You might be asking yourself, why a checklist at all? In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande (2011), a renowned surgeon, explains how this simple tool helps avoid mistakes in complex tasks, from landing an aeroplane to open-heart surgery. As pig farming becomes increasingly technified and faces pressures ranging from increasing animal welfare demands to trends towards drug-free production systems, there is less room for error than ever before. Implementing a checklist for the crucial farrowing and lactation stages can increase productivity simply by avoiding mistakes, and also by revealing areas of opportunity.
Every farm’s checklist will be different according to the tools, processes, and personnel available. It is always useful to phrase your checklist items in the most specific way possible. For example: “Farrowing crates” is not a useful item; “Roy cleaned and disinfected farrowing crates in farrowing room 3” is much better. Many managers prefer to word their checklist items in the past tense, we have worded our examples in the way most suited to the action.
Next, you will find the different aspects that go into managing a farrowing area and some advice and important checklist items to include in your very own checklist.
☐ Determine the number of sows to be culled.
☐ On the day of weaning, select 2 to 3 female piglets for every sow to be culled.
☐ Piglets with the highest birthweight in a litter have not been selected (they tend to have slow growth).
☐ Select gilts weaned until day 25 or that weighed at least 7.5 kg at weaning.
Some producers skip preselection and choose gilts between days 150 to 180; this, however, could potentially cause delays and prevent boar exposure to shorten time to first oestrus. If a preselection was made, the final selection is usually at day 140, using the following criteria:
Lameness and structural soundness:
22.5% of sows are culled due to lameness, so a soundness evaluation can increase longevity and reproductive performance.
☐ Evaluate gilts for limb conformation (common abnormalities include bucked knees, straight or weak pasterns, and angular deviations).
☐ Evaluate gilts for hoof quality (avoid gilts with weak or abnormal hooves).
☐ An experienced worker has evaluated gilts for lameness.
Reproductive organs evaluation:
☐ Select gilts with minimum 12 and optimally 16 nipples.
☐ Select gilts with evenly spaced nipples that are in a straight line.
☐ Reject gilts with pin, inverted or damaged nipples.
☐ Select gilts with a well-formed vulva that is proportional in size.
☐ Select gilts with a vulva that points down.
Litter and growth characteristics:
There is a tendency to simply choose gilts from the largest litters, however, reproductive traits tend to have low heritability, so we present an alternative oriented towards sow longevity.
☐ Select gilts from a 3 or 4 parity dam.
☐ Select gilts from smaller litters (this could seem counterintuitive but being raised in a smaller litter means better intrauterine development and, therefore, more longevity).
☐ Select gilts from litters with at least two-thirds of females (gilts from predominantly male litters have fewer nipples and lower reproductive performance).
☐ Select gilts with a good appetite not the fastest-growing in the litter (the fastest-growing gilts tend to accumulate fat, which negatively impacts reproductive performance).
Batch Farrowing Best Practices
Batch farrowing (which was developed in the 1960s by small farmers) is making a comeback in contemporary pig production. When piglets are farrowed in batches, the rest of the process can be managed in batches too: weaning, growing, and finisher stages. This has distinct advantages, for example, small-to-medium farms can sell larger groups of pigs, which reduces transportation costs; however, the biggest advantage is that, through batch farrowing, small-to-medium farms can implement an all-in/all-out policy, which is impossible with continuous farrowing.
Some mistakenly believe that batch farrowing is aimed at improving reproductive performance (though this can be a by-product). Batch farrowing requires intensive management of the service and farrowing areas. From the perspective of the farrowing unit, batch farrowing entails a lot of work that will pay off later in the process. Because of this subtle misunderstanding, batch farrowing has many pitfalls; the three most important are:
- Not enough gilts/sows cycle or are serviced, leading to empty farrowing crates.
- Not enough workers during high-intensity periods (weaning, servicing, farrowing).
- Bottlenecks in the process (for example, the weaner area cannot accommodate all the piglets coming from the farrowing units).
Batch farrowing requires motivated personnel and an initial capital investment. However, once a workflow is established, farms and personnel can benefit greatly from this method. For the farm, batch farrowing means less disease and overall greater productivity at lower costs; for the pig farm worker, more variety and the ability to plan ahead are often welcomed… once the initial reluctance to change is overcome! We have taken some items from Bown (2006) that should go into your checklist, these comprise batch farrowing best practices:
☐ Delivery dates coincide with weaning weeks.
☐ Synchronise gilts/sows and/or sufficiently expose them to boars.
☐ Cull sows until after replacement gilts are properly serviced/diagnosed as pregnant.
☐ Additional farrowing crates are available in case of overfarrowing.
☐ Prostaglandin is available in the medicines cabinet in case there is the need to advance the time of farrowing for some gilts/sows.
☐ Publish a weaning/farrowing/servicing calendar and circulate it among personnel well in advance (weeks or even months).
