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Can the milk production of sows be improved?

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Media Relations
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Nowadays, breeding-sow operations in Canada typically include hyperprolific genetic lines. These sows often give birth to more piglets than they have teats to nurse and are not able to produce all the milk that their piglets need for optimum growth. A number of gilts (sows that are farrowing for the first time) are too thin, a problem that will affect the development of their mammary glands and, subsequently, adversely affect the growth of their piglets.

Chantal Farmer, PhD, a research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Sherbrooke Research and Development Centre, has led many research projects in this field. These projects, carried out with a variety of collaborators in the swine industry (Swine Innovation Porc, Ontario Pork, Trouw Nutrition, the Centre d’insémination porcine du Québec and the University of Guelph), have led to discoveries that can help producers maximize their sows’ milk production.

An important criteria that producers can assess to ensure optimum yields from the mammary glands of sows in their first lactation (having their first litter) has been identified. Producers can measure the thickness of the subcutaneous fat layer on a sow’s back, known as backfat, at the end of gestation. Dr. Farmer has demonstrated that backfat thickness in sows is directly linked to their mammary development.

"Too little or too much backfat at the end of gestation leads to reduced mammary development. In Yorkshire × Landrace gilts, the ideal backfat thickness for maximum mammary development is 17 to 26 mm."

– Chantal Farmer, research scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Body condition can therefore be used to ensure that sows produce as much milk as possible for their piglets.

But what can be done if a gilt’s backfat thickness at the end of gestation is less than 17 mm? Should the producer then take a piglet or two away from that sow after farrowing and give the piglets to a fatter sow in order to reduce the demand for milk from the thin sow? It’s not that simple. Other results from Dr. Farmer’s research show that a teat that is not used in a sow’s first lactation will produce less milk in her second lactation (for the sow’s second litter). According to Dr. Farmer, “Teats used in the first lactation have greater mammary development in the next lactation. They therefore produce more milk than teats that were not used in the first lactation.”

These research projects also show that when a teat is used for at least two days during the first lactation, mammary development in the next gestation is not reduced. Therefore, all a producer needs to do is make sure that sows that have just farrowed for the first time have at least one piglet per teat for the first two days after farrowing. After that, the producer can take piglets away from sows showing signs of thinness, without affecting the sows’ future lactation potential.

Thanks to these discoveries, farms specializing in breeding-sow operations now have new, highly valuable options. Measuring backfat thickness in sows at the end of gestation and ensuring that all of a sow’s teats are used for at least two days after farrowing are easy-to-implement tools that can make a real difference.

Breeding-sow producers will be able to use these new gestation management approaches to help their hyperprolific sows produce as much milk as possible, starting in their first litter, without any risk to their future lactation potential. This will lead to increased growth rate of their piglets because of greater mammary development and more adequate use of the sows’ mammary glands. These new approaches will help increase the profitability of Canadian hog farms.

Key discoveries (benefits)


Photo of research scientist Chantal Farmer holding a copy of her book The Gestating and Lactating Sow.
Chantal Farmer, PhD, editor of The Gestating and Lactating Sow and recipient of the Canadian Society of Animal Science Fellowship award.
Close-up of the belly of a sow nursing her piglets.
A sow nursing its many piglets.

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