Plan farrowing with care to maintain viable piglet litter

Several factors affected potential piglet output, BPEX’s Angela Cliff told producers and industry representatives at an Improving Piglet Survival workshop last week.

“Stillbirths account for the obvious drop in output, with 5-7% considered normal,” said Ms Cliff. “Alongside this, maintaining piglet viability through to weaning is crucial.”

Held at the Wood Vet Hospital, Gloucestershire, the event attracted more than 30 producers, all keen to be involved in the discussion. “We hold these events once or twice a year to give producers the chance to talk to others in the area and share knowledge,” said Roger Blowey of the practice.

But any reduced piglet performance also reflected on final figures, particularly in terms of reduced weaning performance and disease. “Using farm records, producers need to calculate the average gestation length of sows. By doing this, farrowing can be better anticipated and planned for,” advised Ms Cliff.

Signs of farrowing

“It is more achievable to move sows into the farrowing house at least three days before due dates when records are looked at and sows monitored.” Signs of farrowing could be noticed up to 10 days before birthing, with enlarged mammary glands and swelling of the vulva.

One of the main causes of stillbirths was prolonged farrowing. “Length of farrowing depends on several factors, particularly on sow parity, as younger sows have shorter farrowing periods. Supervised farrowing is crucial in reducing stillbirths monitor those animals who fall into the risk bracket, such as older sows or those with a history of large litters or prolonged farrowing in the past,” she said.

Prolonged farrowing

“It is in the pig’s interest not to be involved in a prolonged farrowing.” Uterine contractions tended to increase in intensity as the farrowing advanced, and with each contraction, blood flow was reduced, causing suffocation and a lethargic piglet, she added.

“Piglets born towards the end of farrowing take longer to free themselves from the placenta, so are later in achieving their first suckle, resulting in decreased vigour.”

The interval between births could be anything from five to 81 minutes, but many believed that after 30mins intervention was needed. Ms Cliff urged producers to monitor farrowing times carefully, with the consensus being that births should be only 15-20 minutes apart.

To improve piglet viability, those attending highlighted several key factors which they found paramount to their farms, including ensuring 40ml colostrum intake within the first six hours. “Each suckling should give approximately 20ml, and piglets suckle about once every 45mins,” said Ms Cliff.


  • Monitor farrowing
  • Ensure colostrum intake
  • Induce when necessary

Not only did colostrum provide warmth and energy, it also provided essential immunoglobulins, transferred into the bloodstream before the gut closed, added Mr Blowey. “Colostrum provides immune defence, but also aids in development of vital life-sustaining organs, such as the brain, heart and pancreas.

“The shorter the farrowing period, the more colostrum is available. Colostrum is only produced 12-24 hours after farrowing and starts to decrease in immunoglobulins concentration after the first five hours when milk secretion is increased.”

Producers commented on the different methods for calming sows, such as manipulating or massaging udders and playing music in the farrowing buildings. But the recent warm weather provoked great debate as to what steps could be taken to control temperatures.

“The ideal temperature is between 22 and 24C throughout housing,” said Ms Cliff. “However, be careful to consider the temperature at sow level, as extreme heat will prohibit sows from pushing. Having fans and maintaining air movement is essential, but monitor the piglet environment.”

Heat pads

Several members maintained that heat pads were more effective than lamps. But gradual movement towards the creep box was also highlighted as good practice for improving piglet viability. “Maximising the number of piglets weaned starts with several key management tasks. Fostering, with the strongest piglets being picked off to go leaving weaker piglets to suckle, should be done immediately after piglets have had sufficient colostrum.”