☐ Service gilts/sows towards the beginning of the week (this reduces the number of weekend farrowings).
☐ Sufficient semen and artificial insemination kits are available for the scheduled servicing.
☐ Weaner, grower, and finisher accommodations have the capacity to receive the scheduled batch (a 10% allowance is recommended in case of overfarrowing).
☐ The service area can accommodate the weaned sows.
The goal of biosecurity is to diminish the spread of disease by blocking pathways of pathogen transmission. Every farm should have biosecurity priorities, depending on its particular situation, pig population, diseases that are a problem in the area, and the environment. For example, a breeder-only farm will have different priorities than a fattening unit. A farrow-to-finish operation will have a lot more to consider. As a first step, veterinarians should help farmers determine a list of pathogens that are relevant to their situation. Understanding how these diseases are transmitted allows farmers to decide where to focus their biosecurity efforts.
There are some biosecurity principles we should define. External biosecurity is the prevention of pathogens from entering a farm, whereas internal biosecurity aims at preventing pathogens from circulating or spreading within a farm. Every area that is in direct contact with pigs should be considered “clean”, whereas every other area should be considered “dirty.” Nothing and no one should cross from a dirty area into a clean one without proper disinfection (e.g. footbaths) or hygienic measures (a shower). While this is the ideal, it is difficult to achieve in practice, so every farm should have its own protocols.
There are some specific biosecurity considerations for the farrowing area. The main external sources of disease are replacement breeding stock (gilts and boars) and semen. From a biosecurity standpoint, there are three possible measures to avoid introducing disease from external breeders:
- Source replacement stock from a provider that is certifiably free from pathogens you have included in your list of priority diseases.
- Implement quarantines. Ideally, the quarantine unit should be at least 1 km away from the main unit and quarantine times depend on the incubation periods of the relevant diseases (just another reason you need a list!), with different personnel and logistic.
- Increase the rate of replacement gilts that come from within the farm and sow longevity (which reduces the need to introduce breeders from outside).
Alarcón et al. (2021) also make the observation that we should make a clear-cut distinction between quarantine and acclimation. A quarantine is meant to keep disease out of the farm by limiting contact. However, acclimating replacement stock to pathogens that might be circulating in the farm is also important, for which close contact is needed. The two periods, however, should not mix. An all-in/all-out policy should be particularly strict relating to quarantines.
Semen can also be a source of disease. For this reason, farms should aim towards having a single provider who is reputable, certifiably free from the most relevant diseases on the list, and that has a transparency policy (i.e. allows its semen to be sampled and tested for pathogens).
To achieve internal biosecurity in the farrowing area, the most important rule to follow is to avoid mixing groups and ages. Towards this end, batch farrowing can be very useful; even more so because an all-in/all-out system can be implemented which allows to completely and thoroughly clean and disinfect the farrowing unit before introducing the next batch.
Disinfection is, generally, a four-step process:
- Removal of all organic matter using a pressure hose.
- Cleaning with soapy water and rinsing with water.
- Applying a disinfectant.
- Drying period
Personnel can carry diseases from one area to another. For this reason, in addition to prohibiting the movement from dirty to clean areas without proper disinfection, another useful principle is to avoid the movement of personnel or equipment backward in the flow of pigs. For example, a worker that has just been in a weaner area should not visit the nursery and one that has just been in the nursery should not go to a maternity, even if they would be moving between clean areas. Admittedly, this is a hassle for workers, so it is important to provide adequate training and to make ready the necessary gear for movement between areas (showers, footbaths, area-specific clothes, etc.).
Animals themselves can carry diseases from one area to another. For this reason, individuals should not move within groups and ages should not be mixed. When moving them into the farrowing area, bathe sows and gilts.
Bedding is another source of disease if not managed correctly. Producers should balance sow comfort with ease to clean. For example, deep straw is very comfortable but difficult to clean. Slated flooring is very easy to clean but uncomfortable. If possible, bedding straw should be torched (though this is forbidden in some areas).
There is a paradox in biosecurity that should always be considered: if everything goes well, then nothing will happen! This leads to a false sense of security and relaxation of the rules. It is very useful to make things as visible as possible and to clearly limit areas with fences, doors, and even painted lines on the floor. For example, if you paint the walls in each area a different colour, then provide corresponding colour boots and clothes for each area, when someone does not change clothes, they will stick out like a sore thumb, which is precisely the point!
Every pig farm should begin with a biosecurity assessment, preferably using a biosecurity scoring system (Alarcón et al, 2021). Combined with your list of important diseases, this assessment will allow you to implement concrete actions and develop a farrowing unit biosecurity checklist. Here are just some example checklist items, but bear in mind that, especially in biosecurity, there are no cookie-cutter solutions and every operation will need to implement its own checklist:
☐ Determine clean and dirty areas.
