Newborn breeding litters – increased survival rates and quality assurance

In the farrowing unit, we are handling the future breeding animals for the first time. Breeding litters should receive some extra care and attention, to ensure the very best conditions for future genetic material. Additional attention should also be incorporated into everyday routines so as to ensure uniform and optimal growth of future breeding animals.

Extra care and attention towards breeding litters is time well spent in the long run and will help ensure high quality in general.

It is an advantage to have occasional sessions with exchange of knowledge and ideas amongst the staff, to ensure optimal care and routines for the breeding litters as well – this will ensure a common understanding and will provide uniform routines and management in general

Even though breeding litters are potentially more challenging, the more demanding or extraordinary routines are planned on the first day of life and can be combined with already existing routines. Therefore it is possible to combine more procedures in one workflow, hence minimising the time spent per litter.

Ensuring colostrum intake

Colostrum supply is essential for the piglets, which also applies to the breeding litters. Colostrum is vital for newborn piglets, supplying antibodies which form the basis of the piglets’ immune defence for the first weeks of life. In addition to antibodies, colostrum also ensures restored energy deposits after farrowing where energy is scarce in addition to an increased weight of the intestinal tract and increased enzyme activity, further increasing the survival rate.

Optimal colostrum supply can be ensured in many ways, but overall there are some basic principles that are crucial to the intake of colostrum in the piglets:

  • The sow must be well immunised according to the herds’ health status – the sows’ immunisation is the foundation of antibodies transferred to the piglets.
  • The sow should be healthy.
    • Is the udder nice and soft?
    • Does the sow stand up and lie down effortlessly?
    • Does the sow have a good and normal appetite?
    • Does the sow have clear, light yellow urine?
    • The sows should be fever free – temperatures above 39.5 °C require action.

The health of the sow is crucial to her interest in the piglets and how well she manages them. So the sow should be taken care of so that she will take care of the piglets – does she stand up to drink or eat, and make sure to check for fever or other signs of disease when needed.

The first part of the nursing period should be planned so that daily routines are highly focused on observations and care for both sows and piglets. Timely observations ensure a quick response, e.g. in behavioural changes in the animals, and when action is needed.
  • The sows should be fed according to recommendations – including free access to fresh, clean cool water.
  • The piglets need free access to the udder – if the piglets are cold or weak, they should be warmed up so they have more energy to suckle.

If the sows leave feed in the troughs, it is essential to adjust the amount of feed – and remember to clean the trough between feedings when necessary. There should always be free access to clean drinking water in the troughs.

Free access to the udder depends on both spaces, a willingness from the sows to nurse and not least the possibility for the piglets to get to the udder. Make sure to optimise the pen conditions, so the piglets have as much access as possible.
  • The piglets must have a minimum of 8-12 hours for colostrum intake– i.e., no litter equalisation before the piglets have consumed a sufficient amount of colostrum (10-20 mL).
    • Spilt suckling is an effective way to ensure optimal colostrum supply for all piglets if it is not possible to equalise the litter immediately.
    • A dry umbilical cord is a good indication of sufficient time for an adequate intake of colostrum.
    • Feel the abdomen, to check for a full stomach.

With split suckling, all piglets must be ensured a sufficient colostrum intake at their own mother. Divide the piglets so females and males suckle at different times.

When the female pigs have been suckling for a while, the piglets can be alternated. The female pigs can be heated in the creep area and collect new energy for when the spilt suckling is finished.

Litter equalisation

When the piglets have had sufficient time for colostrum intake, it is time for litter equalisation, which as with all other routines must be systematised and practised when needed. It is however essential to emphasise that equalisation should only be made when necessary in order to avoid unnecessary stress and the potential spread of infection. Newborn litters will often be offspring of first parity sows that show good mothering abilities, decreasing the need for litter equalisation in the breeding litters.

The essential thing to keep in mind is the survival rate of the piglets – which requires regular supervision and a quick response when needed.

When should litter equalisation be made?

Litter equalisation can be used in different ways, and will often be specific to each individual herd. Common for all, is that equalisation should focus on the survival of the piglets by providing the best conditions possible – it is not just about equalising to more uniform litters. Focusing on the best possible conditions for the piglets also entails that the sow and piglets match one another. But the real question is when should we equalise the litters and when should we make a foster sow – and where does each piglet go?

