How to reduce wean-to-finish mortality: Part 1 — Plan your strategies

High wean-to-finish mortality continues to trouble the pork industry. While lowering rates is possible, it’s not easy, reported Ryan Strobel, DVM, and Chris Sievers, DVM, with Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota.

The two veterinarians offered 10 strategies to reduce wean-to-finish mortality during an Iowa Swine Day webinar, organized by Iowa State University. The presentation can be accessed here.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, Strobel and Sievers discuss how to plan your strategies — the first step to successfully reduce mortality rates. Part 2 of this article series covers recommendations from Strobel and Sievers about how to implement plans to reduce mortality rates.

Planning Strategy #1: Track progress with benchmarking

“We start with benchmarking because if you don’t know where you’re at, you don’t know the direction you are headed,” Sievers said. “You need accurate data systems to measure and track where you are at and compare year by year and group by group.”

One set of production data available for comparison is MetaFarms. Its data shows wean-to-finish mortality trends down slightly from 6.4% in 2018 to around 6% in 2020, Sievers said.

But mortality rates between the top and bottom farms show wide disparities. Nursery close-outs averaged 2.5% overall, with the top 10% achieving just 0.95% mortality and the bottom 10% farms at 6.4% mortality. Sievers suggested setting a goal to be in the top 20% of the MetaFarms data.

Planning Strategy #2: Thorough prep required for nursery

All-in, all-out is key to helping weaned pigs start off strong and thrive in a wean-to-finish facility. “Do as much all-in, all-out as you can,” Strobel said. “By site is ideal but if [not possible] then by barn or at a bare minimum by room. We don’t want different age pigs in the same room.”

Thorough cleaning and prepping of the facilities before the pigs arrive also help the animals get off to a good start. This means washing with hot water, drying, disinfecting and drying again. Be sure to degrease periodically and definitely after a disease outbreak. White-washing with a thick coat on all areas also ensures a thorough cleaning.

Next, Strobel recommends the cleaned facilities be inspected by someone else to make sure everything is cleaned properly (feeders tipped over, under gates, etc.). Pay close attention to cleaning and drying water cups. Use a battery-powered leaf blower for best results. Also clean out the water lines.

“Transitioning pigs to water is an important step because 75% of a young pig is water,” Strobel said. “They can dehydrate quickly. Make sure to inspect those water cups.”

Make sure brooders and heat lamps are clean and working before pigs move into the facility. Also recheck controller settings to make sure fans and heat are set correctly. Do an exterior building walk-around, looking for maintenance issues and cleaning dust and dirt off pit fans. An 1/8 inch of dust on a fan reduces its efficiency by 40%.

“If we don’t get this cleaning process done right and we can’t get the pigs in a clean barn, then we are fighting an uphill battle,” Strobel explained.

Planning Strategy #3: Know sow-farm health issues

“The goal for everyone is to get a high-quality, healthy weaned pig,” Sievers said. “How do you get that? Working closely with the sow farm [through] sound communications. How are pigs doing on the sow farm and on your farm?”

Optimize the age and weight of the pigs. Sievers’ ideal age is 20 days and older. He will compromise with 17 to 18 days of age and 7 to 8 pounds of weight.

From the health side, he wants pigs coming from a sow farm that’s negative to porcine epidemic diarrhea, Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia, mycoplasma and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus.

But if the sow farm is positive, he recommends focusing on biosecurity and filtration at the farm or looking for a different partnership. Nothing affects wean-to-finish mortality more than disease, Sievers noted.

For other bacterial pathogens in the sow farm, he recommends knowing what’s in the flow and creating autogenous vaccines to provide good immunity in the pigs.

“All this is to help dictate your feed budget, pull space and set up proper expectations,” he explained. “Previous health challenges and diagnostics are important in vaccination plans and strategies, timing…Make sure you have products on hand.”

