Feeding sows to improve uniformity in body condition

Practical decisions about feeding need to consider the herd’s average profile regarding body condition, more than the status of the individual animal.

When the current weight, back-fat and condition-score data for each sow are entered, the monitor provides an at-a-glance comparison with some key standards and updates results for the herd.
When the current weight, back-fat and condition-score data for each sow are entered, the monitor provides an at-a-glance comparison with some key standards and updates results for the herd.

As a nutritionist with a major pig breeding company, one of the questions I am asked most often is how to feed prolific sows so they perform to the top of their ability. This question has just become easier to answer, thanks to the launch of a new way of assessing a herd in terms of body condition of its sows.

Top performance comes from having sows in the right condition physically throughout their productive life, which means that they conform to the optimal weight, back-fat and body condition score at farrowing and weaning as defined by the research and experience of the genetics supplier. The optimum will vary according to the parity of the sow, and it also depends on her genetic line.

Profiling the body condition of the herd

Precision feeding is the matching of the diet to the sow. But practical decisions about feeding need to consider the herd’s average profile regarding body condition, more than the status of the individual animal. Diet composition and feeding curves should be arranged with the target of putting the largest possible part of the sow inventory into the most desirable category for physical fitness.

Ideally, 100 percent of the sows would be in this category, but that is an impossible target in practice because there will be always some variation. What we want is the maximum possible uniformity, recognizing that this is a tremendous asset when managing a herd. Variations in the condition of the sows complicate every aspect of their feeding and management. The wider the range of body weight and back-fat values in the herd, the greater the likelihood that only a small percentage of its sows are being fed optimally.

Our international investigations have shown us a huge variation between sows, and also over parities in many cases, bringing big differences in nutritional requirements. In theory, some herds would need to feed 20 different sow diets to meet all the various demands. Since this is hardly realistic with current technology, a more practical solution must be to minimize the variation by acting to make the sows more uniform in weight and back-fat so a limited number of feed types does the job.

The trouble is that measuring means work, and few will find the time to do it unless the reward is obvious. Assessing sow condition on a regular basis offers real rewards in the form of better feeding and more efficient production, but the herd’s manager and technical team need to be able to convert their measurements quickly into a helpful analysis.

Results analyzed at a glance

Here is where the new Topigs Norsvin Sow Feed Monitor fits in. It is an online screen accessed through the Internet. As soon as the current weight, back-fat and condition-score data for each sow are entered, the monitor provides an at-a-glance comparison with some key standards and updates results for the herd that it then presents immediately as colored graphs.

For first-time users the standards shown for comparison are from an extensive study of the body-condition development of our lines, in which we collected data from more than 5,000 sows on our top farms over a period of three years and calculated how the best-performing sows developed per parity at locations around the world. For us, the results could be used as our guidelines to model nutritional requirements and also to see the differences between our lines.

We chose the simple approach of allocating sows to one of three groups according to their condition. This soon became referred to as the Topigs Norsvin Box concept, where each category or "box" was defined by boundaries for weight, back-fat and condition score as these applied to specific genetic lines and parities.

Putting sows in the right box

In every-day use, the three basic categories per line and parity are now given the simple labels of "Skinny" (meaning thin), "Normal" and "Fat." What is more, they are color-coded so that Skinny is red, Normal is green and Fat is blue. The objective therefore is to have as many sows as possible in the green box.

The color system is also a great help at herd level, since it allows the sows to be divided easily into groups by their body condition before and after farrowing. In turn, this gives the farmer more control over how the feed program is implemented. We find that presenting body-condition groups in a clear visual way is literally an eye-opener to farmers about the variations in their sows, motivating them to adjust feed curves so more of the sows fit into the normal range.

Ultimately, the target is to use the feeding program to steer the entire herd towards the predetermined optimal condition categories. A practical example would be aiming to fit at least 85 percent of sows into the green box, although that high percentage could be optimistic at first and more is always better. Back-fat standards for green sows might be between 16-19 mm before farrowing and 12-15 mm at weaning. But in my opinion it is more important to focus on fitting the majority of animals into the right category than worrying about whether or not an individual sow has 12 mm or 15 mm of back-fat.

Remember, too, that the box ranges or optimal development values are not fixed. On the Topigs Norsvin Sow Feed Monitor it is possible for users, as soon as they have collected enough of their own farm data, to adapt the ranges they use in line with what they see or calculate as optimal. They can then feed to send body condition in the direction that they judge most appropriate for top performance under their particular circumstances.

Your choice on measurements

I do not think there is one single body condition that is ideal for every animal of every line in every country. You need to evaluate where sows are doing best in your own herd and make sure that your feeds support them.

It does not mean that you should be weighing and measuring all sows twice in each reproductive cycle in order to rate them on body condition. I fully realize how much time and effort that would involve.

In my view, there are three basic options for the use of the Sow Feed Monitor within a herd. One would be to apply only back-fat scanning and body-condition scoring on a regular basis, given that they are less labor-intensive, and to reserve weight checks for those times when you want to probe the condition status in more detail.

A second option is to examine body condition only occasionally to see whether your feed program is still moving sows in the right direction. Maybe weights could be added in this case. The complete line-up of scanning, scoring and weighing would definitely be applied with the third option, which is to do a full herd examination when making a major change at the farm such as to genetics or feeds.

The fundamental point is that what you use and how you apply it is up to you. Although the Sow Feed Monitor has provision for weight, back-fat and condition score, to steer your herd feeding decisions you have the choice of using all three or only one. The only note of caution is that we advise using at least two of the measurements, which could be back-fat plus weight or back-fat with condition score. This advice comes from recognizing that a big sow is not necessarily fat, so indications of both size and fatness are needed before her condition can be evaluated for feed control purposes.

Back-fat measurement is a great tool for optimizing sow uniformity, which leads to improved farm performance. I would strongly advise every producer to use it as part of the armory of methods for fitting sows into the right box. Body condition scoring is valuable as long as you follow the same protocols each time. Weighing is an extremely helpful further check, even if used only occasionally.

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