☐ Establish a barrier between clean and dirty areas.
☐ Elaborate a priority diseases checklist (this will determine most of your biosecurity policies).
☐ Publish and distribute the biosecurity protocol among all personnel.
☐ Evaluate internal and external biosecurity risks.
☐ Perform a biosecurity assessment using a scoring system (e.g. Biocheck.UGent™).
☐ Replace/refill soap, brushes, and disinfectant in footbaths/showers at regular intervals.
☐ Provide personnel sufficient area-specific clothes.
Farrowing Trough and Water:
Preparing the farrowing crate is a simple enough process, provided it is done methodically and consistently. There are many farrowing crate models and the specifics may vary. However, three critical points need your attention: the trough, the drinkers, and the heat source (which we will discuss on its own later).
Modern pig farms usually have automated food and water delivery systems that go into a sow trough. Before farrowing, the feed deposits and water supplies should be thoroughly checked. Nipple drinkers can clog and pipes can freeze in cold weather. Nothing should be left to chance since a disruption in feeding can cause a lactating sow to go into catabolism.
These are the items that should go on your checklist:
☐ Check and repair automatic feeders.
☐ Check and repair sow troughs for sharp edges.
☐ Check and repair automatic drinkers.
☐ Check and repair farrowing crate tubing.
☐ Clean and disinfect farrowing crates.
☐ Clean and disinfect troughs and the feeder system.
☐ Check flooring for defects and repair or replace.
☐ Clean and disinfect flooring and slurries.
Farrowing crates are popular because they are space-effective and they prevent piglet mortality from crushing. However, they raise important animal welfare questions.
The nutrient requirements of the farrowing sow have changed significantly in the last decades, mainly due to selection for leaner carcasses and faster growth. Sows are more prolific and their piglets place higher demands on their metabolism. It is believed that this genetic selection has also led to sows with lesser appetites (Baxter et al., 2018). Combined, these factors can put sows in a catabolic state that compromises their productivity and longevity (Kim et al., 2013; Boyd et al., 2002). For this reason, there is the need for more energy-dense feedstuffs, with better protein profiles, and that have excellent palatability and digestibility.
The nutritional management of breeders starts well before farrowing. Gilt development is essential to maintain year-round pig output. However, excessive feeding can lead to reduced longevity and many problems down the line (such as osteochondritis). Therefore, body scoring and limited feeding are common strategies during the development of gilts, but also throughout most of the pregnancy. It is advisable to keep sows and gilts in a body score between 2.5 and 3 (in a 5-point system).
Some researchers such as Boyd et al. (2002) advocate parity segregation. This is because gilts have different nutrient requirements than sows. However, this is not always possible in practice. Producers should aim for their sows to finish the lactation period with a 2.5-3 body score. This increases their longevity and reduces the days to next farrowing. Due to the metabolic demands placed on the sow/gilt during the last stage of gestation and lactation, antioxidants should be provided in the feedstuff to counteract oxidative stress.
It is also a common practice among producers to increase the fibre content of the feedstuff in the last stage of gestation to prevent constipation. However, once lactation ensues, the feedstuff should be energy-dense enough.
Managing lactating sows presents two problems. First, low-intake sows/gilts will likely have lower lifetime productivity. Second, offering excess feed to promote intake leads to wastage. Some systems allow sows to activate a feeder in the trough and request a meal; this stimulates feed intake, avoids wastage, fosters sow movement, and prevents sores. Nowadays, there are precision feeding systems that provide a tailored ration and collect data so that low-intake sows can be immediately detected. These technological advances may not be available for all farmers or be suitable for all systems. Therefore, a workflow in the farrowing area would include checking troughs for wastage, keeping records of meals consumed, and providing more meals to stimulate food and water intake. Providing too large a meal can lead sows to lose their appetite, so it is better to offer more frequent small rations throughout the day than a few larger ones.
Phasing is an important aspect of feeding in the maternity and the nursery. When they are moved to the farrowing area, sows can be given the same late-gestation diet they were consuming before. Immediately before farrowing there is a dip in consumption and intake gradually increases during the next 5 to 7 days. Whichever feeding system you operate, it should be able to meet this demand.
Technology, though a great aid to productivity, is no substitute for stockmanship. Body scoring remains the best tool to detect if there is a problem with a sow.
Here are the most important nutrition and feeding items that should go into your checklist.
☐ Gilts/sows maintained body scores of 2.5-3 throughout gestation.
☐ Body-score gilts/sows when they were moved to the farrowing area.
☐ Formulate a diet for each gestation stage.
☐ Formulate a diet for lactating gilts.
☐ Formulate a diet for lactating sows.
☐ Keep records for sow/gilt feed intake during lactation.
☐ Body-score lactating sows/gilts throughout lactation.
