Efficient piglet management and animal well-being – two conflicting objectives?

Good conditions in the farrowing pen are vital for production success. Alongside veterinary care and medical treatment, good well-being is increasingly recognised as vital to the healthy development of young piglets, and that relies on reducing stress.

“Stress really has an impact on production. For piglets it’s mainly through reduced weight gain,” explains Professor Dr Nicole Kemper, director of the Institute for Animal Hygiene, Animal Welfare and Farm Animal Behaviour at the University of Hannover, Germany.

Dr Kemper believes that in modern farming systems, it is important for producers to consider the pigs’ interactions, particularly with their caregivers.
Swine veterinarian and breeding expert Dr Julie Ménard, who is responsible for overseeing several maternity operations in Canada, agrees: “People are the key to good results.”

Yet, producers also need to ensure farrowing pens operate efficiently and good workers come at a premium. It means well-being and efficient piglet management can sometimes seem like opposing necessities.

Here, Dr Kemper and Dr Ménard share recommendations to giving piglets a good, healthy start to life right from the farrowing pen without putting additional pressure on costs.

a piglet in the pigsty

Start with the sow

“The birth should be as natural and uneventful as a birth can be, and that’s only possible with healthy sows that are in good condition and give birth relatively quickly,” says Dr Kemper. She explains that the sow shouldn’t be too fat or too thin and adequate fodder and water must be supplied up to and during the birth.

For Dr Ménard, producers should keep the farrowing process ‘natural’, handling the sow and intervening in the birth only when absolutely necessary. And the benefit?

“My best producers observe that piglets are more mature, heavier and have better colostrum intake,” Dr Ménard reveals. They advise having a team member supervise the birth at all times, ensuring they provide a clean, dry and warm environment for the piglets.“As my best managers say: ‘Better results and less work. Natural is best’,” Dr Ménard adds.

Access to the first milk

The first milk, known as colostrum, is nutrient-rich and essential for the development of robust piglets.

“Top producers understand that colostrum intake is vital to newborn piglets and that it will give them energy and immunity to survive,” says Dr Ménard. To ensure optimal milk production, Dr Ménard highlights the importance of providing the sow with enough nutrients and easy access to feed and water to satisfy her appetite.

But, says Dr Kemper, piglets can have difficulty accessing the mother’s milk; if the piglets are too small or weak, if the piglet has been born last and the rest of the litter are already occupying the teats, or the sow is not willing to give the colostrum by lying on the teats.

“The farrowing manager should keep an eye on the piglets and ensure that they are healthy enough to get to the udder”, she says.

One way to overcome this is through litter management. “The number of piglets should not exceed the number of teats, so if you have a large litter you can balance this by cross-fostering,” says Dr Kemper. This is particularly important for modern sows that can give birth to up to 20 piglets in a single litter.

Encourage enrichment

“If you look at the natural behaviour of pigs, they're always rooting with their snouts,” says Dr Kemper. “Pigs are very active. The barren environment of modern pens are easier to maintain and keep clean, but that also means that the pigs can't always express their usual behaviour.”

Dr Kemper’s studies found that providing piglets with enrichment materials such as rope and straw had a positive effect on their well-being, preventing abnormal behaviour such as tail biting.1

piglet well-being in the farrowing pen
piglet well-being in the farrowing pen 1
piglet well-being in the farrowing pen 2
piglet well-being in the farrowing pen 3
piglet well-being in the farrowing pen 4

Keep handling to a minimum

Handling young piglets can’t be avoided. For a healthy start to life, piglets need to be protected against diseases such as coccidiosis and iron deficiency anaemia, for example. Although necessary, such procedures can cause stress in piglets. Dr Kemper recommends waiting to handle piglets for further management procedures until the third day of life when their immune systems are more developed.  

This is where well-being and efficiencies align. Experts agree that by finding ways to reduce handling it increases piglet well-being, which in turn relieves labour and costs for the farm. “Every intervention is a negative experience for the piglet, so keeping the number of times pigs are handled to a minimum can help reduce stress,” Dr Kemper explains.

The duration of the procedure matters too – studies have proven that cutting the time it takes to carry out procedures is linked to a decreased stress response.2 Combination therapies can help address this challenge and make a difference for better piglet well-being. They offer producers the opportunity to deliver the most important treatments for young piglets effectively and efficiently with less handling and stress. 

At the same time, Dr Ménard emphasizes that it’s important to allow only skilled and experienced workers to handle piglets. Investing the time to hire people with the right attitude and keeping them motivated will pay dividends in production performance.

Rather than being opposing factors, well-being and efficient farrowing pens can both be realised through working smarter, not harder.



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Dr Nicole Kemper is co-author of more than 100 scientific publications in international peer reviewed journals and Dr Julie Ménard has worked as a consultant for swine producers for 32 years. Both experts will be speaking at the Bayer European Swine Symposium 2019, taking place on September 17-18. Dr Kemper will be speaking about improving animal well-being and animal performance and Dr Ménard will be speaking about the important role of farm staff.

1. Kemper, Sow and piglet well-being: important components of pig health

2. Marchant-Forde J. N., Lay Jr. D. C., McMunn K. A., Cheng H. W., Pajor E. A., Marchant-Forde R.M. (2014) Postnatal piglet husbandry practices and well-being: The effects of alternative techniques delivered in combination. Journal of Animal Science 92, 1150-1160