Nursing piglets

Some pork producers are running out of room, even without increasing their herd size.

Both sows and their litters are getting bigger. That means they need more space.

Unfortunately for Phil Borgic, the extra space on his farm in Raymond, Illinois, was created after a disaster. He lost all his farrowing facilities a year ago due to fire. The stalls were 5x7 feet, and when he rebuilt, he added a half foot to the width and length.

“The girls are longer than they used to be, so that gives them more room,” Borgic said. “And it provides more room for the larger litter sizes. We’re going to older weaning age. That gives the piglets more room to spread out in that stall.”

For the most part, improved genetics account for the changes in litter sizes.

“From a born-alive standpoint, we’re probably two pigs higher than we were seven years ago,” said Chad Leman, who markets about 75,000 pigs a year from his farm in Eureka, Illinois. “Genetics continue to improve rapidly. Sows are bred to have bigger litters and underline to be able to feed all those pigs.”

Leman’s targets include 15 live-born piglets and 12 weaned.

“One of the challenges not only of having larger litter sizes but also heavier weaned pigs is just space in a farrowing crate for those pigs, along with the sow,” he said. “The trend has been to go to a 6x12-inch farrowing crate to accommodate those pigs. There is always concern about pigs getting lain on, and the more space you give them, the less of that issue you have.”

Litter sizes have been increasing for decades, according to Rob Knox, a professor of animal sciences at the University of Illinois.

“Trends are for increasing litter size over the past 30 years. Those trends are pretty clear,” Knox said. “Genetics has had a big impact on that, as well as management — how we feed the sows, how we develop the females.”

Not all producers need to increase facility size in order to accommodate more animals.

“It depends on the type of production system. Most of the larger commercial farms have a fixed production system,” Knox said. “The space limitations don’t really occur unless you’re producing more and more animals in a fixed amount of space. But a lot of the animals are not necessarily produced at one farm and remain there. They’re moved. If you have enough pigs produced, you could wind up at three farms.

“It’s almost like shipping distribution. The way the system operates, they’re going for production efficiency — how efficient one sow can be in total production. If it used to take 100 sows to make the same number of piglets, now you can do it at 95. That’s another way to improve efficiency of production.”

Like many producers, Leman is weaning his piglets later. Weaning age has increased from about 19 days to 22 or 23 days.

“We’re finding that pigs are better able to get started on solid feed being a few days older,” he said. “That usually translates to less days on feed before reaching market weight.”

Thankfully, most producers aren’t forced to rebuild their facilities because of a disaster, like Borgic. But they still must find ways to make room for more and bigger pigs.

“Some may be adding a room or two to the farm to increase weaning age,” Borgic said. “The challenge is that in renovating your present facility, you lose space. You take a room that has 48 in it and it’s going to go down to 44. That is the most valuable space on the farm. You have to figure out how to replace it somehow.”

The learning curve continues in the industry, where pig production efficiency has changed.

“We learn more and more about nutrition every year, and proper nutrition it takes to maintain a sow that can handle that, and have five or six litters like that,” Leman said.

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.