Changes Needed for Piglet Survival

Everyone on the farm needs to buy into the vision of improved piglet care ( Farm Journal's PORK )

In recent years, U.S. swine production has seen gains in sow productivity as measured by piglets weaned per sow per litter farrowed. Unfortunately, those increases have not always been accompanied by an increase in the number of total born piglets that are alive at weaning.

In fact, the Swine Management System database indicates that piglet survival at weaning today is 78.8%, while 12 years ago, it was 79.2%.

Many techniques have been developed over the years to save a high percentage of piglets born, and often, when well implemented, they have resulted in certain farms being well above the norm in terms of piglet survival. However, many farms/systems still struggle with implementing strategies to prevent stillbirths and reduce preweaning mortalities.

The following techniques are proven strategies to save piglets, but for one reason or another, they haven’t been diligently practiced and perfected. These strategies—while well-documented and well-understood, are often not practiced in the concise and consistent manner that facilitates improved piglet survival. 

Strategies to save piglets

Few farms seem to be able to put the entire playbook into practice every day. I suggest we look away from the science of pig farming and pay more attention to the psychology of people involved in the swine industry. We need to determine why stakeholders (owners/supervisors/caretakers/veterinarians) are often satisfied with the status quo of ever-increasing weaning numbers but also with the higher percentage of deaths.

For information on why people are often satisfied with the status quo (and as a result, often resist positive change), look at the many books and materials on creating change by John P. Kotter. He lists three major initiatives that must be in place before positive change can occur, and I believe they are worth exploring in terms of the problem at hand.

A Climate for Change

What describes a climate for change? Most importantly, there must be a sense of urgency. Someone has to awaken out of complacency and recognize their system/farm has a problem with piglet survival percentage, as compared to current and future competitors—some of whom are able to have piglet survival rates of 90%. This will take leadership and could come from the ownership group, the supervisors, the farm manager, the farrowing crew or the attending veterinarian. Unfortunately, most organizations suffer from a shortage of leaders and unless there is a leader concerned about excessive piglet losses, no change will occur.

A sense of urgency to correct the problem must spread throughout all stakeholders in the operation and the resistance to change must be overcome. This is often underestimated and difficult to achieve. Most change initiatives fail because of this misunderstood level of difficulty.

Engaging the Organization

This step involves getting everyone on the farm to buy into the vision of improved piglet care. It can be difficult at first, but will be facilitated when the owners take steps to show the importance of the change initiatives. This might include remodeling facilities or providing extra expenditures for labor. Also, offsite trips to farms that are successful in this area can be a powerful motivating tool for stakeholders. Possibly in a larger system, a farm can be developed that can become a model for other farms in the system. It is imperative, however, that caretakers truly believe those in higher management have made sacrifices that demonstrate the desired change is important. Unfortunately, caretakers often do not sense upper management is willing to sacrifice to make changes so, why should they? As a result, complacency reigns.

Implementing and Sustaining Change

Survivability of piglets is an ever-changing parameter. Disease outbreaks and personnel changes can occur. For change to stick, leaders must recognize that a new improved culture of high expectations in piglet care must be fully cemented in place. This effort might very well take several years.

Unfortunately, as long as the swine business is profitable and sow productivity is increasing, there is little urgency for owners, caretakers or veterinarians to be seriously concerned about this problem. Hence, the current state of affairs when it comes to piglet survival trends.

4 Steps to Change

To lead change in preventing piglet losses, veterinarians and owners/managers should keep these four things in mind:

1. They themselves must not be complacent about piglet care; and they must model this sense of urgency to all stakeholders. They need to realize, in many cases of substandard piglet care, complacency is the real problem rather than a lack of training. Often, training will occur almost spontaneously when there is a true sense of urgency about this problem among all stakeholders.

2. The swine veterinarian should be the most knowledgeable person on the farm to accurately describe the physiological needs of the unborn and born piglets. Who has better training to understand the needs of a young piglet than the veterinarian? The physiological needs of the piglet must be vigorously advocated for by the veterinarian on a regular basis. Veterinarians must not become discouraged and accept the status quo as unchangeable.

3. The herd veterinarian must realize an inspirational leader is needed to create a sense of urgency. If the herd veterinarian or the owners/managers are not naturally inspirational leaders, they must be willing to bring in consultants who are inspirational and knowledgeable to help dismantle the complacency and the resistance to change. There is still much work to do after outside consultants leave and the real work of building a culture of high expectations in piglet care begins. Changing the culture can be difficult, but it is achievable.

4. The swine veterinarian and owners/managers should be tireless advocates of what the farm culture could be when it comes to meeting the needs of young piglets. In many cases, this will require determination, persistence and a willingness to learn themselves. Most of all, they must maintain an unwavering belief that with time, change can occur. As always, change and progress rises and falls on leadership.