Set & reach breeding targets for your herd

Breeding targets are the basis for profitability in reproductive herds. Learn how to achieve optimal productivity on your farm.

by Kate Ayers

Swine reproductive herd management can be challenging yet rewarding work. Helping a sow produce a large healthy litter of piglets can be accompanied by a demanding and frustrating process of successfully bringing a gilt into her first breeding season.

Fortunately, this important phase of production can be less stressful and overwhelming if producers plan and keep detailed records.

To achieve their breeding targets, farmers should maintain “good records and plan ahead to forecast how many animals they need to breed, and adjust those numbers based on actual conception rates,” says Jeff Kayser, a technical production specialist at Fast Genetics. He is based in Webster City, Iowa.

Fast Genetics provides pork producers with breeding stock and innovative genetics solutions to assist them in providing healthier food and using fewer resources in an environmentally sustainable way.

Piglets nursing while one piglets looks at the camera
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

Indeed, “in farrow-to-finish barns, setting breeding targets is a critical part of planning and optimizing a production strategy to ensure that the number of piglets weaned is as close as possible to the required number of piglets for the corresponding finishing unit,” says Laurence Maignel.

“Breeding targets vary from herd to herd based on finishing capacity, reproductive performance and mortality rates. Targets can also vary over time because some of these factors might fluctuate.”

Maignel is a geneticist at the Canadian Centre for Swine Improvement (CCSI) and is based in Ottawa.

Also, animal health is of utmost importance in achieving optimal productivity and reaching breeding targets. Breeding animals in good body condition and of high health status can perform at their best and stay in the herd longer than those that experience health challenges.

The base of a high-output herd is “good health, keeping your breeding female in good body condition, proper animal handling, good pigmanship and doing everything you can to minimize stress and maintain breeding females’ pregnancies,” Kayser adds.

This month, Better Pork speaks with genetics specialists and other industry experts to learn how producers can set and reach breeding targets, overcome challenges in this production phase and monitor reproductive performance in their herds.

Ready, set, breed

To set breeding targets, producers must work backward from their average or desired farrowing rates, says Brad Schimmer, a technical services specialist at Pig Improvement Company (PIC). He is based in northwest Iowa.

PIC strives to provide pig producers with superior pigs that cost less to produce and higher-quality pork by applying the latest available science to pig breeding, the company’s website says.

Once farmers know their farrowing targets and expected farrowing rates, they can calculate breeding targets. Producers should account for seasonal fluctuations in farrowing rates, says Brent DeVries, a customer sales and service representative at Alliance Genetics Canada (AGC). He’s based in Fordwich, Ont.

For example, farmers can use a 92 per cent farrowing rate in spring-summer (winter matings) and 89 per cent in fall-winter (summer matings), he says.

AGC is a Canadian swine genetics provider based in St. Thomas, Ont.

If your farrowing target is 20 sows per week and the expected farrowing rate is 88 per cent, you can apply the following calculation to determine the number of sows you need to breed: 20 divided by 0.88 equals 23 sows.

Producers may also want to account for removal of sows from the herd by adding between three and five per cent as a safety margin to the number they calculate, Schimmer says.

“By compensating for things that might arise, you can achieve consistent flow. If you can keep your crates full, you can keep your farm operating at full capacity,” he says.

To use accurate and realistic numbers to set your farm’s breeding targets, quality record-keeping once again comes into play.

Farmers must keep good records when breeding sows, says Dr. Elizabeth Hines, a swine extension specialist at Pennsylvania State University. For example, farmers can track “how many sows are confirmed pregnant and the number of sows that farrow with a productive litter of a desirable size,” she says.

“Once farmers have gone through the process of knowing exactly how many pigs they need, the record-keeping component can have the biggest influence in making sure they reach those targets. Records help farmers identify areas to troubleshoot” if issues occur.

Kayser agrees.

“Look three weeks ahead at the number of sows that will be weaning and look at the gilt pool that will be coming into estrus,” he says.

“In farms that record skipped estrus events and cycles (heat-no-service), farmers know how many gilts will be in estrus three weeks later. Then they know how many sows they will wean, and determine if they will have an adequate number of females to breed. If not, farmers can look at some strategies to stimulate estrus or change culling numbers to ensure they meet breeding targets,” Kayser says.

DeVries provides some other strategies that farmers can use to reach breeding targets:

  • Have a sufficient and properly developed F1 gilt pool
    • track heat-no-service events to know what’s in the pipeline
    • at least 15 per cent of matings per batch should be gilts
  • It’s better to overbreed than underbreed
    • get creative if more sows are due than crates available
  • Ensure weaned sows are properly prepared for breeding
    • confirm sufficient body condition
    • offer small amounts of feed frequently during wean-breed interval
    • provide sufficient boar exposure
  • Ensure semen is properly stored and handled
    • modern extenders provide viable semen up to seven days (if properly cared for)
  • Follow artificial insemination (AI) best practices
    • timing and cleanliness are key
    • sow should see and smell a boar, but you need to feel like a boar
    • provide weight and flank stimulation
    • be patient with the sows, but move quickly yourself

Other key measures that farmers can consider include the “number of pigs born and weaned per week, pre-wean mortality rates, farrowing rates and the number of sows bred per week. All these parameters need to be closely monitored and reviewed with staff,” says Tatjana Ometlic, the assistant manager of operations at Prairie Swine Centre (PSC) in Saskatoon.

Factors that affect reproduction

A lot can happen before, during and after a pig’s gestation period, which can affect reproductive performance. While some factors at play are outside of human control, producers can take steps to help optimize pig performance during this production phase.