Planning Strategy #4: Communicate your vaccination program

“One of the biggest issues we see is communications,” Strobel said. “What I mean is, ‘We switched over to a new [vaccine] at the sow farm and didn’t get it executed right on the second booster in nursery,’ or ‘The E. coli vaccine on the sow farm didn’t work and so now we need to do this group.’

“Making sure all communications happen in a timely manner is very important, especially from the contract grower or employee standpoint downstream,” he added. “Having some type of transfer sheet helps at every stage.”

Execution of vaccines has gotten better over the years. Strobel recommends retraining employees and growers at least once or twice a year. During training, be sure to not only tell what needs to be done but also explain why for improved understanding.

He recommends changing a vaccination program no more frequently than every 2 months and at least once a year. Also, do not cut corners on vaccines. If you need to reduce costs, work with a veterinarian for a solution.

“Communicating proper vaccine storage, if that’s dry ice or in the refrigerator, or just not in the sun. are all important factors to talk about with employees and growers,” Strobel said. “They don’t always realize the cost. If you vaccinate a 2,000-head nursery, it can be $1,000 of vaccine in that box that just showed up.”

Strobel suggests using a vaccination form filled out by a supervisor or owner that shows how a vaccination should be administered. It also includes a sign-off to document when the vaccination occurs. Some farms put up pictures of vaccines and labels to help employees identify the correct vaccine.

“Execution is just so important and not only the right protocol, but make sure it is done right every single time,” Strobel said. “Watch and observe at a nursery at least twice a year. Make sure the supervisor has unplanned visits when vaccinating. Watch vaccine crews to make sure they aren’t going too fast or stressing the pigs out or not changing needles.

“Going over all those little things regarding vaccinations is the way to make the program really work,” he added.

Planning Strategy #5: Determine barn layout, sorting pigs

Before pigs arrive, write up the barn layout that includes the number of pens for each pig category and location, including sick and recovery pens.

Strobel also suggests planning mandatory sorts. For example, some flows set pulls on days 1, 3 and 8. “This forces [employees and owners] to pull because there will always be small pigs,” he said. “They are out there if you look hard enough.”

Include the sort spaces on the barn layout, allowing 5% to 20% of the barn for these pens.

“Spending the right amount of time during the first 2 weeks in nursery and finishing saves time throughout the turn,” Strobel added. “The more you can sort and plan out where you put pens, the better the rest of the turn will go.”


Read Part 2 in this two-part series:
How to reduce wean-to-finish mortality: Part 2 — Implement your plans


How to reduce wean-to-finish mortality: Part 2 — Implement your plans

In Part 2 of this two-part series, Ryan Strobel, DVM, and Chris Sievers, DVM, with the Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota, share implementation strategies to lower wean-to-finish mortality rates.

The two veterinarians offered planning and implementation strategies to reduce wean-to-finish mortality during an Iowa Swine Day webinar, organized by Iowa State University. The presentation can be accessed here.

Implementation Strategy #1: Feeding weaned pigs for success

Weaning is an “extremely high-stress event, from one mom and a small farrowing crate to pens of 20,” Sievers said. “[They go] from an all-milk diet and a little bit of feed to a corn/soy diet; a truck ride,…vaccinations, new barn environment and water access.”

Creep feeding before weaning helps pigs acclimate to feed. In the wean-to-finish facility, Sievers wants pigs fed four times a day at first with mats and gruel bowls. He suggests doing it during chores. “Walk all the way through the buildings with mat feed and gruel bowls, and back through with treatments and…to get them up again so they know feed is always there,” he explained.

The goal for mat feeding is to give all pigs a taste of feed to help get them started eating. Feed them enough to last 20 to 30 minutes. A general rule for grueling is to start with 70% water and 30% feed and slowly work to 70% feed and 30% water in 5 days. If a pig isn’t eating and looks gaunt, pull it immediately and move the pig to a sick pen, he added.

Newly weaned pigs also need adequate water access. Sievers recommends one cup for up to 20 pigs. Set the dripper to run slowly into the cup so the pigs learn where to find water.