  • In larger litters – move the largest piglets, as they are often the first piglets to drink colostrum.
    • Excess piglets are moved to a foster sow– large piglets should be transferred to a regular two-step foster sow and smaller piglets to a newly farrowed sow or a foster sow for all the smallest piglets.

It is essential in litter equalisation to make a thorough assessment of both sows and piglets in each litter – this will promote the best results.

When assessment and planning is done, the piglets are moved. There are many ways to do this in practice, and the important thing is to make it work in your herd, taking health in to consideration.
  • If the sow and piglets are not a match? This is mostly seen in herds with older sows where the sizes of the teats are different.
    • Smaller piglets = need small teats and an easily accessible udder.
    • Larger piglets = are ok with larger teats, and they have a better ability to access the udder.

Assessment of the sows should include both general health condition and their mothering abilities – is the udder functioning and which piglets are best suited for each sow?

The health and size of the piglets are highly important in the choice of sow – smaller piglets that might not be thriving should have easy access to the udder without too much effort. But keep in mind to assess the piglets regularly throughout the nursing period.
  • Signs of sickness in the sow (farrowing fever (M.M.A.)).
    • Sows with M.M.A. (Mastitis, Metritis and Agalactia) and hard udders should receive larger piglets to help the sow.

Once the decisions on piglets and sows have been made, there are some important considerations to also take into account to ensure the quality of the breeding litters.

  • Focus on the big picture – farrowing lists, the number of functional teats, and the number of piglets born alive can be helpful in everyday routines and help keep track of the breeding litters.
    • It can be a good idea to gather piglets from breeding litters, to keep an easy overview of their progress every day.

Staying focused and looking at the big picture is important to achieve good results from litter equalisation – count farrowing’s and the number of functional teats to know whether foster sows should be planned.

Make notes during equalisation to help you keep track, or create routines that match the staff and specific conditions in your herd.
  • Litters must be tagged prior to equalisation – before moving the piglets between litters, it is of the utmost importance that they are tagged individually beforehand

If the breeding litters are equalised, all tagging and registration should be in place beforehand – so there is never any question on parentage.

Once the piglets are tagged, equalisation can be made as usual – match sow and piglets in the best possible way to benefit survival and growth in future breeding animals.

Remember that litter equalisation should always consider the health status of the herd – as a general rule equalisation should only be made within the first 48 hours of life unless other agreements are made in consultancy with your advisor or herd veterinarian.


Navel and teats – health and quality

Rejection of breeding animals is a natural part of production but should be minimised in all matters possible. There are simple measurements to be made in the reduction of rejected breeding animals e.g. because of outpouchings at the navel/ umbilical hernias.

  • The umbilical cord should be shortened to 3-4 cm as soon as possible – if possible, wait until it is dry.
  • Be sure to burn or cut the umbilical cord, so it doesn’t get pulled and cause bleeding.
    • If scissors or tongs are used, remember to make sure that they are disinfected between each piglet.

Dry umbilical cords are easily cut to a length of 3-4 cm using scissors or tongs. Keep the piglet in a light grip and avoid squeezing the groin and stomach.

When scissors or tongs are used to shorten the umbilical cord, hygiene is extremely important. The tools must be disinfected between each piglet to minimise the risk of infection.
  • The navel should be disinfected after the umbilical cord is cut – use chlorhexidine or tincture of iodine.
  • Always lift the piglets correctly – no squeesing the groin or stomach and remember to support them with one hand below the stomach, or by grabbing them in the rear legs.

Disinfection of the navel will reduce the risk of infection, but it is important that the piglets are held in the rear legs during disinfection so they are not squeesed in the wrong places. This will also make it easier to be precise in the disinfection.

In this case, the navel is disinfected with Cyclospray (contains antibiotics), which is also a valid procedure if agreed with the herd veterinarian – remember to register to medicinal charts when using it.
  • Make sure the pens are always clean and dry – wet pens increase the risk of infection.
  • Use a moderate amount of bedding in the creep area – be careful not to use bedding that can get stuck in the navel. A viable example could be sawdust mixed with potato flour and a light disinfectant powder.

The pen flooring is essential for navel health and general condition in the litter – if you doubt whether the pen is dry and warm, feel it. Thermometers are suitable for temperature, but humid floors are only felt by hand.

