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Managing microenvironments in the farrowing barn

Dave Chamberlin and Jaron Lewton
Vita Plus
Regulating temperatures creates a farrowing barn environment that will allow the sow and her litter to perform at optimal levels without adversely affecting one another.

Proper management of the farrowing barn environment to mutually benefit the sow and her litter is no easy task. However, with a couple minor adjustments and regular management, you can create a farrowing barn environment that will allow the sow and her litter to perform at optimal levels without adversely affecting one another. 

The challenge: Piglets and sows have very different ambient temperature requirements.

Sows require an environment temperature of approximately 60 degrees F to perform their best through lactation. However, piglets grow better when the temperature is around 90 degrees F. Trying to manage this difference creates a far too common dilemma with either heat-stressed sows or chilled nursing piglets, and both are costly problems.

When sows experience heat stress, intakes, milk yield, and bodyweights decrease, and their litters also don’t grow as well (St-Pierre et al., 2003). Graph 1 shows how heat stress can decrease sow feed intake by up to 5 pounds per day, which decreases litter weights by about 30 pounds, or 3 pounds per piglet.

Heat stress can decrease sow feed intake by up to 5 pounds per day, which decreases litter weights by about 30 pounds, or 3 pounds per piglet.

The decrease in weaning weight becomes even more amplified when you consider the amount of money this will add to your cost of production. Figure 1 demonstrates how increasing weaning weight by 1 pound per pig can decrease finisher costs by $4.50 per piglet. If we apply this math to a 3-pound reduction in weaning weight per piglet, then you could see a total of $13.50 per pig added to your total cost of production.

Increasing weaning weight by 1 pound per pig can decrease finisher costs by $4.50 per piglet.

Conversely, if the barns are too cold, the sows may be comfortable, but then you have to be concerned with the piglets. Chilled piglets often shiver and huddle with litter mates, causing them to miss feedings, resulting in reduced colostrum and milk intakes, leaving the piglets more susceptible to disease and death.

The solution: Implement and manage microenvironments.

The best way to manage the very different needs of the sows and piglets is to establish microenvironments. Microenvironments provide the piglets with a warmer environment to meet their needs and a separate cooler environment to meet the needs of the sow within the same space. Microenvironments can be established in three steps:

Using this temperature management strategy provides optimum room temperatures for the health and growth of piglets.

1.  Manage room temperature.

Using Table 1 as a reference, we recommend setting room temperatures to 72 degrees F from three days before to three days after farrowing. On the fourth day after farrowing, reduce the temperature setting by a degree each day until you reach a hold temperature of 66 degrees F. Using this temperature management strategy provides the piglets a warmer ambient room temperature early in life when the piglets are unable to maintain their body temperature. As the piglets grow and can maintain their own body temperature, gradually reducing the ambient temperature benefits the sow and maximizes feed intake when demands are greatest during lactation.

2.  Utilize supplemental heat for the piglets.

Keep the piglets warm by providing adequate heating pads or lamps.  To maintain body temperature, the piglet microenvironment should range between 90 to 95 degrees F. This can be accomplished by positioning two heat lamps on either side of the crates and over the mats to limit drafts.  

The best piglet microenvironments are managed closely by staff.  Farrowing managers should observe the piglets daily and make any necessary adjustments throughout lactation. It is best to make observations in the morning, and consider the following when walking farrowing barns:

  • If the piglets are huddled under the lamps, then keep the lamps low over the mats.
  • If the piglets are sleeping away from the lamps, then raise or remove the lamps. 
  • If the piglets are piling on top of one another when sleeping, then return or lower the lamps.

3.  Manage ventilation.

Proper management of microenvironments requires good ventilation and routine pit supervision.  Humidity and airspeed greatly impact the true feel of the room. A good rule of thumb is to maintain humidity levels between 50% and 70%, and an average airspeed from room inlets between 600 to 1,000 feet per minute. These two factors help keep air moving across the sows’ backs, maintain a good balance of air moisture, and reduce the presence of harmful gases, such as ammonia, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and methane. 

Establishing and managing microenvironments is a low input way to save farms a lot of money in both performance and sow longevity. Utilizing these farrowing barn management techniques can keep the piglets comfortable and performing at optimal levels, while simultaneously maintaining sow intakes and lactation performance by mitigating the detrimental impacts of heat stress.

Chamberlin and Lewton are swine technical sales managers for Vita Plus