Pre-weaning mortality costs the U.S. pork industry an estimated $1.6 billion each year, according to USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists. However, with close attention to the birthing process and newborn piglets by farrowing room attendants mortality losses can be significantly reduced.

“Teamwork by trained and motivated farrowing room attendants is invaluable to sows as well as newborn piglets,” says Larry Coleman, DVM, Broken Bow, Neb., who oversees veterinary care for a 5,000-sow operation.

“Producers need to bear in mind that inside the sow are 15 piglets that must pass through a very small opening and the probability of that happening unassisted is actually quite low,” Coleman says. In the system he oversees, one attendant examines each farrowing sow at 20-minute intervals and assists with delivery if needed. Coleman says the efforts of a conscientious farrowing attendant can keep piglet stillbirth rates at 1 to 2 percent.

Read more on care of the sow during farrowing and lactation here.  

In the system Coleman oversees, a second farrowing room attendant dries the newborn piglets. Gentle massaging with a clean towel not only dries piglets but helps stimulate suckling. This specialist then places the piglet in an appropriate-sized litter if needed. This ideally takes place before the piglet has selected a teat. After the initial nursing, the attendant places piglets in a split-suckle box.

Newborn pigs have only about an hour’s supply of energy at birth. Since colostrum provides vital energy for heat production and immunity, ensuring that each piglet suckles as soon as possible after birth increases survival rate.

Because colostrum production occurs during the first 24 hours after farrowing begins and then dwindles quickly, there’s a limited window in which to act. “You want to get the maximum amount of colostrum into the piglet in the first 6 hours of life in order to maximize its chance of survival,” says Ken Stalder, professor of animal science, Iowa State University. “Once each newborn pig has stopped suckling for the first time, it should be marked and placed into a warm creep area. As other pigs are born, they get better availability and intake of colostrum as it is divided across all pigs born alive.”