A moderate amount of bedding is essential from the beginning. Make sure the creep area is prepared before farrowing – a mix of e.g. sawdust and potato flour is a good for drying out the pen flooring and minimising diarrhoea.

One of the essential quality parameters for breeding animals is the quality and function of the teats. It is crucial to also ensure a maximum number of functional teats, and this should already be a focus area in the farrowing unit with newborn litter.

  • The front teats up to and including the navel should be protected with tape (Leucoplast) – this will reduce the tear on the teats during suckling for the first days.

Taping up the teats protects them from injuries during the first 24 hours. Prepare suitable pieces, so they are easily placed – it can be beneficial to make a line in the tape, allowing the tape to go around the navel, meaning it also covers the rear teats.

Make sure the tape is placed tightly all around, it should last during the first 24 hours minimum, and preferably for as long as possible.

Teeth grinding

Grinding of the teeth can be implemented as a standard routine if the udders of the sows are showing signs of damage. This can also be applied if there is increased competition at the udder, and the piglets are injuring each other as this allows for the entry of bacteria.

Tail docking

Tail docking can be a regular routine if there are issues with tail biting within the herd, thus compromising the animal welfare and quality of the animals. Make sure that local legislation is followed at all times.

  • Tail docking should be made with a cauterisation knife within the first 2-4 days of life, the following precautions should be followed:
    • The knife should be sufficiently heated – if the wound bleeds after tail docking, the knife is not hot enough.
    • Burn the tails instead of cutting them – spend as much time as needed to reduce the risk of blood poisoning.
    • The tails should be burned in an even line – if not, the healing process will be longer thus increasing the risk of infection.
    • Clean and disinfect the tail burner frequently and make sure it is burning properly.
  • Remove as little as possible- and no more than 50 % of the tail (local legislation might apply).
  • Make sure that all tails are cut to the same length to further minimise the risk of tail biting.

Tagging and registration of breeding litters

It can be beneficial to have uniform routines to handle breeding litters within the farrowing unit. It should be made obvious when the sows are moved from gestation into the farrowing unit where the breeding litters will be. This could be done by placing sows with breeding litters together, hanging their sow cards and also differentiating between breeds, if more breeds are present in the herd.

The use of coloured sow cards is an easy way to highlight breeding litters in the farrowing unit. Sow cards are placed immediately after moving the sows to the farrowing unit, this will ensure visibility and provide extra focus during the lactation period.

Coloured sow cards should be used according to the breed of the sows or the breed of the litters. The recommended use of colours could follow that of the ear tags: blue for LL-litters and orange for YY-litters. But this should be clear for all and be similar all-round.

Immediately after farrowing, there are several needs in the litters, but what differs most in the breeding litters is the need for further registration, ensuring traceability and quality assurance of the litters. Individual identification is crucial in doing this and is easiest achieved by ear tagging the animals.

Registrations in the farrowing unit

Traceability and data quality are just two of the parameters that support the quality within DanBreds breeding system. Thus making registrations within the herds essential, starting already from the very first registration of the breeding animals. Within the first registrations and the accuracy that goes into this task, the very baseline for the breeding animals’ future quality is ensured.

Registrations within the farrowing unit can be made in multiple ways, using either pen & paper or by using the latest technology in hand-held terminals. All DanBred breeding animals must be registered in the database and ensure traceability as well as data compliance within the system.

Using a hand-held terminal, it is easy to register data quickly and synchronise it to the herd’s software system immediately – this will also ensure a quick response if errors appear or in the case of inconsistencies.

The following information is registered in the selected software system and exported to the DanBred databank no later than 14 days after farrowing.

  • The sows name and ID-number
  • Date of farrowing
  • The number of piglets born (split into female- and male piglets)
  • Tagging of the piglets – individual ID-numbers
    • DK – both male and female pigs
    • Outside DK – female pigs
  • Breed definition and usage code are automatically added based on previous registrations, herd type etc.
  • Subsequently, every week, indexes for breeding animals can be downloaded.

During recording and registration, it is vital that accuracy is implemented in the herd routines. Be sure to always double-check e.g. when placing the sow cards errors could have been made, so check the tag of the sow and match it with the sow card to avoid unfortunate errors and misunderstandings.

When using a hand-held terminal/phone, the data from the sow card can be scanned by using QR codes, and farrowing data can be registered at one, easy and quick registration directly in the farrowing unit.

