Sow mortality, despite its importance in the swine industry, is a topic that’s proved difficult to pin down over the years. What are the greatest factors contributing to this ongoing problem? Despite the industry’s advancements, why does it continue to exist? Dr. Clayton Johnson, a veterinarian at Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd. explores this and more and provides an overview of sow mortality for the industry to consider.
Johnson began his life, and truly his career, as the son of a mixed animal veterinarian in Illinois. His father worked in the field of animal health for 43 years around their small town, helping farms and families, and Johnson grew his interest in the swine industry after seeing just how much care pig farmers have to put into their work to yield results. The spike in mortality rates in recent years hasn’t made that work any easier.
After decades of watching his father and building his own career in the industry, Johnson is confident in saying that the issue with dissecting sow mortality is that, with so much to unpack, it’s hard to provide a succinct picture of the problem. Specifically, he says that “I don’t think it’s one specific issue that’s causing an increase in sow mortality. I think it’s multiple different diseases, conditions, [and] processes that are all playing together and are all getting worse individually.” Nonetheless, he cites a few different areas for farms to examine if their numbers aren’t where producers want them.
Although the obvious problem of sow mortality is with the sows themselves, pinpointing the causes of their deaths starts with organization within a farm’s structure. Specifically, Johnson refers to the variety of reason codes as a factor in why it’s difficult to discern trends in causes of death across multiple farms. Every facility has its preferred wordings, so researchers can struggle to see patterns within data and offer solutions accordingly if farms label the same conditions differently. Despite this, Johnson identifies prolapses and lameness as two major causes of sow mortality, along with unknown or “sudden” death. However, as he learned in vet school, there’s a caveat with the labeling of the latter option: “There is no such thing as sudden death. You may not have predicted the death, but there’s no such thing…Until we can predict it, it’s pretty hard to manage it.”
“Sudden” death not existing has merit theoretically, but tracking harmful conditions as they develop requires staff with the time and training to analyze the health of individual sows under their care. This part of sow mortality, therefore, cycles back to the labor crisis and its impact on every part of pig production. For example, farms may try to avoid lameness in sows by focusing their efforts on improving gilt selection, but that requires farmhands that have been in a facility long enough to know how to identify high-quality gilts. Moreover, education across facilities should improve so that, despite potentially high turnover rates, every employee involved in the process understands why quality gilt selection is so important.
Good old-fashioned animal husbandry, too, does still matter. The ability to identify and then treat sick animals cannot be overstated, but even that has become difficult with the labor constraints on today’s producers. Johnson marvels that, despite labor shortages, “What’s the first thing we ask our laborer to do? Look at every animal. And sometimes we ask them to do it multiple times a day.” This task is prompted for good reason, but his answer to how realistically accomplish it is with technology.
Thinking About Tech
Rather than expecting workers to discern the small percentage of sick animals out of hundreds in their surveillance of barns, Johnson poses the need for technology that can flag those animals faster so that caretakers can go directly to them. He gives the example of laying patterns being a cause for concern because “if an animal doesn’t get up for twenty-four hours, that’s a problem,” and it’s one the human eye might miss. After all, Johnson points out that pigs, being prey animals, have an instinct to hide points of vulnerability, which can make it even more difficult for a human to examine them properly. Moreover, “If we can just eliminate all the time that [laborers] spend looking for which animals to spend time on, that’s the biggest labor savings we could ever give back to a farm.” A camera or algorithm running in a barn that’s unassuming to pigs themselves has the potential to bring them better care.
Johnson also brings up the point that the pork industry, in part due to the difficulty of fighting high sow morality, has been focused on medical intervention. There is, of course, good reason for this, but non-medical intervention has a place in the barn too. By standardizing previously mentioned systems of organization and merging more technology with proactive care, farmers could potentially spend less on veterinary care and the specialists it requires while also enjoying lower mortality rates. After all, most business owners look to minimize their production costs, and a dead sow can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars in opportunity cost, from lack of meat harvested to missing reproductive potential.
The pork industry has already begun to explore AI systems that collect audio, visual, and temperature-based data, but as far as possibilities for systems that capitalize on the strength of a farm’s existing labor base, SwineTech’s® PigFlow® is an option that farms can use to track the data of their sows. Available as a mobile app that workers can download onto personal or company-provided devices, PigFlow is an organizational system made to mimic point-of-care platforms used in human healthcare. With this app, workers can input data about sows in real-time for everyone in a facility to monitor, and that knowledge streamlines a farm’s time management and animal care abilities. For example, farmer Dustin Coleman noted that he saw a decrease in sow mortality after using the app because his employees could track the finishing process for sows and ensure that each was taken care of efficiently. When workers have relevant, accurate data about the animals they’re working with, they can make better decisions for their health and a farm’s productivity.
Farming the Future
Until more new processes and technologies arrive to alleviate these problems, what can farmers expect to see in mortality rates moving forward? Johnson says that, while past trends aren’t concrete in their predictions for the future, sow mortality definitely has a “seasonality” component. One might expect that the highest losses would occur in the winter with the spread of disease. However, pigs, particularly sows in farrowing stalls, have the highest mortality rates in the peak of summer due to issues with hyperthermia, with 14% mortality or higher not being unusual to see.
It’s an unfortunate truth that swine mortality has spiked in recent decades and remains difficult to control, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that the rates that many farmers are struggling with are not sustainable for business. Still, the pork industry is one that perseveres, and with new innovations and entrepreneurs entering the field alongside the professionals that built it, promising research and solutions built off of it remain on the horizon.
For more information on this topic, listen to Dr. Clayton Johnson’s full statement on Popular Pig®: Exploring Sow Mortality.
By Isabella Rivera