Data collection plays vital role in modern pig farming

We are all living in a COVID-19-induced era of physical distancing, home schooling and “normalcy-disruption.” Another COVID-19 induced observation is the general public’s exposure to health data.

For several months now, we have not only been bombarded with COVID-19 related health data, but there is a better understanding by society of disease transmission rates, biosecurity measures and epidemiology in general.

Data about morbidity (the number of sick people within the population) and mortality (the number of dead within the population) has become a normal and expected six o’clock news update.

I thought I would use this column to demonstrate a few ways that swine veterinarians routinely work with farm health and production data to optimize welfare and productivity and improve profitability in modern pig farms.

It is standard practice for swine farms to use sophisticated data collection management programs on a daily basis to not only record production and health data but to also analyze data to make management decisions.

For example, as farms breed sows this week, they will be able to determine the number of expected matings to come from the sows weaned last week based on a “farrowing rate report.” Each horizontal line of the report (Figure 1) represents another week of matings. Vertical columns indicate the number within each breed week that are still pregnant at each of the 16 weeks of gestation. The farm knows how many sows are expected to farrow and therefore expected to wean three weeks later to be re-bred.

The same report can be filtered within the computer program to understand how many sows have been bred each week that are parity 6 or older (Figure 2). These older sows can be targeted to cull after weaning and replaced with a new gilt to achieve the target number of total matings in each week.

Using the pregnancy data in this way will ensure against missing the breeding target and having empty farrowing crates in the subsequent batches. If you are in the business of selling pigs, empty farrowing crates are a huge lost opportunity.

Another place we use data to guide decisions for pig farms is through precision tracking of mortality.

By understanding why pigs die or are euthanized on a farm, we can tailor the vaccination and medication program to reduce losses as much as possible. We can also identify what age or stage of growth pigs are health-challenged and look for co-factors beyond pathogen load, such as environmental stressors and nutritional or mycotoxin issues in the feed, which may be causing morbidity or mortality.

In figure 3, you will note this nursery farm experienced a sudden increase in the number of pigs with septic arthritis (swollen infected joints) over a period of four weeks. After post-mortem examination of affected pigs and submission of tissues to a veterinary diagnostic lab, we were able to determine what bacteria was causing the swollen joints and tailor a treatment plan, including an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory medications to reduce the swelling. Note the quick return to normal levels of swollen joints after implementing the treatment plan.

Data management is routinely used on pig farms to better understand the interaction of health, animal husbandry and the impact some management protocols have on productivity.

One example is the analysis of a sow farm’s stillborn numbers. At farrowing time, all pigs born are recorded by pig caregivers. This includes those born alive and those that are born dead. Still births occur for many reasons, including in utero disease challenges such as PRRS virus and circovirus.

Because productivity levels have increased over the years, it is common for sows to have 14 or more piglets born per litter. In order to maintain low levels of stillborn piglets, caregivers pay very special attention to the sow at farrowing, assisting with the birth process when necessary to prevent piglets from becoming stuck in the birth canal (and potentially dying during the process) and to keep the birth progressing.

Parturition that is delayed or extended will tire sows, making stillborn piglets more likely.

By analyzing the stillborn numbers each week, veterinarians and farm managers can intervene when a health challenge is suspected or if we feel some additional training is needed for caregivers to help them assist sows’ farrowing more effectively.

Figure 4 illustrates a two-week period of elevated stillbirths following a staffing change on a farm.

We are inundated by data on a daily basis. Turning it into management tools on the farm will continue to optimize welfare and productivity and improve profitability in modern pig farming.

Blaine Tully is a veterinarian and owner of Swine Health Professionals Ltd. in Steinbach, Man.

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