Production breakthroughs help farmers improve piglet survival

Our veterinary practice recently celebrated the grand opening of our new training and education centre. We have called it the Sheridan Room.

It was named after Dr. Mike Sheridan, who may not be familiar to those outside the swine sector, but during his 35-year veterinary career he played a large part in the growth and sustainability of hog farms across Western Canada.

We were fortunate to have Sheridan attend our grand opening for the new classroom. Regardless of the field of agriculture or the role one plays, we all have mentors who helped develop us as individuals (as a veterinarian in my case) and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.

I want to consider several technological advancements in piglet health principles that Sheridan and others have left as their legacy for us.

I take for granted that hog farms are able to apply modern sanitation protocols. These include the use of detergents or degreasers to remove biofilms on crate surfaces, disinfectants and drying agents to remove as much of the pathogen load as possible from our pigs’ environment.

This wasn’t always the case. Removing wood surfaces was a significant health advancement that enabled us to have non-porous surfaces such as plastics or galvanized/stainless steel. Non-painted concrete is actually as porous as wood and we have moved away from bare concrete whenever possible.

As the modern sow has become more prolific, it has become more important (and difficult) to keep piglets out from underneath the lactating sow as she rolls over or lies down.

One of the main causes of death in suckling piglets is being crushed by mother sow. Early models of our modern farrowing crates incorporated flooring that allowed sow/piglet manure to fall through slats to limit exposure to manure pathogens and make sanitation protocols easier to apply.

Crate floors have been made of plastic or plastic-coated expanded metals in creep areas where only piglets have access to space, free from the risk of being crushed by mother.

In many cases, the flooring directly underneath the sow is made of cast iron and slightly raised relative to the creep area. This allows easier access to the bottom row of teats as piglets suckle, improving colostrum access and consumption by newborns. It also maintains a slightly cooler floor temperature, which is less comfortable for the piglets. That discourages them from lounging and sleeping near or underneath the sow.

Piglet survival has improved significantly with these simple facility changes.

Understanding sow and piglet environmental needs has led to other facility changes that improved piglet survival. A sow’s preferred temperature during lactation is 18 to 20 C, while a neonatal sucking piglet requires temperatures much higher of 24 to 30 C.

We can meet both needs by creating a separate environment for the suckling piglet inside the sows’ environment. Providing heat pads or heat lamps in the piglet creep space of the farrowing crate and covering creep areas with plastic to create a “heat bubble” has proven very effective at improving survival.

It has become apparent that applying sound sanitation principles to pig spaces reduces mortality.

A significant technological advancement in managing weaned pigs’ health was raising them off solid flooring to stop the pathogen cycling of exposing each new group of pigs to the previous batch.

Raised plastic flooring took weaned pigs off the floor where they had been continuously exposed to manure-borne pathogens and allowed pens to be more effectively washed and disinfected. Post-weaning mortality dropped significantly.

The interaction between the piglet, the sow and their environments has allowed caregivers and veterinarians to find simple solutions to improve survivability of piglets.

As we continue to strive for better health and improved productivity in animal agriculture, it is critical for those health management principles to continue to be passed on to the next generation of caregivers and veterinarians, just like Sheridan has done for me.

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