As the pork industry continues to make gains in the number of total pigs born and pigs born alive, today’s top producers are consistently surpassing the old 11-pig goal.

“I believe that 12 pigs born alive is the benchmark for what it takes to be a competitive farm today — and the trend is higher yet,” says Tim Loula, DVM, with the SwineVetCenter in St. Peter, Minn. “I see 13 to 15 born alive being achievable in the not-too-distant future.”

With the world’s top herds now achieving 30 pigs per sow per year, a combination of management and today’s swine genetics are capable of further boosting your farm’s productivity. If you’re not hitting current benchmarks, use this checklist of Loula’s top four tips to identify areas where you can improve.

1. Gilt management

Loula believes this is the most common stumbling block for producers who aren’t achieving high total-born numbers. In the past, gilts were often bred too young, bred too small, bred on the first heat, bred in a pen and moved at the wrong times. Those practices resulted in lower total born, lower farrow-ing rates and a higher percentage of animals with seven or fewer pigs born alive.

With proper management, however, farrowing rates for gilts often reach 92 percent to 94 percent, and the number of pigs born alive is often 12 or higher.

Mark Schwartz, who runs a 25,000-sow operation near Sleepy Eye, Minn., has seen the difference that proper gilt management makes. “When you make sure a gilt is mature and at the correct age for that first breeding, it helps you get a large, robust first litter,” he notes.

What’s more, that attention to detail can pay off for months to come. “We also know that high-performing gilts usually turn into high-performing sows, so getting gilts started right pays dividends throughout all parities,” Loula says. His gilt-breed-ing basics include:

  • Breeding age — 240 days.
  • Size — Body weight at 300 pounds or heavier.
  • Backfat — A minimum of 15 millimeters at breeding, with a body-condition score of approximately 3.5.
  • Timing — Breed on the third heat cycle or occasionally on second heat, but never on the first heat.
  • Feeding — Full-feed gilts and sows before breeding. This requires feeding two to three times per day for at least two to three weeks prior to breeding.
  • Handling — See that the gilt is “crate-broken” (introduced to the crate) for at least 10 days prior to breeding.
  • Put her on hold — Do not move any bred sows or gilts from the time of breeding through the next 35 days of the gestation period.

2. Older weaning age

Most of the SwineVetCenter’s clients have moved away from the 16- to 18-day weaning age, and are now weaning at 18 to 20 days. Loula believes there is an opportunity to go to 20 to 23 days.

“Every farm that we’ve added farrowing crates to, or changed breeding barn numbers to achieve older weaning ages, has seen a payback not only in nursery/grow/finish per-formance, but also in higher reproductive output such as total pigs born and farrowing rates,” Loula says.

Dwight Mogler, who runs a 900-sow, farrow-to-finish operation north of Alvord, Iowa, several years ago switched from weaning at 16 days to 20 or 21 days and hasn’t regretted the decision. “We’ve seen bigger litters and better breed-back rates by using an older weaning age,” he notes. 

3. Feeding in lactation

While lactation feeding drives reproduction, many producers have failed to provide sows with enough feed in the lactation and post-weaning stages. “We’ve always said you must feed at least three times a day or have animals on a self feeder from the third day of lactation on through weaning,” Loula says.

To boost feed intake, Mogler “wet feeds” all of his sows by adding water to the troughs.

Another important aspect of lactation feeding is to have the sows in proper body condition. This means they come to the farrowing room with a body score of 3 to 3.25 and go out at 2.5 to 2.75 — or not losing more than 2 millimeters of backfat during lactation.

4. Breeding-barn flow

Typical breeding barn mistakes that Loula has observed include:

  • Not crate-breaking gilts.
  • Breeding gilts in pens and then putting them in crates after breeding.
  • Breeding in pens (sows or gilts) and then mixing bred-animals into pens.
  • Moving sows/gilts any time during the fifth day to the 30th day of the gestation period.
  • Tightening animals up too much or not having what he calls a “parking lot” (an overflow area). “On any given group, animals may fall out; they either pre-check negative, become sick or lame or die,” Loula says. “The parking lot is a designated area where a certain number of sows go every week. The number is the expected fall-out percentage.”

For example, if you expect an 85 percent farrowing rate, park 15 percent of your animals every week. At five weeks of gestation (at preg check), these parked animals will be used to fill the holes of those that preg-check negative, and the recycles.

“If you are breaking too many of the basic rules, you must redesign and rework the animal flow,” Loula says. “Always remem-ber that less movement in the breeding barn is better.”

He outlines three basic breeding barn-flow options:

1. Wean sows to a designated wean/open-crated area. Breed in the crate and move the sow out to the “snake” after the animal is out of heat, is done being bred,   and before five days after breeding.

To understand the snake, think of a 2,500-sow unit that has 125 animals per group,” Loula says. “These would be filled down one row, back the next row and up the next row in a serpentine fashion throughout the barn. As sections are emptied when animals move to farrowing, the sections are refilled in reverse order.”

2. Wean to a wean/open-sow area; find sows in heat and move them out to the snake (row) by late morning. Some producers wean sows whenever they have open spaces, while some wean directly into the snake.

“I prefer having a designated area where all weaned/open sows are located to focus labor on finding animals in heat and getting sows bred, and to facilitate the extra feed that we give weaned pigs and open sows prior to breeding,” Loula says. After breeding, the animals are moved out to the group flow (snake) in the holes created by the sows moving to the farrowing barn.

3. Wean directly to the snake (breed row), remove sows and replace any non-cycling animals after seven days, then leave bred sows in place until they’re ready to farrow. Non-cycling animals are moved back to a designated open-sow area or to the next group in the flow (snake) with that week’s weaned pigs.

“What we once thought was a big litter will become the herd average,” Loula says. By focusing on a total-management system from gilt management to weaning age, 14-plus total born is no longer an outlandish goal.”