Optimising sow feed intake in farrowing

Producers can send more piglets to the nursery or grow-finish barn by controlling key elements of the farrowing house environment. Uniform ventilation and strategic heat placement bring success, especially for piglets. However, sow well-being is a constantly growing concern, and sow feeding is an opportunity for improvement. Although many methods are available, ad-libitum feeding after Day 3 provides the most benefit to both sows and their litters.

The main goal for feeding sows is to provide enough nutrients to maximise milk production for her growing litter, yet retain proper body weight throughout lactation. If sows must be fed additionally in the Breed Row to get her to a better body condition to re-breed, money is wasted.

There are four main methods for feeding sows in farrowing:

  1. hand feeding;
  2. automatic drop feeding; and
  3. feeding with an electronic or mechanical feeder.

Hand feeding

Hand-feeding is typically very labour-intensive and time consuming, which adds much to the cost of production. Hand scooping from a feed cart into a trough or bowl is the predominant method. As the feed cart passes the stalls, sows usually get up and management can check the health of the animals. Hand-feeding is hard to accomplish because it has to occur one to four times a day, generally, and 12-24 lbs. of ground feed is usually given.

Automatic drop feeding

Alternatively, automatic drop feeding can keep more feed in front of sows for longer periods of time. Labour is less because feed is dropped in intervals throughout the day, and sows’ natural eating habits can be more efficiently matched. Feed is always present, but the challenge is for feed to be palatable. A sow bowl cannot store feed efficiently, as it gets stale quicker than if feed were in a hopper or tube. Another obstacle is that if feed volume or weight is to be measured, the producer must install an apparatus to monitor feed volume or weight to each farrowing stall.

Electronic and mechanical feeders

The latest method of feeding sows is with electronic feeders. These feeders are more common for university research or select herds as they monitor the volume and/or weight of feed being delivered to the sow. Individual daily feed consumption is added electronically to a sow’s record via software on a personal computer. The price of a system of electronic feeders in farrowing can be prohibitive for many herds.

Ad-lib feeding

The most widely acclaimed method of feeding sows successfully in farrowing is ad-libitum feeding, also known as ad-lib feeding, with an engineered feeder. Many configurations of ad-lib feeders are available for either dry or wet/dry feeding. Feeding ad-lib allows sows to eat as much as they want and always when they are hungry. Labour isn’t used for feeding, rather for getting sows up and monitoring the litter of piglets, which is a better utilisation of workers’ time. The sow bowl or trough will have a sow-activated mechanism to dispense feed. Many ad-lib sow feeders can be either adjusted by hand or self-regulated by the amount of feed in the bowl, based on individual sow eating behaviour. Consumption can be monitored by recording starting and ending feed volumes, usually over a 24-hour period. Ad-lib feeding has been shown to be the most cost-effective method to keep sows in appropriate body condition throughout lactation.

Other factors to consider

Barn care takers should get the sows up multiple times per day. Getting sows up allows workers to observe the animals and ensure they are eating and drinking. It is preferable to walk in front of the sow and also behind her to make sure the piglets are up. Ad-lib feeding allows for better management because workers are concentrating on animals.

Genetics suppliers continue to provide longer-bodied gilts that are producing more piglets born alive and heavier piglets weaned. It is no longer uncommon to have 14 or more piglets born and have wean weights of 0.5 kg (14 lbs.) or more. This is translating into needing sows to maintain peak body condition throughout lactation. All the work done by barn care takers culminates in how well the sow eats and thus providing energy to her litter. The ultimate goal at weaning is for the sow to be in good body condition so she can be re-bred quickly, and for her healthy litter to be ready for the transition into the nursery or grow-finish barn.