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4 Tips to Improve Sow Longevity Through Employee Training

Sow mortality continues to be a growing problem for U.S. swine producers. With already thin margins on sow farms, the ability to raise a gilt into a healthy third-parity sow is necessary to recoup the costs of her development.

“Over the last handful of years, sow mortality has been excessive, but in 2023, it was particularly bad,” says Adam Gutierrez, senior account manager with Pharmgate Animal Health. 

The latest MetaFarms reports show sow death loss in 2023 was at an all-time high at 15.3%. That’s up 1% from a year ago – a trend that continues to move in the wrong direction. 

The trickiest part of sow mortality is that many factors contribute to it. Thankfully, through employee training, it’s easier to identify early illness and lameness.

“Animal husbandry needs to be the No. 1 focus,” Brad Edkberg, business analyst at MetaFarms said in Sow Death Loss Reaches All-Time High in 2023: What Can Producers Do Now? “I think that's probably one of the lowest hanging fruits to improve sow death loss.”

Here are 4 tips to improve sow health and longevity.

1. Train employees to observe and explain.

Identifying the early stages of illness or lameness issues gives you a higher chance of seeing success with treatment and improving long-term health. The key to catching health issues early is knowing what to look for and teaching your employees to catch these signs.

When it comes to animal husbandry, it’s important to make sure staff are properly trained on identifying troubled animals, Eckberg says. Training should include a variety of things — how to observe sows and gilts in their natural state, identifying the early signs of lameness and illness, and what to do once an issue appears.

“When addressing sow mortality, I have seen the most success when individual farms teach their employees about these early signs,” Gutierrez says. “They should be able to monitor sows' health and recognize disease early before they become a larger issue.”

Employees must record their observations for continuity of care with other team members. They also need to convey those observations to veterinarians so proper treatment can happen as quickly as possible.

2. Look for the abnormal.

Monitoring the feed trough is one of the easiest ways to determine whether a sow is suffering from a disease or lameness. If something is wrong, she will likely stop eating or eat less.

Abnormal behavior, such as a sow or gilt distancing herself from the herd, could also indicate she’s dealing with a health-related issue.

“When monitoring sows, the key is to observe them in their natural state,” Gutierrez explains. “The moment you enter the pen, sows will act differently. Do what you can not to disturb them.”

3. Focus on feet and legs.

The modern sow is expected to maintain optimum performance to keep generating at the levels they are today, explains Benny Mote, University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor and swine Extension specialist in Lameness: The Leading Identifiable Reason for Sow Mortality.

“Any hiccup in health or structure or anything that will keep them from getting feed or maintaining peak performance, will have a negative impact on that sow’s well-being, health and productive life,” Mote says.

Sound feet and legs are needed to get up and down in crates, as well as to find the feeder in loose sow housing. A third of sow death loss is due to lameness and downers. Lameness-related mortality tripled from 2005 to 2016. Noticing lameness early is critical for sow comfort and welfare.
 
“In group housing, train your employees to walk behind and in front of sows. Look for any traits that indicate lameness,” Gutierrez says. “In the gestation stall, look for a sow favoring a leg or a swollen joint. While it can be harder to see, a sow will not put weight on a leg when lame. Lameness is so easy to miss if you only walk in front of sows.”

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