Piglet mortality in free farrowing system
This is currently a hot topic: the mortality rate, or perhaps survival rate would be a better term, in pig farming. Pig Farm uses free farrowing pens that resulted in an average mortality rate of 11% last year. However, we also experienced several months with a mortality rate of 16%. So time for an interview with Rinus and André, handlers at the Pig Farm. How do they achieve their current low mortality rate using free farrowing pens?
User-friendly farrowing pen
A user-friendly farrowing pen is vitally important for reducing piglet mortality in the farrowing house. If confining the sow is too time consuming or too complicated, then the pen isn’t user-friendly enough. André: “In our free farrowing pen, it’s very easy to confine the sow. This was a particular point of attention in the development of this pen.”
Managing ‘freedom of movement’ during farrowing
The sows arrive in the farrowing pen on a Monday, around a week prior to farrowing. Around 2/3 days prior to farrowing, we confine the sows at night. This minimises the risk of crushing, says Rinus. “When we arrive at the farrowing house in the mornings, only the sows that have started farrowing remain confined, the rest are released immediately.” This is repeated every night until all the sows are farrowing. Once the sow starts farrowing, she is confined to prevent her from crushing piglets. Rinus: “We release the sow when the piglets are being treated and weighed. We then see a quick return of natural sow behaviour, urinating and drinking water.”
It’s important for a low mortality rate that all piglets consume sufficient colostrum. Read more in this article. That’s why André and Rinus use split suckling at the Pig Farm. They leave around 12 piglets with the sow. The piglets they think have already had enough colostrum are kept in a separate pen for 1 – 1.5 hours. This enables the other piglets to get enough colostrum too. We then put all the piglets back together again, says André.
Perhaps one of the most important points is good care and presence in the farrowing house. This means that one of us is always in the farrowing house for the first 3-4 days, Rinus says. That’s a big advantage of a 3-week system; it makes it possible to spend a lot of time in the farrowing house. André: “What’s more, weaning day is Monday at the Pig Farm, and insemination takes place at the weekend. We can therefore ensure that the sows start farrowing during the week when both Rinus and I are around.”
André and Rinus work together in the house, so it’s important that they update each other on any developments. As soon as a sow starts farrowing, they note the time and then write down all their subsequent observations on the card. Other information about the sow is also recorded, such as number of good teats, weight, etc.
After around 4 days, the sow is allowed to roam freely again. However, there are some important points here: we only release the sow when the piglets can easily find the nests. Rinus: “In the first few days, the piglets prefer to spend the whole day with the sow. That’s when the risk of crushing is highest. It takes a few days before the piglets are able to find the nests easily.” The ambient temperature in the farrowing house is reduced from 23°C to 20°C. A sensor-controlled heat lamp in the nests draws the piglets to the nests. This heat lamp starts at 34°C, reducing gradually to 28°C before being switched off entirely after 10 days. We place jute sacks in the farrowing pens and after the piglets are born we place these sacks in the nests. The sacks carry the sow’s scent, which draws the piglets to the nests more quickly.
We also sometimes cross-foster piglets if a sow has had very few piglets, but always after at least 24 hours, stated Rinus. “We use foster sows for this. We then select a sow with large, robust piglets and small piglets that don’t have a teat with their own sow. The large, robust piglets go to the Mambo at night and the smaller piglets go to the sow. In the morning, we switch this around again so that the smaller piglets go to the Mambo and the larger piglets to the sow. We usually do this for several days. This system works best if they suckle at both the sow and the Mambo until they are around 4-5 days old.”
And the secret of the success?
It’s been a learning curve, Rinus admits. “At first, the mortality rate was much higher.” Besides all the attention for the piglets, we also focus on the sow. It’s really important that the sows are fit and healthy and feel good. “The sows need to keep feeding, even in the farrowing pen. In the first week, we make sure they stand up when feeding; that’s really important. Often they don’t drink enough too, so we give them extra water by hand. You need to take good care of the sows.” But perhaps the true secret is the collaboration between André and Rinus. They enjoy their work every day, work well together, both are very focused on their work and have a common goal: to keep as many high quality piglets alive as possible! And when we ask them what they mean by high quality piglet? André: A piglet that looks good and is full of energy. Rinus adds: Good looking, uniform, healthy herds!
Want to know how you can reduce mortality rates on your farm? Our specialists will be delighted to discuss this with you!