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Pig producers have food for thought!

March 2, 2021

Large litters are here to stay!  However, they do not come without their challenges, the main one being an increased number of smaller pigs.  Pig producers have adapted farrowing house management to meet this challenge, with split suckling, shunt fostering and ‘levelling up’ of litter numbers becoming part of the weekly routine.  However correct feeding of lactating sows is equally important and is a key to success in the farrowing house.

The CAFRE pig advisers regularly collect and analyse breeding herd performance data from over 30,000 sows on farms within the Northern Ireland industry.  Litter size has been increasing steadily over the last 10 years.  Recent figures show the average litter size at 15.3 pigs born alive, which is an increase of half a pig per litter over the same period last year.  As gilt litter size is also increasing, it is obvious that litter size is set to continue on this upward path.  For some, the current litter size is ‘big enough’.  However, others have risen to the challenge by adjusting how they manage both pigs and sows from the moment of farrowing through to weaning. 

CAFRE pig adviser Mark Hawe says that ‘success in the farrowing house relies on a good supply of milk for all pigs.  This in turn, depends on careful sow feeding throughout lactation’.  This has been confirmed by recent research at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Hillsborough (AFBI).  Studies have shown that when litters of 14 small pigs, with an average birth weight 0.9kg, were fostered onto sows fed levels commonly used on farms, they achieved a total litter weaning weight of 76kg. However this total litter weight was increased to 97kg when sow intake was increased over the 28 day lactation.  This shows just how critical it is to get the correct amount of feed into lactating sows.  Since feed can vary in composition, total energy intake rather than total feed intake provides a better insight into sow feeding performance. 

A survey of six local breeding units showed how digestible energy intake varies between farms over a 28 day lactation.  These farms were chosen as they operate computerised wet feeding systems, allowing intake to be more accurately calculated.  Three of the farms surveyed reported an energy intake of approximately 2600 MJ DE throughout lactation.  However, the best farm achieved 2850 MJ, with this additional 250MJ equivalent to more than 2 days extra feed intake.  If you think this is impressive, consider the AFBI trial mentioned above where sows on the high feed level achieved an additional intake of 540 MJ DE, or almost 6 extra days feed intake over the lactation period, compared to the farms with lower intake!  But could these levels of intake be achieved on commercial farms using dry feeding, which is often associated with lower intakes?  Well it can and it is!  One of CAFRE’s Pig Technology Demonstration Farmers, who recently presented a ‘virtual tour’ of his farm to Pig Business Development Groups, explained how new technology has helped increase total feed intake during lactation.  Like wet feeding, this novel dry feed system uses feed curves to match feed delivery to sow appetite and has greatly increased total energy consumption in the farrowing rooms.  This is reflected in excellent weaning weights on his farm, which average a staggering 107 kg per litter at weaning.

So why not simply increase the level of nutrients in our existing lactation sow rations?  This would be an easy solution.  However, adding more fat or oil to increase the energy content for example, would result in the ration being too ‘sticky’ to move freely in feed lines.  Also, the cost of the ration would make it uneconomical.  So the only practical alternative is to maximise intake.  CAFRE’s Mark Hawe acknowledged that there are many factors influencing intake including parity, the amount and quality of water available and animal health.  Additionally, one aspect which farmers often struggle with, is achieving optimum temperature in the farrowing rooms.  When visiting a high performing breeding unit in Denmark, organised through the Farm Innovation Visits programme, local producers remarked how ‘fresh’ the farrowing houses felt.  It was obvious that these low temperatures were central to attaining the high sow feed intakes being achieved.  Last November the temperatures in farrowing rooms on five large pig units in County Tyrone were simultaneously recorded over a full lactation.  The figure below shows the temperature on two of these farms at each extreme.  Although both farrowings rooms initially recorded a similar temperature of approximately 23.5oC, one farm maintained a relatively constant temperature throughout lactation whilst the other reduced temperature and was over 3oC cooler at weaning.  The second farm maintained the heat pads in the pens at a minimum temperature from ten days after farrowing through to weaning to prevent the pigs from being chilled, yet keeping the sows cooler.  This farmer is convinced that if he allowed farrowing room temperature to increase, sow intakes would ‘plummet’ and weaning weights would be the casualty.  It is no coincidence that the farrowing rooms at AFBI Hillsborough are sent at 19.5 oC when sows come in. This temperature is reduced to 17.5 oC after the last sow farrows and this lower temperature explains the excellent feed intakes achieved.  In this case front creeps prevent the pigs from getting chilled. 

However, it is not simply a matter of ‘stuffing’ sows with as much feed as possible during lactation.  Mark urges caution and stresses that the rate of increasing feed after farrowing and the capacity of both the sow and litter must be considered.  He quotes two farms that recently experienced problems caused by over-feeding.  On the first, sow feed intake was increased too quickly after farrowing.  Although the sows were able to eat all the feed offered, the pigs could not use all the milk produced and the sows partially dried off.  This had a devastating effect on pig performance from the third week of lactation.  On the second farm, sows were fed a ration with an extremely high energy content.  This was more than required as it caused sows to come into season before weaning.  

In summary Mark agrees that ‘large litters are an opportunity rather than a challenge’.  Careful and effective management of both pigs and lactating sows can generate a total weight weaned per litter which, in the past, could only have been dreamed of.  This is definitely food for thought!