It wasn’t long ago when reaching double digits in pigs per litter was unusual.
Today, those early figures are well below average as the combination of genetics and management push that number higher into the teens.
“I think we are selecting hard for that, and genomics will provide an added boost,” says Ken Stalder, Iowa State University Extension swine specialist.
According to the USDA, sows weaned an average of 11.13 pigs per litter from June through August this year. That number has steadily increased over the past several years.
Some in the hog industry have questioned the wisdom of continuously pushing the envelope.
“There are many questions,” Stalder says. “Do we have sows that have enough teats for all those pigs? Can she provide enough milk for more piglets? I think we will see a selection emphasis on number of teats.”
He says larger litters tend to produce some smaller piglets, adding pre-weaning mortality should be a part of the process when it comes to genetic selection.
“We need to work on survivability,” Stalder says. “Pigs that weigh below 2 pounds have less chance at surviving to weaning.”
He says on average, most sows have 3.5 to 4 litters in their lifetime.
“We need to do better than that,” Stalder says, adding increasing the pigs per litter could cause structural and reproductive issues with sows.
Genetics exist that can routinely produce 15 or more pigs per litter, says Allan Schinckel, Extension swine specialist with Purdue University.
He agrees with Stalder that more attention needs to be paid to sow longevity and the reproductive process than number of pigs per litter.
“We are seeing more and more lightweight pigs, and when you have to empty the barn, those pigs are going to get discounted by the packer,” Schinckel says. “The mortality rate for those pigs is also much higher as they go through the grow-finish process.”
He says many producers look at higher pigs per litter numbers as a way to spread out the cost of raising sows and producing those litters.
“When you do that, you are going to have less of a pig at weaning,” Schinckel says. “The old goal used to be having pigs weigh 16 to 17 pounds at 21 days of age. Now, that’s 12 to 12.5 pounds. That adds roughly 10 days to the finishing process.”
He believes those numbers may be close to a plateau when it comes to pigs per litter. Schinckel says the industry needs to focus more on keeping pigs alive and sows in the barn longer.
“I think we need to look at getting at least four litters per sow before she is culled,” he says.
Schinckel says with the current labor shortage in agriculture, focusing less on volume may help keep operations fully staffed with employees.
“We need more well-trained employees to handle these numbers,” he says. “That’s going to help reduce pre-weaning mortality.”