If your sow attrition rate has been creeping up to uncomfortable levels or your sow herd profitability has been slipping, it’s worth reviewing feed management strategies for lactating sows. Inadequate nutrient and feed intake is not only a significant contributor to poor performance, it can lead to high sow attrition rates.

 “Maximizing feed intake during lactation is critical to improve overall sow performance including productivity and longevity,” says Mark Whitney, University of Minnesota Extension swine specialist. He provides three objectives for a successful lactating-sow feeding program:

1. Ensure that all lactating sows consume sufficient feed on a daily basis to meet their energy and nutrient requirements.

2. Minimize problems in a sow’s reproductive performance due to negative energy and nutrient balance.

3. Optimize litter performance.

Because highly productive sows produce up to 3 gallons of milk per day, their daily nutrient requirements are about three times higher during the lactation period than in gestation. If a sow doesn’t receive adequate energy levels during lactation, it will pull from its body reserves and weight loss will occur, which can extend the wean-to-estrus interval.

“Ensuring adequate feed intake is of primary concern with lactating sows, followed closely by providing adequate amino acids,” says Mike Tokach, swine nutritionist, Kansas State University. Maximizing lactation feed intake starts with feed management during gestation.

“To help drive feed intake during lactation, sows should not be over-conditioned when they enter the farrowing house,” Tokach says. This means dropping a sow’s feed intake in late gestation and ramping it up in lactation. (For more details on gestation diets, go to http://bit.ly/jST56I.) An over-conditioned sow entering the farrowing house tends to have a lower appetite just when it’s important to maximize feed intake.

When determining sow feeding levels during gestation, Whitney suggests that first you evaluate sow weight and backfat levels. Sows should be fed during gestation to reach a backfat depth of  0.7 inches to 0.8 inches when measured at the last rib. (To order a sow-weight measuring tape, go to http://bit.ly/lJIry1.)

The Amino Acid Factor
Since lysine is the first limiting amino acid in corn/soybean meal-based diets, ensuring adequate levels in lactating-sow diets is crucial to maintain performance. “Most high-producing sows will require 60 to 65 grams standard ileal digestible lysine per day over the course of the lactation phase,” Tokach says. “This is higher than previous recommendations because today’s sows are nursing more piglets and producing more total weaned weight. The litter weight gain per day is much higher than in the past.” (For more details, check out “Lactating Swine Nutrient Recommendations and Feeding Management” at http://bit.ly/kPsz1H.)

Because they are still growing, most first-parity sows will benefit from 0.10 percent to 0.20 percent higher lysine levels to maintain the same litter performance as older parity sows, Whitney says.

He suggests limiting litter size in first-parity sows to 10 piglets to avoid performance slumps that can occur in the next litter. You can do this by cross-fostering the extra piglets to nurse on other sows. 

Housing and feeding first-parity sows separate from older sows also can be effective. A lactating sow’s feed intake tends to increase from the first through the sixth parity, with the largest increase occurring between parities one and two, according to Whitney.

“If sows of all parities are housed together, diets should be formulated to meet requirements of young sows, which of course over-supplies nutrients to older sows,” Whitney says. “Another strategy is to formulate diets to meet older sows’ requirements and provide a high-protein top dress to meet the young sows’ higher amino acid needs.”

Power from Protein
Protein levels contained in lactation diets can impact feed intake. Reducing crude protein from 16 percent down to 14 percent or 12 percent can reduce feed intake and result in weight loss. It also can cut into pig weaning weights, Whitney notes. If you feed lower-protein diets, formulate them to ensure that you’ve met all amino acid requirements. (You can find more detail on amino acid requirements for lactating sows at http://bit.ly/kPsz1H.)

Calculating lactation feed intake is useful and can help identify when you need to intervene. For sows fed individually, measure the weight of feed contained in one scoop and calculate her total daily feed. On a herd basis, analyze feed deliveries over four to six months to determine average consumption per sow.

Distillers’ dried grains with solubles can be incorporated into lactating-sow diets at 20 percent to 30 percent without significant performance setbacks. However, the diet should be formulated on a digestible lysine and energy basis.

Since DDGS can temper the animal’s feed intake at first, start with low levels in the gestation diet and increase levels gradually. Since mycotoxins’ impact is most severe in sows and any exposure in the corn amplifies mycotoxins in the DDGS, make sure DDGS used in lactation diets is mycotoxin free.  

Attend to Sow Comfort
Keeping lactating sows comfortable helps increase feed intake, Tokach adds. In hot weather, that means keeping sows cool; zone cooling or snout coolers can help. For example, a drip system can increase sow feed intake by 25 percent or more during hot weather. Whitney suggests a farrowing room temperature of 65° F to 70° F. It’s wise to keep the room cool for the sow and use supplemental heat to keep piglets warm.

Offering feed in late evening and overnight hours can help intake since sows prefer to eat during those cooler temperatures.

Flooring and supportive footing are important. “If flooring is slippery, sows won’t get up as often and they won’t eat as much,” Tokach says.

Ensure ample water availability for each sow; don’t assume that the flow is consistent throughout a room at all times of the day. Since a sow can consume up to 7 gallons of water daily, Whitney recommends a flow rate of 1.5 to 2 pints per minute for nipple drinkers in farrowing crates.

A lactating sow’s nutrient needs depend on the feed’s energy level, the sow’s weight, anticipated change in weight during lactation, litter size and litter performance expectations. While meeting nutrient needs is important throughout lactation, Tokach says late lactation is the time to prevent weight loss. “The less weight sows lose in the farrowing house, the more likely they will breed back quickly — within seven days after weaning.”

By maximizing sow feed intake during lactation and by paying close attention to sow comfort, you will realize gains in both performance and longevity from today’s high-productivity sows.

Pay Attention to Feeders
Regardless of the feeding system for lactating sows, the goal is to maximize feed intake.

Feeders with bars or dividers should be avoided as they may interfere with the sow’s ability to consume feed and may reduce total feed intake, notes Mark Whitney, University of Minnesota swine specialist.

Large feeders with open access for the sow are preferred. Wet feed also can help increase consumption. “Feeding wet feed has been shown to increase feed intake by 10 percent to 15 percent,” Whitney says. “However, you need to make sure that the feed does not spoil and that the feed pan is kept clean. Ideally, the mix should be two to three parts water with each part feed.”

Automatic sow feeders in the farrowing house have become increasingly popular. “We’ve seen feed intake go up in many systems when producers incorporate automatic feeders,” says Mike Tokach, swine nutritionist, Kansas State University. “They can alleviate human error in providing nutrition for the sow and ensure adequate feed availability.”

“Whatever system is used, producers should strive to feed sows ad libitum as soon as possible after farrowing,” Whitney adds. “If sows are hand-fed, a feeding schedule of three times a day is recommended, especially during summer months when feed can go stale and spoil quickly.”

He recommends spending extra time on feeder management to keep sows eating during hot weather.