Maximizing efficiencies is a constant business goal, but deciding which numbers best reflect those efficiencies – particularly in the sow herd – can be a challenge.

Kurt Nagel, manager of Iroquois Valley Swine Breeders in Rensselaer, Ind., says priorities have to start with meeting the farm’s target of sows mated per week or group, to meet your goal of pigs per week. Once that goal is met, the next step is to focus on pigs per mated female per year.

That takes into account the number of turns on mated females. It also tallies pigs per sow, which illustrates farrowing interval and indirectly indicates non- productive-sow days by parity.

Pigs per crate per year is one measure that producers and consultants often use, however, Nagel points out that due to facility design and crate utilization, there’s too much variation to accurately monitor sow-herd or employee efficiencies.

“Too often crates are over utilized,” says Nagel. “This can shorten lactation length, and create reproductive inefficiencies.”

He believes that many producers maintain excessive sow inventories. He suggests a goal of 5.5 inventoried females per crate. It’s not uncommon for early wean systems to have seven or more sows per farrowing crate.

“With today’s live-hog and corn prices, you definitely don’t want to be carrying more sows than you need,” says Nagel.

To improve the number of pigs weaned per mated female, you have to start with herd health, says Nagel, and that will require developing a close working relationship with your herd veterinarian. Your herd-health team has to make controlling major disease pathogens like porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, leptospirosis, E.coli and coccidia a priority.

“Your herd doesn’t necessarily have to be PRRS negative to be efficient,” says Nagel. “A lot of productive sow herds are PRRS positive, but they have the disease under control.”

Again, Nagel points to the producer/herd veterinarian relationship as the first step in getting the disease under control. Then you and the veterinarian can develop a vaccination and management system that can minimize the effect of PRRS.

Other areas that influence pigs per mated female per year include gilt development, breeding management, farrowing management, sow flow and personnel.

Nagel recommends that you isolate and acclimatize incoming replacement gilts for a period of 42 days or more. Work with the herd veterinarian during this time to determine which vaccines should be used and the timing of those vaccines.

Age and body conditioning are critical to replacement-gilt development. Gilts should be at least 210 days old at their first breeding. Some genetic lines will need to be older. Make sure gilts are in proper body condition, with plenty of fat cover across the hips and back, prior to the first mating.

“If you breed gilts too young or with poor fat cover across the hips and back, they may never develop the appropriate body condition,” Nagel says.

Boar exposure is one gilt development area that is often overlooked. He recommends introducing gilts to the boar for two to three heat cycles prior to the first mating. But don’t leave gilts in constant contact with the boar. Provide 10 to 15 minutes of exposure per day per pen, and document when individual gilts cycle.

Then, set goals for each site and see them through. Nagel’s goals include:

  • An 85 percent to 90 percent farrowing rate,
  • Wean-to-first-service interval of less than six days
  • 75 percent to 80 percent of newly weaned sows bred four to five days after weaning
  • More than 90 percent of sows bred by seven days after weaning.

If you’re still not using artificial insemination, Nagel recommends making the switch. AI increases farrowing rates, reduces disease exposure, increases total pigs born and imposes less stress on sows and gilts.

“Our farrowing rate was 76 percent to 77 percent with natural breeding,” says Nagel. “The first year we switched to AI our farrowing rate rose to 90 percent.”

Of course timing of the breeding is important, and it can vary with genetics. He suggests starting to breed sows four days after weaning, provided the sow is in standing heat. Then breed her every 24 hours until the sow is out of standing heat.

Boar contact at the time of mating is a must, and he emphasizes the need to stimulate the female, even if she takes the semen quickly.

“There’s no substitute for stimulation,” says Nagel. “We give our employees a watch and require them to rub the female’s shoulder or flank for four to five minutes.” Before implementing the time requirement, employees thought they were stimulating sows for four to five minutes. In reality it was only about 1.5 minutes.

Heat checking and pregnancy checking are important tools in minimizing open-sow days. Nagel suggests that you heat check sows 18 days after breeding. Continue to check for heat through the rest of the gestation cycle.

Pregnancy check sows at least once. Most technicians are pretty accurate at 35 days after breeding, so that’s a good time to start checking. 

Your goal should be to get sows with 20 to 21 millimeters of backfat when entering the farrowing house. Most sows will lose 2 to 3 ml. of backfat during lactation even when they’re eating well.

Three to four days before farrowing, feed sows four pounds per day. If you induce sows to farrow, feed lightly during the evening prior to farrowing.

After farrowing, Nagel feeds small amounts – starting slowly and increasing by two pounds per day if sows are cleaning up the feed. The goal is to have sows at full-feed within 10 days.

Remember that every sow is different and should be fed according to its appetite.

While you’re likely to monitor feed consumption, don’t forget about a sow’s water intake. Especially in the early days after farrowing, a sow’s water consumption is just as important as its feed consumption.

Nagel says 99 percent of the farrowings on IVSB’s farm are induced. This gives control back to the producer or farrowing manager, and helps control sow and pig flow. It also lets you attend farrowings, which is especially valuable when problems occur. By attending farrowings, he says you should be able to keep stillbirths at less than 6 percent.

After farrowing, check all sows for fever and hard udders. Also observe eating patterns because feed intake is a good indicator of how a sow is feeling. If joints and scours are a persistent problem in the sows, sanitation and vaccination programs are the first checkpoints.

For the first 24 hours, IVSB crossfosters newborn pigs according to size. Nagel wants to even out litter size and to ensure that all pigs receive colostrum. IVSB uses a system of bump fostering to make room for extra pigs and for pigs that are falling behind. Bump fostering is nothing more than weaning your oldest litter, then putting pigs that are three to four days younger back on that sow. You continue in this fashion until you reach pigs that are falling behind (based on their age.) Now you have the extra sow to accommodate these pigs.

Nagel says the bump-fostering system has dropped the farm’s number of piglets that “starve out” from nearly 18 percent down to 5 percent.

When profitability tightens, it becomes even more critical to maximize efficiencies. These tips may help get an extra pig weaned or an extra sow bred, which puts you that much closer to your target.