Night shifts and nurturing adds three pigs and more to sow productivity
Round the clock care, precise fostering plus a comfortable, safe supplementary rearing system might sound more akin to a special care baby unit, but this is how Robin Brice and son James manage the farrowing system on their 720-sow breeding and finishing unit.
Adopting a more intensive approach to farrowing house management is paying dividends. It has helped to increase productivity by more than three pigs reared per sow per year on their Countess Wells herd in Suffolk.
The unit produces breeding stock under contract for Rattlerow Farms and rears finishing pigs to 110kgs. James began night supervision in the farrowing houses almost two years ago and although its taken investment and a dramatic change to the working routine, the move has proved worthwhile and very valuable in terms of increased herd productivity and staff morale.
Robin says the night supervision has improved neo-natal piglets survival. A stockman doing the rounds will ensure piglets are up, dry and feeding soon after they are born and he says that has made a significant difference to piglet survival rates.
On most pig farms staff will usually leave work at around 4.00 to 5.00pm, returning the next morning around 6.00 or 7.00am. So, if a sow begins farrowing in the evening – which is common – then it could be up to 12 hours between observations. It’s during these long unobserved periods that things can go wrong and avoidable losses can occur. This is what prompted Robin and James to try out night supervision.
The unit operates a three-week batch production system, weaning pigs at 28 days of age. Once sows start to farrow the evening checks begin and sows are watched at regular intervals from 10.00pm to approximately 3.00am throughout the farrowing period. Reuben, a key member of the farrowing team, usually starts work at 4.00 am from Wednesday to Friday of the farrowing week, this leaves only an hour of unsupervised births.
This management regime takes considerable staff commitment, but the team have been motivated by the steady improvements seen in litter performance. Total numbers born from the GP females has increased from 11.27 piglets per litter in 2010 before the night checks began, to 12.4 piglets for the past 12 months (to end February 2013). Pre-weaning mortality rates have also benefited, falling from 11.2% to an average of 8.15% for the same period.
Current farm reports show three-month averages of 12.64 piglets born alive and 0.78 born dead, with numbers weaned per sow at 11.74. Pre-weaning mortality is just 6.57% and the farrowing rate is above 90%. The team are justifiably proud of their achievements especially since they are not working with commercial parent stock.
Proactive piglet care
James says that being around at night takes the pressure off and means you can take your time if any intervention is needed. If a sow gets into difficulties during the farrowing process, you are there to help almost immediately. You can also make sure all newborns get that vital intake of colostrum soon after birth – a key factor in subsequent viability and suckling performance.
Being able to identify problem piglets early on is also a huge advantage, as these are the ones that often get chilled or die and could be recorded as ‘born dead’ the next morning.
“If you are present at farrowing you can often prevent many neo-natal deaths that would ordinarily be accepted as birth losses. This has been a big factor in reducing our numbers of still born pigs,” explains Robin.
Fostering is an integral part of the farrowing house routine at Countess Wells, and it’s proactively managed. As James says, with larger litters now being born then there are a greater number of pigs surviving in the first few days post farrowing. To avoid unnecessary mortality, provision must be made to support the sows and gilts as well as the piglets. Fostering gives little piglets a better chance to latch on and compete at the teat. And having more pigs born and the batch system, means it’s not difficult to size up litters and foster on. Robin says it’s become a vitally important management tool when rearing smaller pigs.
Gilts are favoured foster mothers as the milk quality is better and teats are small and well presented making it easier for smaller pigs to feed. The aim is to have 13 to 14 piglets on a gilt, which helps to prime udder physiology and stimulate mammary tissues to work just that little bit harder. This helps to promote lactation and sets them up for lifetime performance, which benefits subsequent litters. When additional suckling is required, the strongest, eldest litter of piglets is taken off a sow – it has been suckling for eight to 10 days. This procedure is only carried out under veterinary advice and to protect the welfare of other smaller, disadvantaged piglets. Theses well-grown piglets are then cared for in specialised nurseries and given a specifically formulated diet from a Transition feeder. Their mother – the nurse sow/gilt – will then take another litter that is usually made up of smaller piglets that have been pushed away from the teat by their stronger littermates.
More pigs means meat sold
With an average 27.8 pigs now being reared per sow per year for the last 6 months at Countess Wells, the nursery accommodation has come under pressure. More space has been created with a £15,000 investment in a home-designed ‘piglet nursery’ housed inside a couple of recycled BT air con containers. Each unit has three specialised pens that take up to two litters in each. They provide everything that earlier weaned piglets need, including an ad-lib source of specifiaclly formulated, highly nutritious liquid feed, water, warmth, and fresh air. The system works well, is easy to manage and is helping maintain overall weaning weights at above 9kg.
“We are weaning stronger pigs; rearing more of them and what we are doing in the farrowing house is benefiting productivity in the rearing herd. The number of pigs sold including those we’ve retained for breeding is currently more than 26 pigs sold per sow, with a weaning to finishing herd mortality at 3.5% for a 12 month average,” says Robin.
He believes that increasing the viability of piglets from birth has added value to the business – he is selling more pigs as a result.
Modern genotypes are genetically selected to achieve exceptional performance from birth, so it’s up to stockmen and managers to provide them with the care and facilities that will enable them to thrive and grow. Identifying where and why losses occur and taking proactive actions to reduce and prevent them is wise. It does take commitment, requires change and will possibly need some investment – in both time and money – but the benefits to productivity and efficiency cannot be ignored. Piglets may be small, but with the right environment they can grow quickly and perform well. Get it right in those early hours after birth and the days that follow, and these little pigs do become a viable resource; pigs with the potential to raise numbers weaned and get more meat out the door.