New and updated indexes can be downloaded every Thursday morning after the index calculation. Always make sure to have updated indexes and data in the herds’ software system, which will make it easier to follow herd development and to make sure the right decisions are made with the right information.

It is essential to monitor both index and herd efficiency, which can be done quite easily by synchronising the herd software with DanBreds databank (minimum) on a weekly basis.

Ear tagging

All DanBred breeding animals are registered with an individual ID-number, printed on the animals’ DanBred ear tag.  All registered DanBred ID-numbers, including pedigree data and the current breeding index, can be found on the DanBred Partner Site, where the ID-number is the number one identification of each animal.

The ID-number must be printed on an approved DanBred ear tag – in Nucleus and Multiplication herds, the ear tag must furthermore be electronic.

It is essential that the ID-number from the ear tag and the pedigree matches, as all information is included and shown in the DanBred databank – and all data is visible at any time on the DanBred Partner Site

Approved DanBred ear tags are to be used in Nucleus- and Multiplication herds, in all animals. Other herd types can freely choose between various ear tag producers and the type of ear tag – however, it is recommended to use the tags approved by DanBred. The approved DanBred ear tags can be seen in the DanBred ear tag catalogue.

DanBred ear tags

All DanBred ear tags must be printed with the animals’ full DanBred ID-number, and logo, as well as breed definition.

Example of ear tag for a purebred DanBred cross (F1): herd no. 9999, major counter 10, minor counter 00501

The DanBred ID-number consists of 11 digits in three sections:

  1. Herd number – the first four digits.
  2. The major counter – two digits, most often starting at 10 (agreed with DanBred).
  3. A consecutive serial number (minor counter) – consisting of five digits starting with 00000.

Unless otherwise agreed upon with DanBred, each herd has one herd number, that appears for all animals born within each herd.

Within each major counter, 100,000 consecutive serial numbers can be registered. When all serial numbers in one major counter are used, the major counter changes to 11 (if the starting point was 10), where 100,000 new consecutive numbers can be registered once more and so on.

Inserting approved DanBred ear tags are vital in ensuring individual identification, and hence traceability. However, it is possible to adapt herd individual routines on tagging as long as they are in compliance with the guidelines laid out by DanBred.

One example on optimising the tagging routines according to the guidelines, is the use of coloured tags for different breeds or using a coloured plate behind the regular tag – this will make quick identification of the different breeds easier when more breeds are used in one herd.

The design of the ear tags may reflect much different information on one animal, both through the print itself or colour coding based on the breed of the animal.

Abbreviation – printed on the ear tag Breed Colour code
L Landrace Blue
Y Yorkshire Orange
D Duroc White
X Purebred crossbred (F1) Yellow
Z Criss-cross crossbred (F2) – Landrace father Blue
Criss-cross crossbred (F2) – Yorkshire father Orange

**Be aware that there can be local legislation in ear tag colours that must be followed.

Example of purebred crossbred animals (F1’s) with yellow ear tags, is shown by the abbreviation X printed on the tag. Note that all animals sold in Denmark must have an approved yellow CHR tag – be aware of national legislation on tag colours etc.

Example of purebred Yorkshire animals with yellow DanBred tags, where an orange plate is placed behind the tag to enhance the breed. This means faster recognition of the different breeds and is practical when sorting is needed but without the need for more than one tag for sale.

The DanBred ID-number is going through a transition phase, changing from an older restricted ID-system (ID-11) to an improved ID-system (ID11K). In the old system, the setup is originally based on the year in which the animal is born and consists of: DanBred herd number (4 digits), serial number (5 digits) as well as the year in which the animal was born (2 digits).

Should there be any questions about DanBreds ID-system, new or old, or ear tags in general, DanBred Technical Service Centre can always be contacted.

Ear tagging in practice

There are several companies producing approved DanBred ear tags, and several different types of ear tags. Both the producers and DanBred Technical Service Centre are ready to assist on all questions concerning ear tags whether it is ordering or practical routines.

The final choice of ear tags is herd-dependent and should take individual herd conditions as housing into consideration, as this might affect the durability of the tags within each herd. The DanBred ear tag must be inserted no later than weaning, although more and more herds choose to use day-1 ear tags, thus being more time efficient in the replacement of ear tags at weaning. It is important to choose a solution that fits within each herd, and there are various possibilities to make it suit individual conditions.

