Can novel management practices through the use of electronic sow feeders yield lower stillborn rates?
By: Dalton Obermier, M.S.
A 5,000-Head Commercial Sow-Farm Research
Previously, I provided an overview of an investigative research trial that took place in collaboration with Gestal (JYGA Technologies, Inc.) and Standard Nutrition Company (Obermier, 2021). The primary objective of that summer’s (2020) study was to determine if feeding sows during nighttime hours impacted the time of onset of parturition and consequently, stillborn rates. Our findings showed that sows fed at 2 A.M. began farrowing earlier in the day (12:04 P.M. vs. 12:54 P.M.) and had reduced stillborn rates (8.40% vs. 9.74%) when compared to the “traditionally” fed sows who were fed at 7 A.M. Further investigation into the underlying physiology behind this difference and more testing with alternative times is needed and could lead us to making a more conclusive summary. With this main portion of the study being done, we utilized the remaining time on the farm to explore other means to reduce stillborn rates with the use of the Gestal Solo lactation feeders.
As an industry, we have a relatively good understanding of what causes stillborn piglets, with most cases being linked to the farrowing process itself. Prolonged births create a stressful environment for piglets to transition from an intra- to extra-uterine existence. This “stress” results in reduced oxygenation at the piglet level via uterine contractions which leads to low piglet vitality and/or piglet mortality (stillborn). More details on stillborns and the importance of why the swine industry must push forward on reducing them can be found here: Automated Feeders Offer Explorations into New Management Practices to Improve Stillborn Rates. From a broad perspective, the pilot study that took place during the last few weeks of the summer focused on the causative effect of why some sows exhibit prolonged farrowings.
Variables such as large piglets, high room temperatures, and sow age are commonly framed as the “causes” of high stillborn rates. However, these are all components that no automated feeding system can override. Peter Theil investigated further into sources associated with prolonged farrowing and alluded to “energy depletion “and “fatigue” at the sow level (Sorensen, 2017). Like other monogastric species, pigs absorb starch from their intestines in the form of glucose, which provides energy to the pig. This metabolic process takes place in the first 4-6 hours after feed intake. In Theil’s study, it was concluded that a longer time interval between the last feeding and onset of farrowing resulted in prolonged births and subsequently higher stillborn rates. Typical commercial farms in the U.S. feed their late gestation sows once (~7 A.M.) or twice (~7 A.M. and ~3 P.M.) daily. This means sows that farrow at 6 A.M. will have a 23 hr. or 15 hr. gap, respectively, between last feeding and onset of parturition. In Theil’s study, sows with greater than 18 hours between the last meal and initiation of farrowing had much higher stillborn rates than sows with less than a 6-hour interval (10% vs. < 4%, respectively). This difference is most likely accredited to a lack of energy at the sow level, creating a more stressful environment for both sow and offspring during the farrowing process. They recommended that high prolific sows be fed at least three times daily prior to farrowing to provide a constant energy supply, but this would likely only be feasible if automated feeders were at the farm’s disposal.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Other researchers have investigated different numbers of pre-farrow meals throughout the day, with no clear-cut consensus having being made on the “ideal” iteration of feedings or the timing of those feedings for late gestating sows (Gourley et al., 2020; Feyera et al., 2018; Vanderhaeghe, et al., 2013; Oliviero et al., 2010). Therefore, the purpose of this study was to note any differences between sows fed once, twice, or six times daily prior to farrowing. The current pilot-study took place at a 5,000-head farrow-to-wean farm in northeast Nebraska, USA owned and managed by Standard Nutrition Company. At approximately day 113 of gestation, all sows were moved to farrowing (18 rooms consisting of 56 crates per room). Upon entry to farrowing, sows were blocked by room and parity and were randomly assigned to one of three following pre-farrow treatments:
Table 1: Treatments