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Nature is wise III: Sows do not only make piglets, they also make enough milk to raise them

Lifting partitions in the farrowing unit allows piglets from different litters to mix, sharing teats and socializing.

This is the third installment of the saga that was first published in December 2012.

The first two articles discussed the need to seek the best weaning date to get the best services and the best possible care at farrowing. The production situation has changed a lot, due to improvements in health, facilities, management, nutrition and genetics. The most important change of all, which affects production the most, is the length of the sows' gestation (more than 115 days in modern genetics).

We currently come across sows that farrow many more piglets than before, piglets that we must be able to raise. We must not forget that besides piglets, sows have a high capacity to produce milk, capacity that must be taken full advantage of.

There are currently sows that farrow many more piglets
There are currently sows that farrow many more piglets

Figure 1. Today, there are sows that farrow many more piglets and more viable than before.

The need for milk is so great that different systems are being developed to provide artificial milk to piglets as an alternative.

Are these systems necessary? Are modern sows really capable to produce all the milk their piglets need?

Soaring prolificacies and increasingly better management have shown —in a practical way— that a sow with 14 teats can feed 16 piglets without problems.

What does "without problems" mean? Without the piglets becoming uneven, with good weaning weight, without differences with other piglets who have had "their" own teat for the duration of the lactation period.

We had always known that each piglet has its own teat, the first days of life a hierarchy being established between siblings that ends up with the allocation of the best teat for each piglet based on their capabilities.

We now know that this is only half true. This is true when there are more teats than piglets. But, if there are more piglets than teats, and they are all strong and viable, teats are shared.

This allows for the full use of the available milk. Teats are completely drained of milk, and this stimulates greater milk production.

Once we make sure teats are shared, the next step is to consider lifting partitions in the farrowing unit, thus allowing piglets of different litters to mix and socialize.

Farrowing room with partitions removed
Farrowing room with partitions removed

Figure 2. Farrowing room with partitions removed.

The first advantage is obvious: the animals make much better use of the lying area.

But, are there other advantages? Is milk really better used? Can the ceiling of milk production be reached?

In her end-of-degree project, Ara Yaiza proves it.

Piglets from 36 litters were individually weighed. Half of the piglets in each room were socialised in pairs by removing the barrier between both litters.

Every piglet was weighed at three timepoints:

  • When processing the piglets (2-4 days old).
  • At weaning.
  • 4 weeks after weaning.

Piglets were socialised at an average age of 11 days.

Elimination of partitions between farrowing pens
Elimination of partitions between farrowing pens

The differences in weight between socialised and non-socialised piglets are significant (Table 1.)

Table 1. Mean least squares (± SE) of piglets' live weights depending on treatment (socialized / control).

Socialised Control P
Weight 1 (processed) 2.14 (±0.03) 1.93 (±0.03) 0.01
Weight 2 (weaning) 7.41 (±0.1) 7.11 (±0.1) 0.03
Weight 3 (4 weeks post-weaning) 13.23 (±0.23) 12 (±0.24) 0.05

As proved when comparing weight coefficients of variation (Table 2), socialised piglets don't only grow bigger, but they are also more homogeneous.

Table 2. Weight coefficients of variation (%) in piglets from socialised and non-socialised litters.

Socialised Non- socialised
Weight 1 (processed) 23.66 25.02
Weight 2 (weaning) 19.32 20.86
Weight 3 (4 weeks post-weaning) 24.98 26.95

One of the doubts that arose at the time of the test was how to choose the right time to socialise litters. In the wild, socialisation usually starts at the age of 10 days. Table 3 shows that the results obtained after weaning are better when socialisation is delayed beyond 10 days of life.

Table 3. Means (± SE) of live weights depending on age at socialisation.T

Start of Soc. ≤ 10 Start of Soc. > 10 P
Weight 2 (weaning) 7.23 (±0.08) 7.39 (±0.13) NS
Weight 3 (4 weeks post-weaning) 14.38 (±0.08) 15.23 (±0.21) ≤0.001

Despite the limitations the study may have (sample size, baseline weights...) it seems clear that socializing in the farrowing unit is advantageous for piglets, both in the farrowing unit and at the beginning of the growing phase.

The door is already open, further research is needed to try and determine the optimal time for socialization, the number of litters involved, etc., thus making the most of such a precious asset as sow's milk is for our production systems.

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Article Comments

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29-Sep-2017dacooper33dacooper33Interesting article...we tried this back in the 1990's and didn't have much success. The removal of the creep dividers and socialisation of the piglets seemed to cause some upset to the sows and negatively impacted their feed intake and lactation output.
It would be good to see a repeat of this trial as the Socialised and Control group have significantly different weights at processing (socialised group with a 0.21 kg advantage). We know that for each 100 grams of birthweight increase, we can expect a 300 gram increase at weaning (25 day average). With this in mind, the socialised pigs were 210 grams heavier at processing, so we should expect them to be 630 grams heavier at weaning just due to the higher birthweight. The study results show them to be only 300 grams heavier...therefore, the socialisation could have actually resulted in lower weaning weights when adjusted for birthweight differences. I have no doubt that the mixing of litters would probably improve piglet variation as the smaller, disadvantaged piglets would have twice the teats to try and steal milf from.
Interestingly, we found after a large scale study that for every 100 grams increase in weaning weight, we would expect to see a 400 gram increase at end of the nursery phase (6 weeks later). This falls right in line with the results in the study as the socialised pigs were 300 grams heavier at weaning and at the end of 4 weeks were 1230 grams heavier.
My fear is that all the increase in growth performance is a result of the difference in birthweight between the test group and control group instead of the socialisation impact.
09-Apr-2018Jose CasanovasJose CasanovasThe advantages are many.
There is only one problem; the sanitary status must be good.
And this, from a certain point of view, is not a problem either.
Working to improve health status is never a problem.
An image is better than 1000 words.
By the way; Where are the little piglets?
Saludos desde La Franja.
29-Sep-2017Jose CasanovasJose CasanovasIn Spain we say that an image is better than a thousand words.
Greetings from La Franja.
29-Mar-2018bulldogsbulldogsCan you point to the literature that is mentioned about piglets sharing teats throughout lactation? My interest is peaked!
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