With lean hogs being today’s standard, keeping an eye on sow conditioning is more important than ever. However, you may not be able to trust your eyes.

“Often employees just aren’t adjusted to what a well-conditioned sow looks like, or they have seen poor conditioned sows for so long their eyes are a little off,” says Sarah Probst, DVM, Carthage Veterinary Service and Professional Swine Management. “Taking a backfat measurement is an objective way to determine your sows’ body condition.”

Probst uses an A-mode ultrasonic instrument for backfat testing. She takes measurements at the last rib, about 2.5 inches off the midline of the loin, depending on the sow’s size. Some studies have correlated conservation of body tissues throughout a sow’s lifetime, and backfat depth at breeding, to the lifetime productivity of the sow and the farm’s overall productivity.

“Body conditioning can have an impact on a sow’s longevity, fertility and lactation,” says Probst. “We looked at herds with poor conditioning and backfat and noted certain production parameters as they improved.”

One farm’s farrowing rate increased by 4 percent, and had less of a seasonal infertility problem after correcting its sows’ body condition via backfat monitoring. Another producer increased his total born per litter by 0.6 pigs, after improving his sows’ body condition. Ideally, a sow should have between 17 mm and 21 mm of backfat. “Our goal is to keep the sow in this range throughout its lifetime,” says Probst.

She uses two methods to monitor a sow’s conditioning. The first is to use cross-sectional backfat measurements to take a snapshot of the breeding herd.  For example, take a 30-sow sample and measure backfat at 30 days of gestation, 100 days of gestation and right after weaning. Then input the numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. This method shows employees the status of the herd’s body condition and can motivate improvements by proving that opportunity exists. You can then set goals and monitor  the herd’s progress over time by using the same sampling method.”

The other method is to take backfat measurements of every sow in the herd at breeding, and establish a diet based on the backfat and girth of each animal.

“We’ve  seen improvements in sow conditioning and farm productivity when this system is implemented correctly,” says Probst. “The manager’s buy-in to the system is key with this method because the employee’s first impression is that it creates unnecessary additional work.”

Feed adjustments based on the backfat and girth are calculated from a chart. Sows that are too lean generally add the necessary backfat within 30 days. Likewise, a greater percentage of sows that are too fat have a reduction in backfat at first pregnancy check.

An ultrasound machine like the one Probst uses costs $400 to $500. Labor costs involved are still being assessed. She estimates it requires one employee per 270 to 300 sows to implement the program. So, for example, a 2,400-sow farm would require eight to nine employees total. She estimates that the labor costs run about $4.50 to $5.50 per pig.

Regardless of the costs, paying closer attention to your sows’ conditioning can yield big returns. One 1,200-sow, farrow-to-wean farm increased its pigs per litter by 0.6 pig. This resulted in an additional 1,700 pigs annually, at an estimated $33 per pig, monitoring sow conditioning made this farm an additional $60,000 in a year, points out Probst.

Once you realize where your sow-conditioning problems lie, you need to determine how to fix them. Making proper feed adjustments is the most common answer to maintaining well-conditioned sows.

“Too often sow feeders are all adjusted to the same level,” says Probst. “You need to assess sows on a group and an individual basis, then adjust your feeding program accordingly.”

“We usually put in a plan on a farm to move the mean backfat level of the sows first. Then we go to a more specific plan to handle the individual variations,” says Mike Tokach, Kansas State University swine nutritionist.

To add backfat to a sow, you need to adjust feeding levels up – depending on the current diet’s nutrient density, says Tokach. For every 3 mm of backfat that you want a sow to maintain, he suggests adding another half-pound of feed per day above the normal dietary requirements, for the entire gestation period.

If your sows have too much backfat, you can put them on a diet, but you need to do it in mid-gestation as opposed to early or late gestation, says Tokach.

“When developing diets to keep sows in good condition, the most important thing is having an understanding of the sow’s true energy requirements,” says Tokach. “Most gestation diets have plenty of protein and trace minerals, so energy levels are the main thing to worry about.”

For example, if you feed a diet with high fiber levels and lower energy, you need to supply more feed, but other diets require more careful inspection, he notes.

Kansas State researchers use a spreadsheet feeding chart that they customize to each farm. Tokach says some producers are surprised by how much feed some larger sows need and how little feed some gilts need.

Certainly, feeding the proper diets in gestation can be critical to your bottomline. “If you overfeed in gestation diets, you increase costs,” he notes. “Also, if a sow has too much backfat, it often won’t eat well in subsequent lactations. Then she may not breed back, which means she’s often culled from the herd.”

The backfat level at farrowing is key and should be about 18 mm to 19 mm. If your sows are much higher – 23 mm to 24 mm – or lower, you risk having too many sows that won’t get bred.

The best feeding plan in the world won’t do much if you’re using genetically inferior sows and gilts from the start. That’s why you need to select for and prepare gilts to become well-conditioned, productive sows.

“You want gilts to put backfat on during growth, and farrow their first litter when they have about 18 mm to 20 mm backfat,” says Probst. “You want gilts to grow fairly slowly, so they don’t develop bony lessions.” When you look at body conditioning it’s also important to look at confirmation and evaluate for potential lameness.

Tokach suggests working toward gilts that have 15 mm to 16 mm backfat at breeding. Then design diets to keep each one on target.

It’s easy for sow conditioning to get taken for granted, because it’s not as obvious of a problem as disease or poor growth rates. But keeping a careful eye on your sows’ backfat could lead to more productive sows in your herd that will remain there for longer. That certainly would make the extra time and effort spent on sow conditioning well worth it. 

Conditioning Employees on Sow Conditioning

Getting employees to understand the importance of a well-conditioned sow, and getting them trained to know what to look for can produce big challenges for any operation.

Sarah Probst, DVM, Carthage Veterinary Service and Professional Swine Management, uses a training CD that’s part of a Training Toolbox series, that discusses such topics as adjusting sow feeders and taking backfat measurements.

“The Training Toolbox is a group of CD-ROMs that are task specific. They use video footage and animation to guide employees through the basics of how to do a specific task and explain why it is being done that way,” she notes.

These are actually part of a larger training program that the Carthage Veterinary Service provides, that consists of three phases.

1. The first involves a CD to teach the employee various tasks and why the process is important.

2. The second phase is in-barn certification, which consists of observing the employee for a couple of months, and making sure they are performing the task correctly.

3. The third phase includes a veterinarian or certified service person who will certify the employee, and ensure that he/she has completed both previous phases.

After the employee has completed these three phases, they are eligible to take web-based quizzes as part of continuing training. An incentive program based on salary increases and/or advancement opportunities, encourages employees to continue taking and passing the web-based quizzes, says Probst.

“The training method has shown improvements on several production parameters where we’ve implemented them,” she adds.

The CD’s are compatible with Windows’95 or higher operating systems, and can be ordered by
e-mailing training@hogvet.com. The farrowing section is available now. The breeding CDs will be available this fall.