An industry panel shares perspectives on farrowing room needs

evaluating the farrowing room

Productivity advancements can present subtle changes. Sure, a producer monitors his records and sets goals for continuous improvement, but space in existing barns remains constant. If a producer increases his parity average to four, it also means more of the sows entering the crates will be bigger. He may be thrilled to increase his weaning average by an extra pig but may not account for how that impacts the creep area. Over the course of months or years, it can be a challenge to realize that space has become crowded.


According to PigChamp data, the mean weaned litter weight was 114 pounds in 2005. Today, due to an increase in weaning age and litter size, the mean weaning weight is 133 pounds. That’s nearly a 20 percent increase in the weight of pigs prior to weaning and that’s just one change.


Whether it involves an existing farrowing facility or a new unit, it would be wise to assess: How are the space, equipment and materials performing today? What changes might be needed today or in the future? To start the thought process, we asked a producer, a swine veterinarian and an animal behavior specialist to share their perspectives. Here’s what they said.


Meeting the needs of pigs and people are top priorities for Joshua Matli, who manages the swine enterprise at Borgic Farms. Providing a safe work environment, ensuring animal well-being and extending sow productivity lead his daily checklist.


When Matli came on board 16 years ago, that task involved managing 2,000 sows; today he oversees 6,400 head.


The latest expansion came in 2013 when Borgic Farms added more gestation space and a new farrowing house. With that addition, they took the opportunity to expand the creep area for the larger litters and bigger piglets that now move through their system.


The farm’s current total born is 14.3 pigs, with a live born of 13.7 pigs and 11.9 pigs weaned on average. Pigs are now weaned at 19 to 20 days of age versus the previous timeline of 14 to 16 days.


“The pigs are a good 1 to 1.5 pounds heavier, and they’re healthier going out the door,” Matli notes. “The creep area was getting pretty crowded, so we made it six inches wider on each side of the crate. That’s helped a lot.”


He also changed the management protocol to 24-hour care, seven days a week. “We have at least one, often two, farrowing specialists in the room around the clock,” Matli adds. “It’s lowered our stillborn rate by 2.5 percent and pre-weaning mortality by 2 percent.”


Matli points to the increased body length of the herd’s sows, presenting larger, more accessible udders as another factor that helps piglets thrive. “If you have 13 to 14 pigs on a sow, they can all nurse at one time,” he notes. “The sows we have today eat well, maintain their body condition and stay productive longer.”


Between the management commitment, rugged genetics and attentive feeding strategies, Matli and his crew have increased the average farrowing parity to 3.4 with a long-term goal set at 3.75.


Borgic Farms didn’t change the farrowing crate size (2’ x 7’), but Matli offers these considerations when shopping for equipment:

• The sow feeder: “It’s the first thing I look at. I want to make sure it’s wide enough and designed such that the sow can get her head in without rubbing.”

• Anti-crush bars: “Make sure they require the sow to lie down slowly so the piglets can get out of the way.”

• Access to the sow: “It needs to be easy and safe for the farrowing specialist to get in and out of the crate if needed. I don’t want a bar across the top because if the specialist is working with the piglets and the sow stands up suddenly I don’t want to risk an injury.”

• Removable rump bar/gate: “Again, this is about providing workers with easy access to the sow.”

• Ease to clean/disinfect: “The materials and design need to make it easy to wash between groups.”

• Flooring: “This is something of a personal preference. Metal is easy to wash but hard to heat up. I prefer plastic flooring for the piglets because it holds the heat.”


Finally, Matli cites automatic feeders that can be programmed to feed sows throughout the day and WiFi-based monitoring systems that let you respond quickly without being on site, as being two of the biggest game-changers in recent years.


Having worked in the pork industries on both sides of the Atlantic, Jeremy Marchant-Forde has seen a range of issues evolve and influence production systems. As a research scientist, he focuses on animal behavior, comfort and meeting the animals’ needs.


In the farrowing room, it’s important to start with the basics. The crate size should be sufficient to allow the sow to make basic posture changes easily. In his past research, Marchant-Forde found that the bigger the sow, the harder it was for her to stand up and lie down, which increased the potential for piglet crushing.


“As we continue to select for growth rate in pigs, the mature body size of sows—length, height, width across the hams and shoulders—everything is bigger,” he adds. “If we keep sows in the herd longer, they just keep growing. That means the crates need to get a bit bigger, too.”


Meanwhile, litters are larger but creep size hasn’t changed. “We’re struggling to provide sufficient space,” Marchant-Forde says. He points to farrowing research by Emma Baxter in the United Kingdom, which looked at the creep area and piglets’ needs. She summarized that if piglets are weaned at 21 days and there are 14 in the litter, they need 9 square feet of space. If there are 11 piglets remaining, they should have 7 square feet.


“That spacing allows the piglets to access the area fairly comfortably. It does not allow them to lie flat out,” Marchant-Forde notes. “Too often, producers think if they have a heat mat they have a sufficient creep area. Heat mats are typically 1’ x 4’, so that’s 4 square feet, about half the size of what’s needed.”


That transitions into another area that deserves more attention—the thermal zones for the sow and the litter. “Sows and piglets have very different environmental needs, particularly in terms of temperatures,” Marchant-Forde says, “but we tend to fall short of meeting those needs.


