Two pork production tragedies occurred this winter, and management could have prevented both. In one case, a large operation lost 377 sows because their water was turned off. Another large operation lost 500 market hogs when a curtain cable came off the pulley, which prevented the curtains from opening, and the hogs suffocated. In this case, the backup alarm system failed as well.

Accidents happen, but most can be prevented if you take the time to do regular maintenance checks. If you make routine maintenance an employee’s responsibility, you have to instill in him or her that it is a priority.

Jay Harmon, Iowa State University agricultural engineer, offers these “must-check” building maintenance recommendations.

1. Water lines “These probably get neglected the most,” notes Harmon. He recommends checking nipple waterers on a daily basis by observing if pigs are getting water out of them. You should be able to tell by the behavior of pigs if they’re not getting enough water.

Besides visually observing the nipple waterers, Harmon suggests pushing on them to check the flow rate and determine if the inside screens are clear. Observe water flow visually at least once or twice a week, and manually test once a week. In hot weather, check the waterers more often. He also recommends spending time in the alley everyday to see if pigs are fighting for water.

Special attention is needed in the gestation building, especially if you’re using a trough. One concern is if there is an empty crate, the feed will tend to dam up, preventing sows in the end crates from getting water. See that the water flows slowly enough to give the sows plenty to drink. Otherwise, it will just end up in the pit.

Also make sure the water lines aren’t leaking. If the lines run through the ceiling, any leaking is obvious. If the lines are under the floor, check for sagging, cracking or wet areas.

2. Backup power. If you have an automated system, it will usually start automatically and switch the system off line instead of switching it to another power line if one isn’t working. Harmon recommends checking the entire system once a month, especially the transfer switch. If you have a Power Take-off System, make sure you and your employees know how to hook it up and where to locate the transfer switch.

Also check the alarm system monthly to make sure it works in the event of an emergency. This isn’t a place to cut corners.

3. Heaters. Check the manufacturer’s recommendations on cleaning the orifice. Harmon notes some producers use a vacuum to clean the inside of heaters. Also double-check that the pilot light is lit.

4. Curtains The important thing with curtains is to ensure that there are no sags, which would prevent them from sealing tight during the winter.

If you have a power outage, make sure the curtain drops properly. Also check that the cables are not frayed, wrapped or have come off the pulley. Inspect the “limit” switch so the system doesn’t try to pull the curtain higher than it needs to go. This could pull the cable or pulley off of the wall. “It’s a simple system, but things can go wrong,” notes Harmon.

5. Fans Make sure the shutters will open on all fans. These can get bent, potentially causing a harmful environment for you and the pigs because of the restricted airflow. Also check for frayed fan belts and wires.

6. Pull-plug manure systems Inspect all pull-plugs for leaking. If there’s a chip in one of the plugs and it doesn’t seal well, the liquid will leak off and you’ll end up with solids in the pit. If there’s a door or air trap covering the plug, make sure it’s sealed properly and not allowing air to leak off the pit.

Also inspect the walkway plenums to determine if they are filled with liquid. If so, this could cause problems with pit fans and inhibit proper ventilation.

7. Controller sensors Make sure that the wires are not fraying or have been cut. Harmon recommends using a regular thermometer to make sure the sensors are working properly. Look at numbers on the sensor to make sure they are in sync with the building temperature. For instance, if the sensor says 85F and you get a reading of 65F, there’s obviously a problem. Another tip is to inspect the controller box and make sure that it’s sealed tightly.

A good time to check the sensors is when you bring a new group of pigs into a building. He also suggests keeping a thermometer in the building all of the time and checking it to make sure the system is calibrated properly.

8. Eave vents First, make sure the air holes are large enough, otherwise they’ll clog with dust. If they’re stifling the amount of air in the building, it will build up to make static pressure. If it’s a routine problem, Harmon suggests putting bird wire over the eaves rather than installing residential eave vents.

9. Ceiling inlets Ceiling inlets use insulation stops to protect the inlets from becoming blocked. On occasion they will become deformed or come loose and cover the inlet opening. If this happens, even though the fans are running, it is cutting off the inlet. Harmon says to go in and open the inlets so that you can see through to roof.

“Probably the best time to check all of your equipment is when you either empty or clean a room,” says Harmon. If that isn’t possible, say for instance in a gestation building, try to choose a convenient time that’s the least disruptive to the pigs. Sure, these duties take time, but isn’t it better than losing a group of hogs?