Facing record-high input costs, it’s tempting to focus on cutting expenses. But be wary of the unintended consequences, especially those that negatively affect the breeding herd.

While getting more pigs out of fewer sows is always important, today it must be a priority. “You can’t afford to keep non-productive animals in the breeding herd with the high input costs we are seeing now,” says George Foxcroft, University of Alberta swine reproductive physiologist. “It’s especially important to get sows past the third parity, which is when they start to pay for themselves.”

Determining how to best improve efficiency is a challenge. Chances are you know most of the secrets, but may have been lax in putting them into practice. David Bishop, a swine production consultant from North Carolina, suggests producers put a renewed emphasis on animal husbandry and make a stronger commitment to eliminating feed waste.

Also, focus on developing a productive breeding herd. That means determining the right time to breed for your herd, and ensuring that females stay bred and return to be bred again. Of course, that process starts with gilt development.

Foxcroft says there are several gilt-development options to consider, depending on your pig flow, geography and other production factors. The important thing is to stick to your program.

“Problems occur if, at the end of the gilt development period, you still can’t fill your breeding targets and you send gilts that are not in standing heat to the sow farm,” Foxcroft says. “This means the gilt program is not meeting breeding targets, and animals that likely will never be productive are moving into the breeding herd. Many of the gilt non-productive days are accumulated by animals that never have a litter.”

Charlie Francisco, DVM, Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health technical services specialist, says that while voluntary culling is usually taught on the farm, often it’s not practiced. That makes developing quality animals an even more crucial priority.

Estrus detection is the first step to identifying productive females. Foxcroft created a model that shows gilts should be exposed to boars once they reach 200 pounds to stimulate estrus. They should be bred at 300 pounds or heavier, and they will farrow around 400 pounds.

Entry-to-first-service interval is a concern, but you shouldn’t limit it at the expense of gilt development. “A certain amount of time is needed to expose gilts to their environment and get them acclimated,” Bishop says. “It’s not actually a non-productive period if you’re investing in the bigger picture.”

To help ensure that sows come into estrus, pay special attention to the “big three” management factors:

1) Provide boar exposure.

2) Provide adequate space for gilts. Francisco says gilts need more space than finishing pigs and should have at least 15 square feet per animal. Crowding gilts will compromise their entry-to-first-service interval, he adds.

“Developing gilts need to be treated differently than market pigs,” says Tim Safranski, University of Missouri swine breeding specialist. “Once gilts reach about 150 pounds they need more space — 10 to 12 square feet with it increasing to 16 square feet as they approach breeding age.”

3) Ensure a high-health status. Compromising health can hurt you in many ways. Francisco says he has seen circovirus vaccinations increase gilt weights, even on animals not affected by the disease, indicating a sub-clinical impact on growth rates.

As Bishop notes, “If producers stop vaccinating for several diseases, it can cost them 0.2 to 0.3 pigs per litter.”

If you put all that work into getting gilts to come into heat, then it’s critical to pay attention to estrus detection. Bishop contends that a lot of gilts that don’t come into estrus still are capable of being fertilized, and that 5 percent to 7 percent of the gilts that you do not find in heat actually did cycle.

Heat detection can be a challenge, particularly if qualified employees are hard to find. One way to improve this is to synchronize estrus of gilts, using altrenogest.

Knowing when gilts will come into standing heat lets you focus your breeding efforts to certain days of the week and avoid staff scheduling conflicts with weekends or holidays.

Hormonal therapy is another tool that you can use to ensure that gilts cycle. Bishop says that hormonal therapy can help gilts get bred on their second cycle at about 32 to 35 weeks of age.

Since some of these steps may require additional dollars, it’s important to regularly calculate returns from such investments — and at today’s feed prices those calculations may surprise you. Feeding too many gilts to ensure that you meet breeding targets is an ultra-costly proposition.

“It’s also important to re-evaluate breeding technologies as they relate to the biological changes occurring in the breeding herd,” Foxcroft says. “The sows and gilts of today are not those of 10 years ago.”

After estrus is detected, you still need to breed the gilt. Today, artificial insemination is used to breed about 90 percent of sows and gilts. But because it’s so common, Safranski says he sees less emphasis on AI training programs for employees than in the past. That’s a concern, and he emphasizes that it’s still important to focus attention on AI management and techniques.

Still, even if you follow all the proper AI protocols, some animals simply will not be productive. With others that are productive, it’s tempting to leave them in the breeding herd too long, but consistent culling can ultimately improve efficiencies.

There are two main reasons why sows or gilts are culled: feet-and-leg-soundness issues and reproductive failure. Safranski suggests the National Pork Board’s Gilt Selection Pocket Guide (go to www.porkmag/reproduction) to sharpen your evaluation skills.

