Farmer Focus: Piglet quantity must not jeopardise quality

A modern-day outdoor breeding operation is a complex, tightly controlled business with carefully monitored inputs and accurately recorded outputs.

Performance data is recorded at every production stage. We churn out seemingly endless lists of performance indicators including conception and farrowing rates, numbers born alive and dead, mortalities of both adults and youngstock, feed usage per sow, piglets a sow a year… the list goes on.

Then we can sub-divide this data into each parity group so we can look even deeper into how well or badly things are progressing.

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If I push the powers of my laptop and my knowledge even further, I can tell you gems of information such as, for example, our top performer is Y568 with an impressive average of 18.5 piglets born alive over six litters and not a repeat service to her name. 

This level of computerised analysis can be very useful, but it’s also important to keep things practical.

What really matters comes down to just two factors: how many piglets we are selling and how good the quality of those piglets is. Not surprisingly, those two pieces of information do not always go hand in hand.

Our recent improvements in piglets born alive have resulted in greater numbers being suckled and weaned, but with every sow working harder, some are now struggling to raise even-sized litters.

Runts are becoming more prevalent. We are now setting up extra accommodation for piglets, which, via shuffle-fostering techniques, are raised by sows who have already successfully raised their own litters.

If we have six foster sows for every 150 farrowings, and each fosterer takes 12 piglets, that means half the sows in the batch can have one piglet less to provide for.

With careful management this will be a very valuable tool in our efforts to help maintain high piglet quality.

The gilts and first-parity sows are the ones which struggle the most when numbers are high. The larger, older ladies have deeper reserves and raise some fabulous litters of strong, evenly sized piglets.

With these extra measures in place, I’m hoping we can enjoy a glorious summer of both quantity and quality.

Rob McGregor manages an outdoor pig unit in Norfolk