Implementation Strategy #2: Avoid training pitfalls

A big challenge for a supervisor is finding a balance between showing employees how to do work and what to do versus expecting them to do everything and walking out, Strobel said.

“Another thing I find often is blame versus education,” he added. “It’s easy to blame the grower or employee for a bad turn. But it’s important to educate them on why that happened and what we could have done better…rather than blame them for it.”

He also advocates leading by example. “I think every company should set up a show barn that can serve as a good example — clean and set up properly so if we have an issue, we can bring a grower or employee [to visit].”

Strobel recommends reviewing flows and performance measures quarterly. Follow up on any issues immediately. He also suggests positive feedback to reassure people they are doing good things for the pigs. But strategically push people to always get better.

One way to improve communications is to set trigger points. “Create a trigger point where that caretaker knows ‘I need to call my supervisor,’” Strobel explained. “Like in a 1,000-head barn, if I have five dead, I need to immediately notify my supervisor.”

Strobel also advocates for caretakers to have access to the veterinarian and nutritionist. “I make my number available at every site,” he said. “They need to have access to veterinarians and nutritionists in a timely manner.”

Implementation Strategy #3: Set up criteria for pulling sick pigs

Sievers recommends using an individual pig-care program to help find sick pigs and identify the treatment needed. One example is an ABC pig program where the “A” pig with a droopy head and watery eyes is acute and needs individual treatment within the main population.

The “B” pig takes it a step further, showing its backbone and ribs. Treat the pig immediately and put it in the pull pen. The “C” pig should already be in the pull pen because it’s on a negative energy platform and needs extreme care and attention.

Treatment success is reliant on not only the right antibiotic but also the timing of treatment, with early absolutely being better, Sievers said. He also recommends using injections for treatment.

A correctly set up pull pen also helps ensure success with sick pigs. Locate the pull pens away from a curtain and inlets where air will flow on the pigs. It should be a clean environment. Provide extra heat, water and feed.

Implementation Strategy #4: Take grow-finish biosecurity seriously

“Is it a myth or achievable?” Strobel asked. He offers several tips to prevent disease spread to the farm and within a farm.

Control high-risk areas where there’s contact to the outside. Make clear clean/dirty lines; in a shower/locker room, leave all clothes on the dirty side of the shower in lockers and all towels on the clean side; keep all maintenance tools and items on site and not around other pigs; keep all doors locked at all times.

A check of feed bins is one of the most obvious breaks. “Everyone wants to jump outside as soon as they see a feed outage to hammer on the bin and jump back in,” he said. Put on clean boots and coveralls to work on the bin and leave on the dirty side when done.

“Dead removal is the most important biosecurity risk on grow-finish sites,” he said. Keep a dead removal box away from the barn and out of public sight. Wear specific boots and coveralls for going to the box.

When moving animals in and out of the site, make sure the market trailer and chute are cleaned.

Implementation Strategy #5: Fix ventilation issues

The best way to check a building’s ventilation is to look at the pigs.

“Let the pigs tell you their comfort level,” Sievers said. “They like to lie touching each other but should not be piling. Watch where they are dunging, lying and eating. If those areas are spreading into each other, either we have a disease or the ventilation is off.”

The goal of ventilation is to control excess humidity, which Sievers wants at less than 70%. He also wants proper air exchange by bringing in fresh oxygen and removing carbon monoxide.

Pitfalls to proper ventilation include dirty fans, fans with broken blades, improper location of temperature probes in barns, blocked or insufficient inlets, and leaks caused by sagging or torn curtains and around doors.

“The end goal is to understand your barn and controller because every barn is different,” Sievers said. “Make daily adjustments based off pig comfort and using your pigs as your gauge, not just the numbers on the controller.”


Read Part 1 in this two-part series:
How to reduce wean-to-finish mortality: Part 1 — Plan your strategies