Ear tag types – when to tag the animals:  

  • LP5 tags/TagFaster/rabbit tags to be inserted at farrowing – replaced by the approved DanBred ear tag, no later than weaning.

When using LP5 tags, ID-numbers can be assigned immediately after farrowing. It provides traceability from day 1 in ensuring proper registration and relationship – as well as providing information on productivity within the breeding litters.

LP5 tags are inserted at farrowing and replaced by the permanent tag later on – the LP5 tag has just been cut open, so it remains in the opposite ear as a second identification, without affecting the animal.
  • Day-1 DanBred ear tag to be inserted at farrowing – if needed supplementing with an additional ear tag at weaning (also recommended).

No later than weaning, the permanent DanBred ear tag is inserted – which also applies for supplementary tags to the day-1 ear tag.

Supplementary ear tags can be a good investment, e.g., if the animal loses an ear tag, it is still possible to identify the animal in the second tag.

Tagging the animals – placement and uniformity

The official DanBred ear tag containing the ID-number should always be placed in the left ear (unless other arrangements have been made). The ear tags must always be placed in the same ear within the same herd, to ensure uniformity in the breeding animals, so there is never any doubt about the DanBred identification.

When placing the ear tags, the focus should be correct tagging first and foremost but also proper placement of the tag as well as the correct handling of the piglets. So when tagging the piglets, there are a few things to bear in mind.

  • Avoid grabbing and holding the piglets by the ears when placing the tags – grabbing the ear can injure the piglet.

When tagging the piglets at farrowing, the piglets can be placed on the edge of the cart or held with one hand under the stomach during placement of the tags.

When placing the tags at weaning, it can be beneficial to place the pig on your thigh instead – this calms them down and ensures proper placement of the tags.
  • Place the ear tag in the centre of the left ear, as close to the cartilage edge as possible – approved DanBred ear tag.
    • Place between the two blood vessels in the ear.
    • If additional ear tags are used, they should be placed in the opposite ear.

The ear tag should be placed in the middle of the ear to minimise the loss of ear tags – at the same time, the risk for blood ears is reduced when the tag is placed between the blood vessels.

The ear tag should be placed between the two blood vessels in the ear, and preferably as close to the cartilage edge as possible – this placement will help ensure excellent durability of the ear tag as well.
  • Ear tags should be placed straight through the ear – if the tag is pressed unevenly into the ear, the risk of lost ear tags increases.

During ear tagging, hygiene should always be of the highest priority. Make sure to always have sharp pins which match the actual ear tag type so that the ear tag is not damaged. These standard protocols must be taken no matter how the tags are inserted – by cart, machine or individual.

Tongs/pliers that fit the chosen ear tag will release immediately after insertion, as shown here. This will ease the routines of tagging to a high extent, and also, avoid any damage to the ear tags.

This is also an excellent opportunity to check the quality of the animals. Make sure to have a setup that ensures optimal working conditions, with plenty of space for equipment and where it is also possible to make notes on which ID-numbers are assigned etc.

Ordering ear tags

Ear tags can easily and quickly be ordered through DanBred Technical Service Centre, by using the official ear tag order template.

DanBred Technical Service Centre can always be contacted with all questions and doubts, including ear tags – phone no. +45 44 88 11 88.

All Danish Nucleus and Multiplication herds can order ear tags directly at the DanBred Partner Site, using their individual login – where it is also possible to keep track of previous orders, etc.

*It is not required for herds using Nucleus Management to order ear tags through DanBred, but it is strongly recommended, in order to avoid unfortunate errors and miscommunications in the database.

When placing an order, the following information should appear:

  • Herd number – 3-4 digit DanBred herd number.
  • Ear tag producer, and the type of ear tag.
  • Whether the ear tags should be electronic or not.
  • Start number/number series.
  • Total number of tags.
  • Colour.
  • Breed.
  • Delivery address.

The pre-printed ear tag should follow the recommendations regarding breeds and colour combinations unless there are specific conditions within the herd. It is possible for all herds to choose freely amongst a variety of DanBred-approved ear tags in most colours.

The ear tag shows the full DanBred ID-number for the ensured individual identification of each animal.

Individual identification is further enhanced by the use of electronic ear tags that can be read with a scanner – which further minimises the number of errors when manually reading the tags.

My notes for Managing the farrowing unit


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