When a sow doesn’t reach her full potential, the costs to the farm and income stream of the sow herd are often “grossly underestimated,” said John Deen, DVM, PhD, a professor at the University of Minnesota. Current estimates of $500 to $1,000 per sow due to an early exit may be much lower than the actual cost; Deen told Pig Health Today.
“It really is a measure of opportunity costs,” he said. Opportunity cost refers to a sow reaching six parities, for example, and then being sold into the marketplace at a premium. The comparison is similar to a pig that meets expectations after entering a grow-finish or a wean-to-finish facility.
“If we look at it that way, I think we’re grossly underestimating the cost to the capacity of the sow herd to produce high-quality piglets,” he added.
Deen emphasized the importance of thorough records and selecting more monitoring factors within the sow herd. “For instance, we need to look at lameness and other factors, not when they’re diagnosed at death or culling, but when they start occurring,” he stressed.
Averages aren’t a good measure
Deen has done considerable work in human longevity studies, and he said it took a long time for the human-health field to start talking about specifics related to early death rather than overall mortality and the average age at death.
“Our averages aren’t telling us enough,” he said. “In human health, we talk about disability-adjusted life years, and it has changed the attitude from looking at simply moving an average to looking at lost years or, for sows, lost parities.”
Deen said the same approach is needed in sow herds, including sow care and welfare.
“We need to be sensitive to the sows and problems as they occur,” Deen said. That can be challenging when quality herdsmanship is sometimes difficult to understand and identify.
“There are real differences in personnel and their ability to recognize compromised animals,” Deen pointed out. “As a result, employee training is very important, especially in a caretaker role, and is an essential part of sow-herd management. I cannot train my students through a lecture or a slide set. Even video training is difficult. It’s not until we have students working through problems side by side in the herd that we start gaining that training and experience.
“We have to treasure those people who can identify the behavior and attitudes of animals as they occur, especially during early stages of disease,” he added. “Everyone can identify the late stages of a disease, but we know that time after time, treating the late stages of a disease is asking for a miracle, and we simply can’t rely on that level of intervention.”
Insights from the dairy industry
Better sow-herd management examples may come from the dairy industry, Deen said. In fact, he has recommended that dairy veterinarians examine sow herds because they understand the challenges of lameness and the importance of creating environments that address an animal’s basic needs.
Additionally, Deen takes some of the recommendations from welfare evaluations and applies them to sow survivability.
To Deen, that means looking at behaviors where sows are compromised, including:
• Floors — in terms of lameness;
• Temperature — sows not eating, not moving around or not coming into estrus;
• Hierarchy — sows that don’t thrive as well in group settings.
“Those seem to be the big three challenges in welfare, and addressing each of those correctly yields results,” he said. “We’ve relied on feed intake a great deal as far as a measure of the health of sows, and we need to go beyond that and start creating more indicators. We need to test those indicators on the farm and understand what effect they have, not only on mortality but on productivity and retention in the sow herd.”
Manage our expectations
The US pork industry needs to recognize there is a balance between the productivity expectations of the sow and the ability of that sow to survive, Deen said. “As far as measures and expectations, I think we’re going through some of the same changes in sow productivity now as we did in growing-pig productivity. We have a certain number of growing-pig spaces. We fill those spaces, and we expect to produce a healthy animal at the end that meets the packers’ specifications. We haven’t entered into the same metric for sows.”
However, that time is coming, Deen noted. “The first answer to sow longevity is keeping young sows alive and productive, but I think we’re going to move to a ‘top sow’ –a sow that manages her demands, survives in the herd, and is retained until a gilt is justified to replace her, at which time she enters the cull-sow market and gets a top price for a culled sow.”
The sow of the future is one that produces six or seven parities before going to market, and today, that’s a small percentage of US herds, he added.
“The average sow in US herds is culled early or is a mortality,” Deen said. “In the future, we have to celebrate culling that occurs at the right time and as a preplanned event.”