Beyond the size of the creep area, the temperature differential often isn’t sufficient enough to attract the piglets, which can impact piglet mortality.” These are factors to consider when selecting farrowing room design and equipment materials.


He points to his former graduate student, Gabriela Morello’s, research evaluating farrowing rooms. The study shows that environmental factors vary widely on a daily basis. A room can be well designed, yet small errors, such as leaving a door open, can create hot and cold spots, causing performance problems. Consequently, design, equipment, building materials and management all have to work together.


Looking to the future, space will continue to be a challenge both for the overall enclosure and the crates. Having worked in open-farrowing systems, he agrees that crates are a tremendous benefit to worker safety. However, the lack of nest-building material is a significant behavioral void for the sow. “Research shows that if a sow doesn’t have the ability to nest, it affects her maternal behavior and the productivity and welfare of her piglets,” Marchant-Forde notes.


Today, European Union producers must provide nesting material and wean pigs at 28 days or older. There also is growing pressure to move to open farrowing.


“The U.S. is lagging the EU by 15 to 20 years,” Marchant-Forde says. “If you’re investing in the future, you’ll want to think about more space for the sows and piglets. Also, keep and eye on the EU and build some flexibility into the space.”


In his 37 years as a swine veterinarian, Larry Rueff has seen many changes, both within his clients’ herds and the overall pork industry. “We have always learned how to do things better and tweak things as we go,” Rueff says.


In truth, so much of pork production is dependent on management, and there are few definitive answers, except perhaps when it comes to the farrowing crate. “Will we come up with some option that’s different than the farrowing crate? I don’t know that we will,” Rueff says, “because it works pretty darn well.”


There is room, and perhaps it’s time, to tweak things in the farrowing room as space allocations are increasingly being tested. “The biggest change in the last five years is that we’re weaning so many more pigs per litter,” Rueff says. Add a couple more days on to the weaning age and the creep area can get pretty crowded.


Rueff uses this example: “We used to wean nine pigs per litter, and suppose they weighed 13 pounds each; now if you have 13 pigs in a litter and they still weigh 13 pounds each, that’s an extra 50 pounds of pigs trying to navigate the space. Imagine laying a 50-pound bag of feed in the creep area—that illustrates the amount of space lost.”


Now factor in the sow; in the past five years, she’s gotten bigger, longer, too. “So, we have this change in the amount of pigs on the floor and the size of the sow,” Rueff notes. “We want her to be comfortable, so it’s logical that she needs a little more space to lie down.”


He points to some new facilities where 6’ x 8’ farrowing space is part of the plan. The dilemma is that most existing facilities don’t allow the flexibility to change space allocations or configurations. Will more room in the farrowing house become a necessity down the road?


“It’s going to be necessary if we want to continue to improve our weaning average,” Rueff adds. “From a remodeling standpoint, I see people waiting to decide if the creep area is the next thing to change. For new construction, that’s a different story; you need to build in more room.”


Looking ahead, Rueff prioritizes farrowing room needs, especially for new construction, as follows:

• The size: Move to a 6’ x 8’ crate/creep area for the sow and litter.

• A self-feeder for the sow: “We’ve tried all kinds of feeding strategies. As it turns out, the sow is smarter than all of us. Give her a selffeeder and she’ll decide when and how much to eat.”

• Flooring and equipment: The exact material is less of a concern, but it needs to wash up easily and well. “That means when it’s clean, it’s really clean. This needs to be a priority.”


He points out that producers are critically reviewing energy costs tied to heat mats and lamps and shopping for more efficient options with greater control. “It makes sense, these things are on all the time,” Rueff notes. “It’s sort of like a slow drip in a nipple waterer. If you have 50 of them dripping, it adds up to a lot of water. It’s the same for energy.”


Frank’s Note

At Farmweld, Inc., we put a high priority on listening to pork producers, learning what works for them on the farm, what challenges they face and how their needs are changing. That’s why we sought out three industry leaders to share their perspectives on how the farrowing room, including the sows and piglets, has evolved in recent years and what needs to be addressed further.


One thing that remains a constant among pork producers is their drive to improve productivity—to wean one more piglet or keep more sows in the herd longer. As a result, old equipment and buildings can face subtle pressures and literally may no longer fit the needs of the animal or producer. Of course, overhauling a system is expensive, but sometimes a tweak here and there can pay dividends. For example, take some time to watch sows eat and evaluate feeders to ensure they still fit today’s sows. Addressing micro-environments in the farrowing room to keep the sow cooler and the piglets warmer may be as simple as providing a larger mat or adding the Farmweld Blue Panel™ in the creep area to draw piglets away from the sow.


Today, more producers recognize and prioritize animal well-being as they have seen how attentive care, particularly in the farrowing room, advances piglet quality and sow productivity. Such actions not only help send bigger, healthier weaned pigs out the door, but also can improve the herd’s parity average.


Things change all the time in this industry, and it’s important to monitor the changes occurring in your herd and your buildings. From sow feeders to flooring to our new A-Crate™ to the Blue Panel, Farmweld offers a range of products to help make your herd more productive. If you have questions or just want to chat, be sure to stop by the Farmweld booth at one of this winter’s state pork shows. We’re always here to help.


If you have questions, give us a call at 1-800-EAT-PORK (328-7675) or use the contact form or LiveChat on our website.


Frank Brummer, President, Farmweld, Inc.


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