Much has been written on the challenge of body condition scoring (BCS) of sows, and I believe that as herds have gotten larger, this task has gotten more difficult, with the outliers being at the extreme ends of the pendulum swings.
Most of what is out there is from researchers and is too specific for most farm employees. Adding to barn staff challenges is the fact that there are many divergent data sets to get the task right, and that can be confusing. Your seed stock supplier, vet, nutritionist and barn manager may not be the only sources of data, but on most farms are the key data suppliers.
Many have commented that feeding sows in stalls and getting BCS in the right spot to provide maximum benefit is the simplest and best way to accomplish the task. I have always been challenged when in a stall barn to see the cookie-cutter sow, row upon row, and that challenge extrapolates as the barns continue to get larger.
Body condition varies in stalls
Invariably, it requires constant attention to drop adjustment to make a respectable job of managing body condition in stalls. And let’s be honest, once we know those sows are in pig, busy staff may miss more than a few feed adjustments. Then we simply have to deal with stall design. If feed drops placed the feed in a neat pile directly in the middle of the feed trough in front of the sow, we would see more accurate and repetitive results from increased or decreased feed amounts.
Feed placement isn’t always exact in sow stall systems. If feed drops placed the feed in a neat pile directly in the middle of the feed trough in front of the sow, we would see more accurate and repetitive results.
Unfortunately, even with the feed drop tube angled at the end to direct feed towards the middle of the trough, fast (or smart) sows soon figure out in stalls that they can eat at the buffet beside them, and then come back to their own feed portion.
The result is a fat sow and a thin sow or possibly two. Even how quickly the water flows in the trough can impact BCS with sows at the water input location of the trough having small amounts of feed washed away to the closed end of the trough. It is amazing the number of “better conditioned” sows that are at the end of a water trough come the day to move them to farrowing.
With an offset drop pipe, sows who are more aggressive will steal from neighboring sows.
Then we need to impact nutritional composition and volumes, BCS and point of gestation, if possible, with a feed nutritional profile (to be fair, most barns currently feed a single ration through gestation). I have developed some standard rules that I like to use as reference points for proper feeding.
Most farms should be able to accomplish a near perfect BCS on 90 percent of the herd by doing five basic things.
So how is this accomplished without doing constant body fat and weight measurements on gestating sows? Most farms should be able to accomplish a near perfect BCS on 90 percent of the herd by doing five basic things and performing detailed work only a couple of times a year.
Barn rule No. 1: Sows and gilts should always be fed ad lib 10 days before breeding
Simple enough. Make it happen using any number of ad lib feeders available in the market place. It’s even better if you can continue to feed the gestation ration to this group.
First trimester sows need to be fed to regain body mass (muscle / fat / embryo implantation); second trimester sows need to be finishing up return to correct BCS and nutritional intake closely matched to maintenance, placenta development and in gilts, structured growth towards a mature body structure. Third trimester animals need to be developing piglet birth weight and setting the sow up for a solid lactation period with excellent milk production and an acceptable loss of back fat, muscle and overall body mass. This is a place where the use of electronic sow feeders (ESF) and integrated data management can add huge upside potential to almost any size operation.
Personally, I always fed the most nutrient-dense ration (usually a gilt lactation ration) that I could during this time. Perhaps the single most important ration in your swine barn is the lactation ration. It sets up the sow to produce large volumes of fat rich milk, promotes retention of body mass and increases the weaned weight of each and every piglet, reducing costs further down the chain.
Barn rule No. 2: Location, location, location. Get out into the barn!
If there is anything the restaurant business teaches a person, it is that location is everything. You are not going to improve your sows’ BCS and through that your herd performance from a single point of view. (The chair in front of the computer, for example.)
My wife will often comment that I can’t see my dirty socks on the floor but won’t miss an attractive girl on the beach. You need to observe, but you also need to see. What is happening in your barn? What percentage of sows are bred by day five post weaning? What do these weaned sows look like compared to the early or late breeders? Are they fat, thin or do they still have what you would consider a reasonable amount of cover? Does the BCS challenge start in the farrowing house or the gestation barn?
This is one of the greatest reasons I like group housing and the use of ESF. I do not end up walking behind endless lines of sows, looking to see if this one is larger or thinner than the one before or after it. Human nature is such that while we intend to use a common reference point, we are invariably making comparisons to the sow on each side. In a group housing situation there is a much higher likelihood of “randomness” allowing for a wider variation of sow BCS within eyesight. I feel this makes for a much more effective comparison when doing body condition scoring.
Barn rule No. 3: Make adjustments now
Nothing is worse than walking behind a line of stalls, but nothing is more important. Walk the walkway behind the sows, not in front. Walking in front of the sows only gives part of the picture. The view of a sow’s neck, shoulders and flanks gives a more well-rounded idea of the body condition. And then if you’re working in a stall barn you have to come up with a cost-effective way to make those changes, either mark the sow, and then walk the front again or have a second person walk the front while you request changes. In an ESF barn, you can simply scan the sow’s transponder and change the BCS in the management software, and you’re done. I suggest that you do this on a scheduled monthly basis, perhaps even bi-weekly when starting a new barn or large group of gilts to be sure stations are used correctly.
Barn rule No. 4: Feed them well
Are there shoulder lesions and abrasions, either in the breeding area, gestation barn or the farrowing house? This is a clear sign that nutritional requirements are not being met, and I am not just talking volume. Sows need specific volumes and specific nutrients at different parts of the cycle and this cannot always be delivered by a single ration with a volume feeder. In this aspect ESFs are able to provide blended rations or top-dress with multiple supplement(s) as required. Precision sow feeders (PSF) can tailor each day’s ration for each individual sow based on an entire range of data available in your management software. Up to four different feed ingredients can be blended on some PSF to target today’s ration to today’s needs.
Four rations can be mixed to precisely feed gestating sows.
Barn rule No. 5: Make sure everyone understands the benefits of good herd BCS
Everyone benefits when sows are in proper condition. Too thin and litter birth weight and weaning weight typically suffer. Too heavy and piglets born dead typically goes up, nursing performance is poorer and retained piglets are more of an issue.
Proper BCS typically means good body weight, and that directly relates to increase in piglets born alive. Nutritional dollars are more effectively spent. Good litter birth weights translate into every part of the operation, improving weaning weights, impacting piglet transitions and increasing finishing performance.
There’s a correlation between sow weight at breeding and number of piglets born alive, as shown in this figure.