6 Trends to Watch to Maximize Sow Farm Labor Resources

Featured in Farm Journal’s PORK

Sow death loss continues to rise. Many or most farms don’t have enough labor due to cost and availability. This leaves the pork industry asking a tough question: How can we make the most of the labor we have?

No one will argue the to-do list is long when it comes to managing sows. From detecting estrus to getting sows bred, and from loading sows into farrowing to making sure sows are eating well in lactation, there are many opportunities to improve management practices and efficiencies, says Mark Knauer, Ph.D., associate professor and Extension swine specialist at North Carolina State University.

“Where else can we save time?” Knauer asks. “For example, recent data suggests drying piglets does not enhance piglet survival. Therefore, time may be better spent checking temperatures on heat mats versus drying piglets. In addition, I think we can reduce labor needed to assist farrowings. There are pre-farrow nutritional strategies we can use to shorten farrowing duration and reduce the need to attend farrowings. If we can save labor in any of these areas, we can do a better job putting an eye on every sow every day.”

Here are six sow management trends to watch.
1. Prioritize production costs.
The challenges of 2021 have changed the focus from increasing performance to optimizing performance through more efficient and sustainable cost of production strategies, explains Sergio Canavate, DMV, technical services manager with PIC. 
“We need to ask ourselves, are the right feed management strategies in place? Is body condition scoring accurate and consistent? How can we manage sow body condition better through feed?” says Fred Kuhr, production supervisor for sows and finishing at Dykhuis Farms. 
Feed is a producer’s largest cost so grow-finish feed efficiency must also be a focus, Knauer says. 

“While the majority of costs in pig production come in the grow-finish phase, good sow management can help reduce weaned pig cost and set piglets up for success in the grow-finish phase,” Knauer says. 

Using known practices like increasing weaning age, batch farrowing or improving gilt acclimation into the sow farm can maximize weaned pig quality.

2. Emphasize gilt and sow management.
“Breeding gilts at the right age and weight and keeping them in optimal body condition from the start will increase lifetime productive performance and retention in sow herds,” Canavate says.
If a sow has been well cared for since before first breeding, she’ll probably require less maintenance to do her job, which is raising quality pigs. 
“New technology will bring new opportunity to evaluate herds based on average sow age, the length of time sows stay in the system and how fast we have to turn,” Kuhr adds. “We’ll be able to look at more data points to help predict how long a sow will stay in the system and offer insights for better gilt selection.” 
3. Take another look at litter size.
Although increasing litter size has been a primary focus over the past decade, Canavate believes the focus on litter size will likely evolve to include more factors like piglet quality at birth and weaning. 
“What does an optimal litter size look like for an individual operation?” Knauer asks. “Unless U.S. producers use more nurse sows, provide supplemental nutrition for piglets during lactation or bolster sow lactation feed intake, litter size may need to plateau at some point.” 
Reduced emphasis on litter size would allow for increased emphasis on other traits, such as progeny feed cost, experts say.  
4. Utilize artificial intelligence and labor more effectively.
The need to reduce labor needs while maintaining productivity and sow well-being will continue to be critical in pig farms across the U.S. 

“Feeding pre-farrowing to reduce the need for farrowing assistance is one example,” Knauer says. “Smart barns and leveraging artificial intelligence technologies are another example and will go a long way to help control barn environment, organize pig flows and manage data.”
Producers need to adapt management strategies to the reality of labor limitations, Canavate says. For example, it may be necessary to revisit breeding techniques like post-cervical insemination. If implemented well, Canavate says the technique allows producers to breed the same number of females with a smaller labor force.
5. Implement real-time data into daily decision-making.
Most believe sow farm data has been highly underutilized, but that could change with more advanced technology. 

“The sow business is going to experience a huge upsurge in technology,” Kuhr says. “Employees are going to be exposed to more data, quicker. And, decision-making will get easier because new technologies will help employees make more informed decisions on the spot.”
Knauer says artificial intelligence algorithms will help get real-time answers to find more value from existing data. Paperless technology, like handheld scanners, will be more common on sow farms. They’ll speed up data capture and information management, predicts Canavate. 
6. Pay attention to consumer welfare concerns.
Initiatives such as California’s Proposition 12 and consumer concerns over antibiotic usage will continue to shape the way U.S. pig farmers operate. 
“I’m seeing more group housing, less antibiotics and enhanced biosecurity protocols,” Canavate says. “These evolutions will require unique management strategies to keep pigs healthy and stay profitable.” 
Kuhr says at the end of the day, the key is to “take care of the animals and they will take care of us.”