Today’s sows are much more prolific than older genetics, with the average number of pigs born alive per litter now running 12 to 13 on many farms.

While you have to farrow a large litter to wean a large litter, they don’t always go hand in hand. The increase in pigs born alive is sometimes associated with an increase in pre-weaning mortality, which of course reduces the number of pigs weaned. Therefore, it’s important that you work to keep pre-weaning mortality low as pigs per litter rises. A few simple steps can help with that process.

• Standardizing litters: When a group of sows farrows there are usually some with small litters and others with very large litters. It’s common practice to standardize the litter size among sows so that all have a similar number of piglets. While this is a necessary practice, it is important that no pigs are moved until they’re at least 24 hours old. The importance of a pig getting a sufficient colostrum intake from the mother cannot be overemphasized.

It’s also important that you move as few pigs as possible. Research shows that all pigs moved between sows will have a lower weaning weight compared with pigs that are nursed by their mother. Therefore, while it’s impossible to avoid moving pigs, try to minimize it.

• Nurse sows: If the average number of pigs born alive in a group of sows exceeds the nursing capacity of those sows, some of the pigs may be raised by a nurse sow. Here’s how this works. Pigs from a sow that farrowed 16 to 18 days earlier are weaned. The extra pigs from the newly farrowed sows are placed onto this sow. The nurse sow should be a second-paity to fourth-parity sow with excellent milk yield, and only piglets that are at least 48 hours old should be moved.

If executed correctly, this practice can help reduce pre-weaning mortality and increase the average number of pigs weaned per litter. However, it does require extra work and attention; therefore, it should be done only if absolutely required.

• Sow feed intake: Starvation is the most common reason for pig mortality during lactation. To avoid this, sows must have high milk yields that will allow them to feed a large litter. Most modern sows, if fed a balanced diet in sufficient quantities, will have a milk yield capacity that will satisfy the needs of 12 piglets. To maximize feed intake, the sow needs a readily accessible source of clean water — lactating sows will drink up to 10 gallons of water a day. The average feed intake in a 21-day lactation period should exceed 12 pounds per sow per day. The best farms have feed intakes approaching 15 pounds per sow per day. This intake level will usually be sufficient for the sow to maintain a high milk yield during lactation, which will enable pigs to survive.

• Daily pig care: Managing the farrowing barn includes daily observation of all piglets. Some pigs are lost due to infections that might have been easily treated if diagnosed early. However, in too many cases such infections are not recognized until they have reached a stage where they can no longer be treated. Early diagnosis of sick pigs, tailenders and starved pigs is critical if mortality is to be held down. 

• Benchmark for pre-weaning mortality: It’s not possible to completely eliminate pre-weaning mortality, but with good management and care, pre-weaning mortality can be kept at a low rate, which will ensure that large litters are weaned. As a rule, pre-weaning mortality should not exceed 10 percent of the pigs born alive, regardless of the number of pigs in the litter. If pre-weaning mortality runs higher than that, it indicates poor management, and you should place more focus on this area. 

Rest assured that with a few simple steps you can wean more large litters.