As for reproductive failure, it is responsible for most every culling after the first parity. Safranski says nearly every gilt can be made to cycle if you keep it long enough, but that late-maturing gilts are almost always less productive.

So how do you know when to give up on a gilt?

“Depending on management systems, boar exposure, population and health, you should be able to get gilts in heat in about four weeks,” Safranski says. “Beyond that, there are things you can do to get them into heat, but you probably won’t be happy with their performance.”

At the same time, Bishop cautions poducers about culling historically productive sows following one bad parity. “Many times, we cull based only on pigs born alive, but human error may have caused the problem,” he adds. “Using an index that relates each female to the rest of the breeding herd, or looking at two or more parities is more effective.”

One such oversight is to feed the breeding herd all one diet. First-parity sows in particular have different nutritional needs than older sows, yet too often they all receive the same diet. “Some producers feed all sows an enhanced diet to accommodate first-parity sows, but in today’s climate that may be costly,” Foxcroft says. “On the other hand, feeding first-parity sows the same diet as older sows may negatively impact their retention rates.”

Sows tend to be most productive in parities three through five, and holding onto sows in parities six through nine can have diminishing returns. Eventually that old sow is not as productive and may have some colostrum deficiencies.

In the end, high input costs will present many challenges this year and beyond. But it’s important to base decisions on your business’ long-term viability, not just the short-term economic outlook.

“Don’t fall into the pitfalls of cutting your production by accident,” Francisco says. “If you want to reduce your production, that is one thing, but be wary of cutting costs and becoming less efficient.” PK

Getting Gilts in the Mood

“The No. 1 constraint on any sow farm is boar exposure,” says Charlie Francisco, DVM, Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health technical services specialist. “Either boars aren’t used at all, they’re overused, boars with no libido are used or the approach falls short.”

Francisco recommends the Boar Exposure Area — BEAR — model, developed at the Swine Research and Technology Centre at the University of Alberta. It involves taking gilts to the boars or to a neutral spot for at least 10 minutes of nose-to-nose contact.

Tim Safranski, University of Missouri swine breeding specialist, says while boar exposure requires more labor, it can pay off in better estrus stimulation and detection. “We need to make sure gilts and sows are thinking about breeding and not about anything else,” he adds.

Safranski suggests making the breeding female as comfortable as possible. In the summer, heat check in the morning when temperatures are more comfortable. Take sows and gilts to a neutral site. If they are conditioned to think about breeding when they go to that site, they’re more likely to exhibit standing heat. That may be harder to achieve in crates with fence-line boar exposure.

Gilts’ first exposure to boars should occur at about 200 pounds, and the boar needs to be aggressive, with an active libido.

Once the sow or gilt is bred, Francisco recommends using a “trailer boar” to provide post-breeding exposure, which releases oxytocin. This prompts uterine contractions and minimizes semen backflow. These actions all help move semen on for fertilization.

“A good boar can do a lot of work on a sow farm,” Francisco says. “If anything, we want more boars, not fewer.”

AI Done Right

Twelve years ago when Tim Safranski, swine breeding specialist, landed at the University of Missouri, artificial insemination was an emerging technology used on about 25 percent of the U.S. breeding herd. Today, 90 percent is bred using AI. However, that doesn’t mean everyone has everything under control.

First, when selecting a boar stud, Safranski says, determine what genetic lines you want, because many studs carry a limited number of options. Also, check the stud’s health-monitoring protocols. Even though disease transmission risks via semen have been reduced, they’re not completely gone.

“Check semen quality, the length of time for each shipment and the number of doses available,” he advises. “Transportation costs may be higher than the semen cost, so that’s something to consider as well.”

There are differing opinions on insemination timing. Safranski notes that ovulation occurs two-thirds to three-fourths of the way through the heat cycle. That means the optimum insemination time would be 40 hours into standing heat or about eight to 10 hours before the end of standing heat, if the gilt/sow stands for 2.5 days. Of course, the challenge is that you don’t know when the animal will come out of heat.

Breeding an animal twice at 24-hour intervals is typical. Massaging the female’s flanks, providing nose-to-nose contact with a boar during insemination and applying back pressure will coax the gilt/sow into believing it was bred.

“If you can get the inseminations down to one to 1.5 doses per breeding female, without reducing farrowing rates, you may be able to reduce semen cost,” says George Foxcroft, University of Alberta swine physiologist. But he sees that savings as an incentive to improve the genetic merit of the boar that you use.

Other management factors to consider include tools, such as hands-free insemination devices, to ease stress on AI technicians.