☐ Detect low-intake sows early by analysing records and/or area personnel reports.
☐ Sows/gilts reached weaning with body scores between 2.5 and 3.
Temperature for the Farrowing Unit
Managing farrowing unit temperature can dramatically increase piglet survival. As with many aspects of pig farming, controlling the temperature at farrowing is a balancing act. Sows fare best in a 15-20 °C environment, whereas piglets prefer 35 °C. However, increasing room temperature above 25 °C can lead to heat stress in sows, which in turn causes reduced feed intake and milk production (Vande Pol et al., 2021).
It is common among producers to provide a heated creep area. However, it should be noted that piglets normally cannot benefit from this external heat source during their first hours of life, when they are most vulnerable. This is because they are more attracted to the sow and because they need to get a stomach full of colostrum to survive. To help piglets avoid hypothermia, farrowing room temperature is normally controlled to 22 °C in the hours before and during farrowing. The next day, the temperature is lowered to 20 °C, and, finally, in the following days, the room is brought to 18 to 20 °C. Important to mention pigs after birth should be optimally dried by personnel of the farrowing house.
After the first day, piglets are more alert and better able to move to the creep area for warmth. To give them a helping hand, it is also useful to dry them after farrowing, because this reduces heat loss from convection. Vande Pol et al. (2021) have shown that using a heat box in combination with drying piglets can prevent hypothermia. A heat box is a confined area in the farrowing crate with a heat source where piglets are placed in turns of 15 to 30 minutes. This has the added advantage that smaller littermates can get the vital colostrum they need unhindered by their heavier peers when it’s their turn in the heat box.
Warm regions (and even temperate countries with warm summers) face their own particular challenges. Keeping farrowing room temperatures below 25 °C can be expensive and the ventilation system can cause piglets to lose too much heat by convection. It is advisable to lower the airflow and to dry piglets after farrowing.
To maintain a correct farrowing unit temperature, add these items to your checklist:
☐ Check lamps and heat mats and repair or replace.
☐ Control farrowing room temperature to 22 °C before farrowing.
☐ Control farrowing room temperature to 22 °C on day 1 after farrowing.
☐ Control farrowing room temperature to 18-20 °C on day 2 after farrowing.
☐ Keep regular records of the room temperature.
The final ingredient to successfully managing a farrowing area is the human element. Pig production has become increasingly technified; however, there are still many tasks that are performed by people.
In the farrowing area, personnel should be trained to detect oestrus, perform artificial insemination or service sows with boars, handle boars, handle sows and piglets, detect the early signs of farrowing, cross-foster piglets, assist during farrowing, and body-score sows throughout the production flow.
Farmers and veterinarians, to whom handling pigs is already second nature, often forget that sows are big, powerful animals that can seriously injure a human being. Moving sows from the gestation pens to the farrowing unit should be done by qualified personnel that has had experience handling sows. Sows can become aggressive towards people handling their piglets, so personnel should be skilled in restraining techniques, especially in free-farrowing, outdoors, and other systems where the sow could potentially reach a worker.
An important aspect of stockmanship is being able to detect when sows are nearing farrowing. Some signs include the quick development of the mammary glands and the display of nesting behaviour. These signs can be subtle and there is no substitute for experience in detecting them.
Mammary gland development and the onset of nesting behaviour is a sign that farrowing is fast approaching.
During farrowing, workers with good stockmanship will be able to assist sows to deliver their piglets and perform basic techniques in case of dystocia. For the same reason, personnel should be skilled at handling syringes, medicine vials, and giving injections, (these types of activities must be carried out under the laws of each country, thus requiring in certain cases to have certification or degree to carry out veterinary treatments); this includes the correct disposal of medical waste, according to the farm’s biosecurity protocol.
Once piglets are born, good stockmanship means handling them with care, drying them, and ensuring they get colostrum as soon as possible. According to farm policy, workers in the farrowing unit might need to equalise litters and cross-foster many piglets. To do this successfully, workers need to know their stock and develop something of an intuition.
At its core, stockmanship comes down to experience, training, diligence, and motivation. Some of these you can teach, but others are developed over time. Here are some items for your checklist:
☐ New personnel is routinely supervised by a more experienced worker whenever handling pigs.
☐ Train personnel to perform biosecurity tasks and distribute the farm’s biosecurity protocols.
☐ Train personnel to give injections and dispose of medical waste (these types of activities must be carried out under the laws of each country, thus requiring in certain cases to have certification or degree to carry out veterinary treatments).
☐ Train personnel to assist sows during farrowing.
☐ Inform personnel about the farm’s cross-fostering policy.
☐ Train personnel in cross-fostering techniques.
☐ Train personnel in restraining techniques.
☐ Train personnel in artificial insemination to suit the farm’s needs.
☐ Keep a first aid kit in the farm.
☐ Train some of the workers in first aid techniques.