Ellis: No magic bullet to reduce pre-wean mortality

Pre-wean mortality has increased over the last 15 years, and it’s a major concern for US pork producers and veterinarians. In fact, producers lose a bigger proportion of their production in the first 3 weeks of life than they do in the rest of the entire production cycle, Mike Ellis, PhD, a professor at the University of Illinois, told Pig Health Today. Estimates report pre-weaning mortality at about 15% of all piglets born, he said.

“Stillbirths also have increased to a certain extent. So collectively, if you combine stillbirths and pre-wean mortality, we’re losing in excess of 20% of the piglets that are potentially there at the start of farrowing,” Ellis said. “That’s a big loss for any industry.”

As sow productivity has increased, so has pre-wean mortality, but that doesn’t mean the industry should go back to producing smaller litters. Large litters of healthy, thrifty pigs make good economic sense, but producers and veterinarians need to focus on management techniques and other factors to minimize mortality, Ellis said.

“There are lots of things that can be done,” he said. “And the best units do very well, with less than 10% pre-wean mortality. It’s within scope to reduce those numbers significantly.”

Primary causes of pre-wean mortality

Crushing by the sow and starvation are the leading causes of pre-wean mortality, Ellis said, and that hasn’t changed over the years. Low vitality at birth (often due to low birthweight) is also a problem.

“There are some disease factors, but far and away, the two major components [of pre-wean mortality] are crushing and starvation, and they’re interlinked. If a piglet is starving and not getting enough milk, then it becomes more lethargic and is less capable of moving away from the sow, so crushing losses increase,” he said.

Nutritional interventions may help. “There’s some evidence in relation to stillbirths that by changing the diet of the sow before farrowing — by adding extra fiber to the diet, for example — you can reduce stillbirths,” he added.

Good management and good people are pivotal

It’s all about creating an environment that is conducive for piglet survival, Ellis said. Many factors figure into the equation, including disease management, control of the environment and attention to detail, with management techniques like cross-fostering and split-weaning.

Most importantly, having the right people in the farrowing house is critical, Ellis emphasized, though he acknowledged that it’s especially difficult to find good people in the present environment of low unemployment.

“The biggest challenge in the industry is how can we bring in and develop people who are better at reducing mortality?” he said. “The first 21 days is a very people-intensive part of production: You need someone in the farrowing house observing, finding pigs that are struggling and doing something about it. If you consistently want lower pre-wean mortality, the opportunity is in finding people who are good at that sort of job.”

Start the process

Ellis suggested producers and veterinarians consider the following factors to reduce pre-wean mortality:

  • Start with having the right people, who possess the right attitude to be successful in the farrowing house. “It all starts with the people,” Ellis said.
  • Create an environment where the sows and piglets are comfortable.
  • Incorporate the proper facility design, both buildings and farrowing crates.
  • Make sure sows are in good body condition when they enter the farrowing house, to give piglets every opportunity for success.
  • Implement good piglet management, like split-suckling and cross-fostering, so smaller pigs have access to colostrum.
  • Build up immunity through the sows’ colostrum. “A lot of producers use vaccines to stimulate colostrum antibody production,” he said.
  • Protect piglets against enteric disease.
  • Practice all-in, all-out production.
  • Make sure the facility is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between groups.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Ellis pointed out. “You need to look at the entire system and identify where you can optimize piglet survivability.”

“What happens before weaning influences the piglet for the rest of its life, so this is a critical stage,” Ellis said. “We’ve focused on mortality, because it is a problem and keeping them alive is the first step, but these [protocols] can maximize weaning overall and are important to consider.”