Some production aspects that producers can consider include sow management (e.g., dedicated and well-trained staff), environment (e.g., air temperature and quality, hours of daylight, housing type and stressors), feed and water (e.g., ration type, quantity and quality) and genetics (e.g., gilts are selected for structure, longevity, farrowing interval and litter size), says DeVries.

Gilt management is another important step in achieving consistent performance and pig longevity.

“Gilts that don’t receive adequate nutrition at development may develop poor bone or muscle structure. Even sows that don’t get proper nutrition as they advance in parities will break down faster and have a harder time staying in the herd because they don’t have the right body reserves to continually come back into heat,” says Hines.

Maignel agrees.

“Gilt development and acclimation strategies are known to impact a sow’s whole productive life, including fertility, productivity and longevity. Early or late age at first mating can increase the risk of irregular fertility and smaller litter sizes in subsequent parities, which can lead to instability for the whole herd,” she says.

Heat detection and pregnancy check protocols, insemination techniques and semen quality can all impact farrowing rates, Maignel adds.

Other breeding program components including adequate boar exposure, strong heat detection procedures and mating protocols can affect reproductive success, Kayser says. For example, farmers should store semen in clean and temperature-controlled environments to ensure optimum viability.

Overall, herd health has the biggest impact on reproductive output.

“Absence of, or conversely, the onset of disease affects everything that happens on the farm,” says Kayser.

Monitor performance

Most farmers are familiar with the adage “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” But what parameters should we measure to improve production?

“Keep detailed records of the timing and quality of breedings and make use of farrowing rate reports from farm software programs. Don’t be afraid to ask a swine service representative to help interpret the data,” DeVries says.

At PSC, barn staff conduct “ultra-sound preg checks at 25 days post breeding and then again between day 45 and 50 to make sure we don’t have not-in-pig sows,” Ometlic says.

They review records often and make plans for at least one month ahead. “Have a breeding plan ready, for a period of four to five weeks, so that you can calculate the percentages of sows culled and bred and the number of gilts needed to help you reach your weekly breeding targets,” Ometlic suggests.

Schimmer agrees.

“Never underestimate the value of planning. A good manager knows in advance the number of weaned sows and gilts available to breed within the next three or six weeks to avoid a shortfall,” he says.

Piglets in barn nursing under a heat lamp
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

Other areas that farmers can monitor are “the number of piglets weaned per sow per year and the total number of piglets produced by each sow during her productive life. These criteria result from the combination of many different performance traits, which should all be monitored individually to know where there is room for improvement,” Maignel says.

In addition, “your total born and born alive numbers are important. Producers can also track wean-to-service intervals, non-productive days, number of pigs weaned per sow,” and the number of animals bred, confirmed pregnant and lost pregnancies, says Schimmer.

Indeed, “good records can indicate trends, monitor progress and show improvement opportunities,” Kayser explains.

Overall, consistent quality data collection and performance monitoring boil down to producers having a recording system that fits their needs and is user-friendly.

“If you have sows that fall out of the herd, why? Is it due to lameness or poor body condition?” Hines asks. Records help farmers determine reasoning behind herd inefficiencies.

“Understanding the data that you have available about your herd can really help pinpoint which direction you need to go in seeking consult,” she says.

Maignel highlights the role that automation and accuracy can have in curating impactful information for your operation.

“To empower farm data analysis, producers must ensure correct data collection and conduct data integrity checks. In large barns, traceability is key and might require automation, such as barcoding or RFID (radio-frequency identification) tagging to facilitate data management, save time and avoid recording errors,” she says.

“Several software packages are available on the market to allow data collection in sow barns. They offer various levels of automation and portability on tablets or cell phones, and different reporting and benchmarking options. The system should help farmers visualize and understand fluctuations in the different barn units, by linking data to potential management, environmental or staff changes over time,” says Maignel.

Overcome challenges

While we do not yet have access to a crystal ball that can help us predict the future, producers can anticipate some challenges that may crop up in their reproductive herds.

For example, herds may experience irregular returns to heat, abortions, seasonal infertility, prolonged wean-to-service intervals, lack of replacement gilts or labour shortages, says Ometlic.

Fortunately, farmers can use several strategies to prevent or mitigate on-farm challenges.

To manage gilts that are not coming into heat, producers can begin boar exposure when the gilts reach 160 days of age to stimulate puberty, provide full physical contact for at least 15 minutes daily, provide at least 10 square feet per gilt, and check heat twice daily and breed on the second or third cycle, DeVries says.

To determine factors contributing to weaned sows not returning to heat, producers can measure sow backfat, review the farm’s feeding program and increase or improve boar exposure, DeVries adds.

To combat seasonal infertility, producers can breed additional gilts and sows to compensate for lower conception rates and adjust barn lighting to simulate 12-to-14-hour days, he says.

In addition, barn staff and their attention to detail can elevate an operation’s bottom line.

“Trained labour is important. High turnover makes it hard for farmers to reach top production efficiency because they always have to on-board new people,” Schimmer says.

“Consistency on the farm day in and day out is what is needed to overcome challenges.”

Ometlic agrees.

At PSC’s farm, “we develop routines for heat checks and breeding and we are consistent with that schedule,” she says.

Communication plays a key role in farm success as well. “We have to make sure that everyone is on the same page and understands the purpose of these routines. Happy staff members equals happy animals and good production,” Ometlic adds.

“We always have an eye on our targets, identify any issues on a weekly basis and then address them.”

sows in barn
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

Many factors can affect the performance of a farrow-to-finish operation and “reproductive failure interferes with the consistent production of pigs, which ultimately results in the suboptimal number of pigs for market,” says Maignel.

woman wearing a mask in a sow barn checking sows
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

“Knowing strengths and weaknesses of the herd can help farmers identify areas for improvement and set objectives, which can be a good source of motivation for barn managers and staff.” BP

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