More pigs born = more pigs to market, provided that you manage them right all the way through the system. Minimizing risk factors is an important and necessary commitment to that objective.

This series of articles has walked you through the 14 primary risk factors that can help you get “more pigs born alive and started right.” Sarah Probst Miller, DVM, Carthage Veterinary Clinic, focused on the hows and whys of management techniques that you should apply or brush up on in the farrowing house. It’s no secret that paying close attention to management is priority one for sows and piglets — you have to pay attention to both.

While the first two articles focused more on the sows, risk management is also critical when it comes to getting those newborn pigs off to a vigorous and healthy start. Here Probst Miller looks at seven important risk factors that focus on managing newborn pigs to help get them off to a strong start.

Risk factor 1: Oxytocin use

“Oxytocin overuse is an epidemic in some systems,” Probst Miller says. She cites one that had an average stillborn rate of 5.4 percent and an average pre-weaning mortality of 9.5 percent. In this system, “all farms with stillborn rates below 4 percent used less than 2.45 cc oxytocin per sow farrowed,” Probst Miller explains. That number represented all oxytocin use on the farm, including treatment for agalactia (no/low milk supply) or mastitis. The farm in this production system with the highest oxytocin use, 6.35 cc per sow farrowed, also had the highest stillborn rate and the highest pre-weaning mortality.

There is a strong link, Probst Miller believes. “Clearly, proper protocols for oxytocin use are keys for giving pigs the best chance to get a good start.”

Risk factor 2: Inadequate colostrum

“Colostrum is probably the most important substance a pig receives in its life,” Probst Miller says. Research shows that colostrum is a prerequisite for high piglet health and low mortality during lactation. Other studies show that colostrum has a positive impact on pig health and mortality throughout its life, she explains. One showed that colostrum was associated not only with lower mortality in the suckling period, but also with improved average daily gain from birth to slaughter, she notes.

The pig’s ability to absorb adequate colostrum depends on a complexity of factors, such as consumption timing, variation in availability between teats, piglet competition, birth weight, litter size and much more. 

Research shows that most pigs drink two times the amount of colostrum they need within 12 hours after birth, Probst Miller says. At the same time, it can take 16 to 24 hours to ensure that the smallest piglets get adequate colostrum. 

“This restricts any cross-fostering movement after birth to 12 hours for medium to large pigs, and 16 to 24 hours for small pigs,” Probst Miller says. “Since we want to get pigs cross fostered before the 24-hour mark, because of teat territorialism and sow bonding with pigs, split suckling can be a valuable tool for speeding up colostrum intake in small pigs and late-born pigs.”

Split suckling involves confining the large or first-born pigs in a box (heated if possible) and allowing the small or late-born pigs to nurse without competition for about one hour, but no more than two hours.

In deciding whether or not to use split suckling, you need to consider that the antibody proteins’ ability to move through the gut decreases with time after birth. “Therefore, small pigs that need 16 to 24 hours to take in adequate colostrum need assistance to get it in a timely manner,” Probst Miller says.

Stomach tubing or bottle feeding artificial colostrum has been beneficial in helping get small pigs off to a strong start. 

Commercial colostrum substitutes are available, but these products can be expensive and often are difficult to manage on farms, she says. “It’s also not as likely that a commercial substitute will be as good as the sow’s milk, which will hopefully have antibodies to the bacteria and viruses present on that particular sow farm.”

Risk factor 3: Chilled pigs

Helping pigs get off to the best start possible requires a localized heated environment and a means for pigs to get dry quickly.

“On-farm research has shown that toweling off piglets, and the use of a survivability box or plastic crib where pigs can be warmed for a few minutes prior to their first suckling are effective for reducing early mortalities and getting pigs off to a good start,” Probst Miller says. Immediately returning the warmed pig to the sow to suckle is essential, she emphasizes.

Risk factor 4: Birth environment

Being born to a sow that had a tough labor or being born late or last in the litter is a risk for baby pigs. Probst Miller cites studies that have shown when farrowing takes more than six hours, the mortality rate is 21.3 percent versus 11.8 percent for litters farrowed in less than six hours.

