Sow Livability Task Force Earns SelectPride Partner Award

posted on Friday, January 6, 2023

Congratulations to the Sow Livability Task Force for earning the SelectPride Partner Award for your work to improve livability across the system.

Dan Dean, director of sow production, says the collaborative effort, time, talents, dedication and drive exhibited by many people throughout the company have made a tremendous impact on sow livability on the farms.

Over the past few years, Dan says the farms are seeing an increasing trend in sow death loss, which is also happening across the broader pork industry.

“It’s tough on caretaker morale, said Dan. “If there were an easy solution, we would have done it already; many people in our industry have also worked long and hard to find solutions, and we’ve been actively engaged with them.”

To help producers, hundreds of industry conferences, symposiums, research trials and educational efforts around sow survivability have been made available by Extension, academia, industry organizations and private collaborations.

COO Noel Williams says the work has helped drive improvements, but we must do better than sow survivability. “We must change our mentality, which begins with our vocabulary.”

“Survivability puts a negative scene in minds—it’s usually referenced as if someone or something can live despite a harsh environment or challenges to overcome,” he explains. “Livability is where we need to be going—providing the best environment and care to our pigs so they can not just survive, but thrive.”

According to Dan, hundreds of factors influence sow livability. Nutrition, feed intake, health status, genetics, gilt quality and animal husbandry play a role. He says there also needs to be a deeper look at the increase in sow deaths and the industry’s transition to open-pen gestation.

Aggressive sows can wound or injure other sows in the open pens. In particular, the “boss sows” naturally behave aggressively toward other sows to establish dominance, especially during the early stages of pregnancy. Those attacks also trigger an immunity-reducing stress response in the sows they are targeting.

“Those trauma-related injuries and infected wounds cause lameness, a leading cause of sow deaths,” said Dan.

Nearly two years ago, the Sow Livability Task Force was formed to take a cross-functional approach to turn around the trend.

Members of the Sow Livability Task Force include Noel Williams, Chief Operating Officer; Dan Dean, Director of Sow Production; Pete Thomas, DVM, Director of Health Services; Alex Umbaugh, Sow Retention Specialist; Jeremiah Hall, Director of Breeding Herd Supply Chain; Cesar Amorim Moura, Research Manager and Ben Haberl, Director of Nutrition. Researchers in the Iowa State University animal science and animal welfare departments, ISU College of Veterinary Medicine and PIC also lent their expertise and resources.

The task force met monthly to identify challenges, review production data and determine trials the research team could deploy on various sow farms. Interventions were added to the list of potential solutions as others were tested in production settings and either refined or ruled out.

The team began with multifactorial data analysis and implemented a caliper tool to measure body condition scores, which replaced the more subjective visual assessment. Studies focused on necropsy results, urine metabolites, water treatment, diet and feeding levels and gilt age and weight management.

Animal care routines were reviewed with a focus on the most significant challenge—providing that same individual sow care, now in a group pen environment.
And to help with another leading cause of sow deaths—prolapses—Pete Thomas, DVM, trained several of the caretakers with veterinary degrees so they could better care for the sows through suturing.

To help the sow farms get more visibility into the system-wide production data, the research team created reports that captured the individual farm data and benchmarked it across all farms. Reports sharing information on the number and type of death (lame, prolapse, sudden death) flowed back to the farms every Monday morning, complete with 13-week rolling averages to see more consistent progress.

New roles in the sow production system were established to provide gilt and sow farms with specialized training. Alex Umbaugh and Valeria Leija Bustos took on the role of Sow Retention Specialist to take the learnings of the Sow Livability Task Force and apply them at the farm level.

Alex says his priority was helping the farms get consistent body condition scores through measuring with the caliper, then adjusting feed boxes based on the sow’s needs. He and Valeria moved deeper into livability strategies.

“The task force, through all the research and efforts, determined that early identification and the right decision-making are key to keeping our sows healthy,” said Alexander Umbaugh, sow retention specialist.

“We knew we had to develop a different approach to identifying early warning signs our sows were telling us they were hurt or injured,” said Alex. “We put our efforts into believing that two-person observations in those open pens would help us better assess the sows.”

Alex said he started with training the breeding teams who care for the sows in open pen gestation. “Before any other chores are done on the farm, like washing, breeding or ultrasound, the two-person team heads out to the gestation barns to assess the sows,” said Alex.

Alex says the new approach is to have one person walk through the pens to assess the sows and communicate what they see as the other walks through the front alley. The person in the alley is also responsible for feed box adjustments and carries treatment injections.

More eyes on the sows are helping them identify, pull out and treat the sows that need help, a change that improved sow livability.

“Our teams are seeing injury and lameness issues quicker, allowing them to treat the animal with an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory quicker. The teams can also identify sows off feed, another indicator that something is wrong,” said Alex. “When two people are choring, they can pull out the sow right then and there because it’s much easier to perform with two people.”

Two-person choring efforts are also happening in farrowing for the sows and piglets and on the breeding gilt farms.

In addition to how the caretakers are now choring, other efforts identified by the task force—like assessing gilt quality, better hospital pen management and hand feeding in farrowing—have made a difference.

Since the Sow Livability Task Force was organized, the sow farms have improved livability by 4%.

During a routine third-party unannounced animal welfare audit, this vast effort was recently recognized by Dr. Monique Paris Garcia, one of the world’s leading authorities on animal well-being and pig care.

“The sow retention program has continued to make positive strides on sow farms and appears to be fully established and embraced by caretakers and managers on the farm,” writes Dr. Paris in her review. “It was clear, through discussion with the sow managers, that caretakers appreciate the opportunity to work directly with the retention specialist and make better decisions regarding treatment for pigs.”

Dr. Paris said she commended the Sow Livability Task Force “for the development and implementation of the 2-person choring protocol implemented in the farrowing rooms. One individual is assigned to evaluate the sow environment and condition, while the other caretaker is dedicated to the piglet environment and care. The opportunity to have individuals work together not only improves the work environment by encouraging camaraderie and a culture of community but also increases the number of eyes on animals and helps to minimize compromised animals being missed.”

In closing, Dr. Paris said the company “prioritizes the welfare of the pigs on the farm and recognizes the importance of early identification and aggressive treatment. I applaud this group’s work to reshape how animals are cared for and identify the most effective strategies to implement to provide appropriate pig care.”

While this work will continue to be a significant priority for 2023 and certainly years to come, we would like to thank and congratulate the Sow Livability Task Force for championing sow livability, driving improvement and supporting the farms and the entire production system.
Sow Liveabiltiy Team