Minneapolis-- “Today’s sows are not your parents’ sows,” Tim Loula, DVM, St. Peter Veterinary Clinic, told attendees of a FeetFirst swine conference on Thursday presented by Zinpro. The most dramatic difference of course is that over the past 20 years, the sow herd has become tremendously more productive, and that requires different approaches to management, selection and animal care.

“Every week, we see sows farrow 20-piglet litters,” he notes. “That used to be a remarkable event.” Loula was offering a 30,000-foot-view, addressing some of the pressures and changes occurring within the pork industry. He specifically pointed to food companies’ growing movement to eliminating gestation-sow stalls from their pork supply channels. But whether or not a producer moves gestating sows from stalls to pens is not a simple matter of flipping a switch and making a change.

Today’s highly productive sows have required changes in nutrition, housing and handling. Moving the breeding herd out of stalls will “require big changes,” Loula adds, and ”there are always unintended consequences,” to such decisions. He referred to a recent trip to Poland, pointing out that the country had 1 million sows three years ago, but with the European Union’s impending gestation-stall ban (Jan. 1, 2013), that has dropped to 650,000 sows and a further 10 percent to 20 percent reduction is likely.   

For a transition here, U.S. producers will need to make significant adjustments, and not just in the physical aspects of housing and equipment, although flooring will be a priority. “Most producers under 30 years of age have never seen sows in group pens; they don’t know that they will fight—and how severely they’ll fight,” Loula notes.

Animal selection measures and personnel training will need to change as well. “Pen gestation floors will be hard on the animal’s feet and legs,” Loula says.  “Do your people know what good feet are (on sows)? Are you going to trim feet?” That’s a difficult task that most people in hog barns don’t know how to do it. Sow foot baths are another tool that will need to find their way into more units.

Group housing will require more rugged breeding stock. “The animal will have to be more athletic,” he adds.  Evaluations involving leg structure, bone structure, hoof and sole structure will all come into play, as will soundness of movement. Such selection criteria and final decisions will need strict application. On the plus side, he notes that genetic change does come much faster today.  

Of course, nutrition is an on-going factor and that reaches well beyond diet and ingredient costs, which is on the top of everyone’s priority list today. “If you’re not changing diets weekly, you’re behind,” Loula says. Adjusting to the changing nutritional demands of a changing animal as well as requirements that evolve during the breeding, gestation and lactation stages will all require more attention. A diet’s composition, the vitamins and minerals, as well as ensuring the animal is eating enough takes on a new dimension in group systems.

The same is true for culling. While a sow’s productivity and performance is the priority, culling for feet and legs (structure) will have to enter the picture as well.     

Many more answers are needed, but they won’t come easily. “Sow research is incredibly hard,” Loula says, as it is very expensive and it takes several years to complete. The concern always is whether the animal will pay the price during and after the transition.