“Monitoring sows as they farrow is a way to give sows judicious obstetrical assistance and also provide pigs with assistance in getting colostrum at the right time.”

Risk factor 5: Being small

Smaller-than-normal pigs are at greatest risk for not getting established properly on a sow’s teat. Probst Miller points to research that shows even though many small pigs had taken in enough colostrum, they still died from lack of energy, probably as they lost the battle for an available teat.

“If a pig does not gain ownership of a teat, it is likely that it will die,” Probst Miller says.  “How big a pig is at birth is a good predictor of survivability — that is, the smaller the pig is, the greater the risk that it will die.”

Many studies have concluded that cross fostering during a pig’s first day of life is effective for rearranging litters according to the dam’s rearing capacity and accounting for the size of the piglets, she says. “Many farms are successfully rearing runts together on a sow with appropriate teat size or raising these runts in milk decks.”

Risk factor 6: Large litter

Pigs born to a large litter have increased risk of insufficient colostrum intake, but split suckling can be used to offset this. Studies show that for litters with more than nine pigs, split suckling decreases variation in average daily gain from birth to weaning. It also can lead to a 55 percent drop in pigs weighing less than 8 pounds at weaning.

For sows that farrowed overnight, if litters larger than nine pigs are split suckled in the early morning, and around for sows that farrowed in the morning, you can ensure colostrum intake before you cross foster again after The act of split suckling should be recorded on a monitoring card.

Risk factor 7: Indiscriminate movement

Moving baby pigs is stressful for the pigs, so try to move them as soon as possible after you’ve ensured colostrum intake. Stress not only potentially slows growth, but it reduces the animal’s health defenses; both can have lingering effects on the animal. Therefore, it’s always in your interest to minimize that impact as best you can.  

Managing these seven risks and the other 14 outlined in the previous two articles of this series is critical to increasing the number of pigs born alive and started right, Probst Miller says. While some risk factors may vary depending on a production system’s situation or management style, there is usually room for a tweak or two. Long-term, the success of addressing these or any risk factor is the level of staff training, she concludes.


Cross foster ‘em right

Sure, you may know how to cross foster piglets, but swine veterinarian Sarah Probst Miller reviewed the scientific literature and found “quite a variety of techniques exists to cross foster pigs in the first 24 hours.”

While the right method is the one that works for you, she offers some practical considerations:

  • The goal is to put the most possible pork out the door. Cross-fostering decisions on day-one of a pig’s life can have a huge impact on how strongly it gets started.
  • The employee responsible for cross fostering needs to be well trained and have the ability to make decisions quickly.
  • Moving a pig stresses it, but this is greatly reduced if done within 24 hours of birth.  Weight gains may slow during the first three days after a pig has been moved.
  • Minimizing pig movement is often best, especially in the face of disease like porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome. Focusing on sow teat functionality and moving the smallest or largest pigs can minimize total movement.
  • Decisions also need to consider litter composition. For example, no intervention is needed if a sow with 14 functional teats has 12 average-size pigs. On the other hand, a sow with 12 variably sized pigs and 10 functional teats needs pigs pulled. Minimal movement would mean moving either the largest pigs or the smallest pigs in that litter.
  • Deciding which pigs to move may depend on the setting. If one sow had six large pigs and has 11 available teats, you would look for large pigs to move from this litter. If you have a sow with 13 functional teats with a litter of 10 small pigs and three large ones, you may rather trade small pigs for large ones.
  • Moving small pigs to a milk deck may be a cost-effective option for some producers.
  • You must count functional teats to determine a sow’s rearing capacity. Historical records are not as important as real-time visual functionality. Also always consider teat size.
  • It’s difficult to determine where to put small pigs. Litter-mate size could affect small pig death rates due to teat competition. Making a runt litter or a litter out of only small pigs often works. Still, these litters sometimes fail. Moving an entire litter or more is necessary. Placing a small pig in a litter where fewer than half of the pigs are average size or larger appears to be a valid technique.