Larry Coleman, DVM, (left) believes farrowing room
personnel are the critical fi rst link in moving an
operation toward world-class productivity.
Larry Coleman, DVM, (left) believes farrowing room personnel are the critical fi rst link in moving an operation toward world-class productivity.

Does 33.5 pigs per sow per year sound feasible? How about a 95 percent farrowing rate and a litter weaning average of 13 pigs?

With today’s sow genetics fully capable of producing 30 pigs per sow per year you could achieve 9,000 pounds of pigs per sow annually. It would surely classify as world-class production.

In moving your system toward world-class production, there are several challenges that must be overcome, and obstructions that must be removed, says Larry Coleman, DVM, Broken Bow, Neb., who says the pregnant sow is a good place to start.

“Producers need to bear in mind that inside this sow are 15 piglets that must pass through a very small opening and the probability of that happening unassisted is actually quite low,” he says. With so much invested in each sow, you need that process to be successful.

Before entering the farrowing room, sows should be washed thoroughly with soap, lukewarm water and a soft brush, paying extra attention to the underline. Rinse the sow from the top of its back down.

A clean, dry farrowing environment will reduce the risk of bacterial contamination and piglet disease. If possible, the total farrowing unit should be cleaned thoroughly to remove all organic matter, then disinfected and left unused for at least 5 to 7 days before a new group of sows is introduced into the unit. If not possible, the individual farrowing pen or crate should at least be cleaned, disinfected and allowed to dry.

The sow should be in the farrowing crate the 110th day of gestation to allow for acclimation to the new environment before the stress of farrowing begins.

Coleman emphasizes that about 20 percent of piglets born in the United States don’t survive and the attrition rate is getting worse. In fact, USDA Agricultural Research Scientists estimate that pre-weaning mortality costs the U.S. pork industry an estimated $1.6 billion each year.

Teamwork by trained and motivated farrowing room attendants lend invaluable assistance to sows as well as newborn piglets, says Coleman, who oversees veterinary care for a 5,000-sow operation. With perhaps 10 sows farrowing at any given time, the farm’s attendants stay very busy with the birthing process.

 In that system, one attendant examines each sow at 20-minute intervals and assists with delivery if needed. He says the efforts of a conscientious farrowing attendant can keep piglet stillbirth mortality rates down to about 1 percent to 2 percent.

With an attentive eye, the sow respiration rate can give clues that the farrowing process is approaching. A normal rate is 25 to 35 per minute and usually increases to 50 to 75 prior to farrowing. (You can learn more at

Pigs can be born either head first or rear feet first in a normal delivery. The average interval between piglets is approximately 15 minutes, with the total delivery process typically less than 2.5 hours.

Newborn pigs have about an hour’s supply of energy. To make matters even more difficult, they can become chilled very quickly and may not even survive the first hour. Beyond providing supplemental heat, make sure the piglet area is free of drafts.

Nursing requires a piglet to compete with perhaps 13 or 14 littermates, which is unsuccessful in many cases. Since colostrum provides vital energy for heat production and immunity to help prevent infections, ensuring that each piglet suckles within 10 to 20 minutes after birth increases survival rate.

In the system Coleman oversees, a second farrowing room attendant dries the newborn piglets and ensures it nurses, and gently massaging with a clean towel not only dries piglets but helps stimulate suckling. This specialist then places the piglet in an appropriate-sized litter if needed and available. This ideally takes place before the piglet has selected a teat.

After an initial nursing, the second attendant places piglets in a split-suckle box. This step allows piglets born in the last phase of the farrowing period to receive colostrum shortly after birth with less competition from littermates. Because colostrum production occurs during the first 24 hours after farrowing begins and then dwindles quickly, there’s a limited window to act, points out Ron Bates, Michigan State University Extension.

 “You want to get the maximum amount of colostrum into the piglet in the first 6 hours of life in order to maximize its chance of survival,” says Ken Stalder, professor of animal science, Iowa State University. “Once each newborn pig has stopped suckling for the first time, it should be marked and placed into a warm creep area. As other pigs are born, they get better availability and intake of colostrum as it is divided across all pigs born alive.”

 While all the personnel and positions discussed so far are necessary to a top-producing operation, Coleman says the key to achieve success is the owner’s commitment and dedication to excellence. “Even in the current difficult times, a dedicated owner will provide the tools and resources that the team requires to be successful,” he adds.

The attendants work together to ensure that piglets are born alive and unstressed, also to ensure they are dry, warm and nourished with colostrum in the critical first hour of life. “If producers maintain this type of farrowing house staff, you will see better results in your weaning rate,” Coleman says.

Yet another member of the team is the farrowing supervisor, who is in charge of training and managing attendants to ensure that they know what it takes to wean 13 pigs per sow.  Farrowing attendants do need to be on duty 24/7, which the supervisor will be responsible for scheduling.

Saving more piglets is an objective worth working toward, and there is just no substitute for having skilled, motivated attendants at each farrowing. To achieve world-class status, however, leadership and commitment must come from the top.

Make Sustainability Your Priority

Achieving world-class pork production requires not only highly skilled employees and top notch production standards but also environmental, social and economic sustainability, according to Don Butler, Murphy-Brown’s director of government relations and public affairs, Warsaw, N.C., and wean-to-feeder pig producer.

Improving overall sustainability requires achieving continuous improvement in all aspects of the business, he says—from nutrition, to health to proper medication applications and withdrawals. “With the increased emphasis on export markets for our products, producers must also be aware of what is happening in the global marketplace,” he says.

Whether the pork products are consumed at home or abroad, understanding customers’ expectations is necessary to achieve or maintain world-class status. “Producers must listen carefully to what their customers expect and then develop the best way to meet those expectations,” Butler says.

He cites the gestation-stall issue as an example. Even though pork producers have relied on sound science to build their businesses, in the end, he believes the marketplace will determine how animals are raised. “This customer focus also holds true for animal care, environmental stewardship, food safety, taking care of employees and community support , which are the pillars of sustainability for our company,” Bulter says.

Current input costs have placed many operations at risk and financial expertise is another requirement for long-term sustainability. “The ability to manage and mitigate risk will likely determine who stays and who leaves the pork industry.”

Despite the challenges, Butler believes the United States is still the premier place to produce pork. “We have many committed and progressive producers who are the best in the world at what they do,” he says. “We have sufficient land for grain production, we have the infrastructure to move our products around the globe, and we have the ability to train the next generation of producers.”

Butler also cites the need for producers to interact with the government and provide input into how the nation’s agriculture policy is developed. “The rapid pace of change in the United States as well as around the world will continue to accelerate and we must be able to adapt to change in order to survive,” he contends.