don’t forget about controllers; ensure that they’re set and operating correctly. If the barn is filtered, that’s another item to put on the list.

• Walk around the outside of the facility; look for cracks and holes. Is your rodent baiting system in place and filled? Are there signs of infestation? Is the bird netting in place and free of holes?

• Individual sow cards provide a window to the sow’s and room’s performance. But they need to be updated accurately every day. It takes just a quick check to be sure. Feed intake, medical treatments, water usage, high/low temperature readings for the sow area as well as under heat lamps or the mat surfaces should be on those cards.  

Now, check or draw up your own farrowing house to-do list, grab a clipboard and test it yourself. Make any adjustments, print off a month’s worth of copies and present it to the farrowing crew. The goal is not to create more work; it’s to create more efficient work.

What is Normal?

Normal is a subjective word, so it’s important to spell it out for your farrowing crew to have a clear understanding.

A “normal” piglet is one that’s born quickly, gets to its feet within a minute or two of birth and starts looking for the sow’s udder. The piglet is suckling within 15 minutes of its birth and moves from teat to teat. “That’s a natural instinct of a healthy pig,” points out Mark Whitney, University of Minnesota swine specialist. “It’s actually taking a disproportionately large share of colostrum.”

Survival of the fittest, one might say. That’s why some systems manage colostrum intake by making sure each piglet suckles for a period, but then moves into a “hot box” to free up the udder’s access for the piglets that follow.

A “disadvantaged” piglet weighs less than 2.75 pounds at birth. It may have been weakened by the birthing process, either because it encountered physical trauma or was deprived of oxygen. Piglets born in the second half of the litter are particularly vulnerable. It may have gotten chilled, which is easy to do because of low body-fat stores. A piglet that’s slow to reach the sow’s udder or has congenital defects like splay legs, left unassisted, won’t be able to compete with littermates.