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By Dr. Samuel Waititu
Monogastric Nutritionist
Fortified Nutrition Limtied

I think that all Swine Nutritionists agree that the most challenging and dynamic feeding phase in swine production is the feeding of the lactating sow. Common challenges exist across most farms, but the causes may vary widely. Some challenges are often unique to individual sows or a small percentage of the sow herd, but are often reported as a general problem with the entire sow herd. During lactation, the most commonly reported challenges are: (a) constipation, (b) rectal prolapses, (c) loss of sow body condition, (d) low milk yield, (e) slow piglet growth (leading to low weaning weights), (f ) low piglet survival (high preweaning mortality), (g) longer days of return to estrus after weaning, (h) reduced reproductive performance of gilts in the second parity, and (i) sows “going off-feed” in mid to late lactation. My intention in this article is not to regurgitate a list of dos and don’ts that is common knowledge to lactating sow management. Instead, I desire to stimulate our thinking to question our most common practices in feeding lactating sows. Hopefully, this can be a scaffolding to climb on as we seek to understand why traditional practices we currently employ in the feeding and care of lactating sows keep crushing on us with distasteful results.

To begin with, it is imperative to remember that gestation and lactation involve complicated biological systems and changes that are highly regulated by hormones. Appetite is not influenced by hunger; it is controlled by hormones! Therefore, when a sow “goes off-feed”, don’t panic, don’t blame the feed, don’t call the vet as she may not be sick, rather she may just have “got the blues” by a sudden drop or rise of certain hormones which also trigger loss of appetite. Like humans, it is worth noting that individual differences exist between sows/gilts, hence, each one may have a unique response to the stimuli elicited from the environment and their biological systems. My advice is this, before you change feed or a feeding strategy that affects the entire herd, please establish that the challenge is widespread in the entire sow herd.

Have you ever heard the expression, as greedy as a pig? Then is it not strange to walk through the lactation room and see a 400 lb sow that fails to eat 4 lb of feed a day? The primary reasons we desire to see higher voluntary feed intake in lactating sows is to enhance piglet growth and survivability, lower sow body condition loss and have a problem-free breeding. I know it almost sounds paradoxical to say that the practice of overfeeding sows pre-farrow and in early lactation could directly or indirectly be the reason the sows “go off feed” or fail to produce milk (agalactia). Looking at figure 1 and 2 as examples, I would like to remind you that all breeders advocate for a step-up feed curve after farrowing targeting for a peak in feed intake from around day 10 to 14. Unfortunately, most producers see their sows “crush” on feed between day 10 to 14 into lactation, a time where milk production is supposed to have also peaked, and they wonder why?

Figure 1 – Hypor Libra sow estimated feed intake (Source: Hypor Libra Feeding Manual)

Figure 2 – DanBred sow estimated feed intake (Source: DanBred Feeding Manual).

Overfeeding sows pre-farrow and in early lactation is counterproductive. It not only explodes your feed budget but also contributes to agalactia which may result in higher preweaning mortality and lighter weaning weights. Overfeeding sows around farrowing results in excessive colostrum/ milk production. When the volume of milk secreted exceeds the amount removed by the suckling piglets, pressure builds up in the udder and results in tissue damage and pain that limits milk production. This is not mastitis (caused by bacteria), it is called agalactia. This tissue damage if unchecked leads to increased production of endotoxins within the mammary glands resulting in inflammation evidenced by a high body temperature and loss of appetite. In fact, the udder feels hard and hot to touch, and is very painful to the sow such that it will lay on its teats to keep piglets away. If this inflammation is not controlled, the tissue damage will totally incapacitate the udder during that lactation period.

I have always joked with producers saying, “don’t be too nice with feed towards the ‘ladies’ around lactation, lest you hurt the ‘babies’, you better practice some tough love”. Although writing is not my hobby, in dealing with such a crucial topic, I am tempted to say let’s meet in the next publication as we try to politely unravel the mystery behind pigs without greed.

This article was written for the Spring 2023 Swine Eastern Dairy Grist. To read the whole Swine Grist, click the button below.