Risk management is key to getting pigs born alive and started off right during the first few days of life, says Sarah Probst Miller, a swine veterinarian with Carthage Veterinary Service in Carthage, Ill.

Managing risk factors, Probst Miller says, can have a significant impact on the bottom line. “We estimate that every 1 percent increase in survivability achieved by reducing stillborns or preweaning mortality will improve per-pig production costs by 25 to 30 cents.” She cites another estimate that shows a net profit of $6,000 for every 1 percent decline in the stillborn rate per 500 sows.

“Risk factors vary, depending on a farm’s or production system’s situation and management style, as well as the level of staff training,” Probst Miller says.

She cites 14 primary risks that you can manage to help improve the number of pigs born alive. The risks have been identified through research and published in scientific journals; Probst Miller’s recommendations are based on research and on-farm experience.

This article will present the first seven of the 14 risk factors. The additional seven will be presented in the October issue of Pork magazine.

Risk factor 1: Being born at the wrong time

This could be during a time when pigs are not being closely monitored, such as overnight, during lunch break or late in the day when no one is around. Probst Miller cites 1995 research that showed when pigs were closely monitored, there were fewer stillbirths and reduced risk of pig death during the first three days of life. The study also found that lowering death loss in those first days was important for reducing preweaning mortality.

The keys to successfully implement supervised/monitored farrowings include:

  • Well-trained farrowing attendees. (See sidebar on tasks for employees who monitor farrowings.)
  • Sows induced to farrow at a time when employees are more readily available.

Advantages to inducing farrowings include more pigs that you can cross-foster at the same time. It also addresses the need, safety and efficiency of having a few employees working at night without supervision. Likewise, it lets you pre-plan other farrowing-barn tasks.

“Induction timing is key to optimizing pig viability and the number of sows farrowing during the day,” Probst Miller says. “It’s recommended that sows be induced one day earlier than the herd’s average gestation length. However, some farms choose to induce on the herd’s average gestation length, especially for gilts.”

You can synchronize the sow 20 to 24 hours after induction, but she cautions that there are risks associated with using oxytocin. Work with your veterinarian to address those risks.

Risk factor 2: Being born to older-parity sows

Many research trials and on-farm data have shown that being born to an older-parity sow can increase the stillborn risk. A 2002 study showed that litters from parity -4 sows or older had a 2.2 times greater chance of having a stillborn than litters born to parity-2 or parity-3 sows.

Earlier research showed that parities 1 and 2 have a 15 percent risk of stillborns, parities 3 and 4 face a 25 percent risk, parities 5 and 6 have a 35 percent risk and parities greater than 7 carry a 45 percent risk.

Some producers choose to induce and monitor only high-risk sows. Other producers who induce all sows may synchronize only high-risk, older-parity sows.

Communication and training are keys to addressing the parity factor, Probst Miller emphasizes. “Those who monitor sows need to understand that if a sow is synchronized with oxytocin 20 to 24 hours post-induction, increased vigilance is needed to make sure the sow is given obstetrical intervention if the farrowing interval becomes long.”

Risk factor 3: Being born to a heavy or thin sow

Heavy-weight sows have the greatest stillborn risk during hot weather or in farrowing rooms where the temperature is too high. They also have more prolonged labors which can lead to more stillbirths. On the other end of the spectrum, research shows that sows with backfat below the optimal condition can lead to decreases in hemoglobin and an increase in stillborn rate.

“Managing sow condition is a great way for the breeding and gestation team to help reduce stillborn rates,” Probst Miller says. “Keeping sows in consistently good condition throughout their lifetimes is necessary to optimize their parturition potential. Objectively measuring backfats can raise awareness of the sows’ true condition. Routine, consistent monitoring is important.”

Risk factor 4: Being born near the end of a litter

Being born last can lead to greater risk of hypoxia and a longer delivery time.  “Toward the end of the birth process, it may be necessary to use vaginal palpation, udder massage or — if the uterus has weak or no contractions during vaginal palpation — 10 IU of oxytocin may be necessary to help the pigs that are born late or last in the litter.”

Also consider time intervals between piglet births, the litter size and the sow’s parity. It’s helpful to have a monitoring card or a system to track time intervals between births to know the average interval for each sow.

“Cater intervention timing to the individual sow’s natural farrowing interval,” she says. “When a sow’s natural farrowing interval exceeds 10 minutes, intervention via vaginal palpation may be warranted.”

Risk factor 5: Being born in a big litter

A 2002 research report showed that sows birthing more than 12 pigs had two times higher odds of having a stillborn piglet than smaller litters. Earlier research showed that sows with a previous litter of more than 12 pigs had a 15 percent increased risk of stillborns. “As we move toward genetics with litters of higher total born, managing stillborns will be key,” Probst Miller says.

She suggests that such sows will need to be handled similar to high-parity sows. “Sows should be flagged before ‘loading’ into the farrowing crate or before induction if they had more than 12 piglets in a previous litter. This should promote increased vigilance and willingness to intervene as needed.”

Risk factor 6: Stillborns in previous litter

Having stillborns in a previous litter yields a 30 percent risk of stillborns during the current farrowing, research shows.

“These sows need to be addressed prior to the farrowing process, and you should establish a specific protocol for them,” Probst Miller says. “Induction, induction and synchronization, as well as flagging past history are all protocols used today.”

Risk factor 7: Misusing oxytocin

Oxytocin can be a tool for judicious obstetrical assistance when used properly. Its use will cut required labor by nearly half. It also will increase the strength of uterine contractions and may allow sows to labor when people are on site to assist. On the other hand, Probst Miller cautions, inappropriately using or overusing oxytocin can negatively affect the sow’s health and/or its unborn piglets.

She suggests working with your veterinarian to outline procedures to prevent indiscriminate use of products such as oxytocin.

While these seven factors provide a sound start to getting more pigs off on the right foot, they are just a beginning. Next month, Pork will outline seven more risk factors and provide useful suggestions.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series of articles about critical care necessary to ensure more pigs are born alive and get off to a good start.




Tips for critical Farrowing care 

Employees assigned to the farrowing house can provide sows and pigs with the extra, individual critical care that will help sows farrow more live pigs and help pigs get started right.

Illinois swine veterinarian, Sarah Probst Miller, suggests training workers to address these specific tasks:

•           Remove placental envelops around each pig to prevent suffocation.

•           Put newborn pigs under heat sources or in warming boxes.

•           Provide special care to low-viability pigs.

•           Organize split suckling protocols for large litters.

•           Administer fluid to dehydrated pigs  as necessary.

•           Tape the legs of splay-legged pigs.

•           Provide sows with obstetrical assistance when needed.

•           Help with early cross-fostering.

•           Flag high-risk sows and more closely observe those sows.

•           Remove fecal material from behind the sows.

•           Warm and/or dry baby pigs following their birth.

•           Shorten or tie navel cords.

•           Administer any early treatments the herd veterinarian prescribes.

•           Ensure early colostrum intake for all pigs prior to cross-fostering.

•           Walk around litters during the first three days of life and check for laid-ons, weak pigs and ill sows.

•           Provide details about a sow’s natural farrowing via monitoring cards.

•           Treat any sow that is aggressive toward her pigs.

•           Stagger workers’ lunches so that someone is always monitoring sows that are farrowing.

•           Toward day’s end, mark first-born pigs, so that if cross-fostering is necessary before the staff leaves, it’s easy to identify which pigs most likely have colostrum.