Management of Lean Genotype Sows

M. Todd See, Ph.D.
Department of Animal Science
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC

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Can you maximize pigs/sow/year, feed:gain, lean growth rate, and carcass merit premiums? New management challenges are being offered to the US swine breeding herd with the introduction of increasingly leaner genotypes. The circumstances contributing to this change are improved sow productivity levels due to more intensive management combined with marketing swine on carcass value pricing systems. Simultaneous advances have been made in pigs/sow/year, predominantly due to management, and lean (growth rate and percentage) predominantly due to genetics. Today we are managing a more prolific mature sow that may be both leaner and larger in mature body size; in addition, gilts now grow faster, reach puberty at a heavier weight and are mated both younger and leaner. Young breeding females of lean genotypes must maintain fatness throughout breeding life. This can be accomplished by minimizing lactation fat losses and encouraging gestation fat recovery. Several studies have clearly demonstrated that a P2 backfat depths of less than .5 in. (12 mm) are likely to be associated with reproductive inefficiencies. However, there is also a likely negative effect in the sow achieving more than 1 - 1.2 in. (25 - 30 mm) of P2 fat. At lactation milk yield can reach 26 lb. per day. For the gestating sow all of this implies that there is a substantially increased maintenance requirement and during lactation the pressure is on management actions to encourage feed intake. The appropriate management program for the breeding female as defined by Whittemore (1993) is one that will:

    • maximize number of pigs per litter
    • optimize pig birth weight
    • maximize litters per year
    • maximize lactation yield
    • optimize longevity and lifetime productivity.

Replacement Gilts

Appropriate age and weight at first mating is very dependent on genotype. In many cases a mating weight of approximately 275 lb. live weight and an age of 210 days appears most appropriate for optimum subsequent fertility and longevity. It is also important at first mating that adequate fat stores are available for good lactation and a short weaning to estrus interval. This adequate body composition may be represented by a P2 fat measure in excess of .7 in. (18 mm). However, age, P2 fat and live weight are not themselves the targets for the right time for first mating but are indicators of age pattern of puberty, the weight pattern of fatty tissue growth, and the relationship between ultimate mature size and the proportion of mature size that is required before reproduction should be initiated.

Achieving the desired combination of age, weight and P2 fat depth in lean genotypes may necessitate a gilt development program that is very different from conventional finishing. Replacement gilts raised as finishing pigs will lead to increases in mature body weight and maintenance requirement of the breeding herd. Breeding females should most likely be reared on a conservative diet of adequate protein and relatively low energy. Some restriction of feeding may also be required to achieve the target fat, weight and age endpoint. There is new evidence (Foxcroft, et al.; 1996) to support the concept of short-term "flushing" before first mating. Flush feeding by allowing gilts to eat to appetite is simply a corrective process to ensure the potential ovulation rate of the female. Restricted feeding of gilts nearing puberty will inhibit the secretion of luteinizing hormone (LH) which regulates ovulation. When the animals are put back on ad libitum feeding LH releases immediately begin again.

Gestating gilts and sows

The flush feeding should end immediately after mating in the gilt. It has been demonstrated (Foxcroft et al., 1996; Ashworth, 1991) that high feed intakes immediately after mating in the gilt result in a significant decrease in embryonic survival. Therefore, flush feeding should only continue until mating and then feed intake of gilts and sows should be restricted to normal gestation levels of 1.5 times maintenance. For group housed females this poses an additional management problem because unmated gilts should be fed ad libitum and gilts that are mated should be restricted in their intake. Forming new groups is also undesirable during the first 3 weeks of pregnancy as fighting during the establishment of the social hierarchy may lead to embryo losses and the subsequent reduction in litter size.

For sows post weaning the objective is for them to conceive in 3 to 5 days with as large a litter as possible. There is no advantage to "drying off" sows by restricting feed in this 3 to 4 day period. Instead restricting feed is more likely to delay heat. Sows should be feed to appetite postweaning (6 to 8 lb.) and for the first 3 weeks of pregnancy fed to achieve large litter size. Both high and low feeding levels for the first 3 weeks may compromise the number of fetuses. Feeding levels for this period will range from 4 to 6 lb. daily.

Management during gestation should provide for a planned increase of 80-100 lb. for parity 1, 80-90 lb. for parity 2-5, and 55 lb. for sows greater than fifth parity (Johnston, 1996) P2 fat depth should also increase by about .2 in. (5 mm). These targets will vary according to sow maturity, body weight at conception and body condition. Overfeeding in gestation has a well proven negative impact on feed intake in lactation and results in fat and lean tissue loss to provide for milk production.

Measurement of P2 fat depth, condition scoring and weighing sows are all effective ways to feed the gestating sow to target weight and body condition at farrowing. Backfat measurement although relatively simple is not always convenient. In this case, sow condition scores are very good indicators of body fatness. Backfat or condition score combined with body weight gives an even greater level of accuracy in assessing the sows nutritional needs. Feeding to condition demands that when a sow is seen to be in lower condition than she need be, the feed allowance should be increased; if the sow is in higher condition feed allowance should be reduced. The condition score demands that the animal be fed what it requires, not a previously stipulated amount. Condition scores and their related backfat depths may also vary by the genotype that they are applied to. Johnston (1996) describes a 5 point condition score and Whittemore (1993) provides a ten point system. Table 1 presents the recommended fat depths for condition scores in the 5 point system. Whittemore (1993) states that in general the P2 fat depth is 3 times the numerical condition score in the 10 point system.

Table 1. P2 fat depth for various condition scores.

Condition Score

P2 fat depth (in.)


< .6


.6 - .7


.7 - .8


.8 - .9


> .9

A six step program for feeding gestating sows according to body condition (Whittemore, 1993) is as follows:

  1. Using all the sows in the breeding herd that are pregnant determine the average daily feed allowance per sow. Record this number.
  2. Determine the condition score of all the sows in the herd that are pregnant or open and not lactating. Use whole numbers on a 10-point scale, with 1 as emaciated and 10 as grossly obese. The target average condition score for the whole herd should be about 5. Usually young sows should have a condition score of more than 5, while old sows should usually be less than 5. Newly weaned sows should score about 4, while sows due to farrow should score around 6.
  3. If the average condition score for all pregnant and empty sows in the herd is above 5, then the average daily feed allowance set in Step 1 should be reduced. If the average condition score is less than 5, then the average daily feed allowance for the sows should be increased In the first event, increases and decreases in the average daily feed allowance should not be greater than .5 lb. per sow per day.
  4. Although the average condition might be satisfactory, this average can be made up of sows that are thin and sows that are fat. To deal with this, individual animals must be fed according to their individual scores.
  5. For each individual sow, determine the condition score immediately after weaning the piglets. Feed according to Table 2 until a condition score of 6 is reached for the individual in question. Upon reaching condition score 6, the sow should be returned to the average daily feeding level ( Steps 1 and 3).
  6. At weaning the sow should be changed immediately from her lactation feed allowance to a suitable regime to prepare her for mating . Feed allowances between weaning and conception are likely to involve feeding at least 6 lb. of lactating sow diet. Sows not mated within 10 days of weaning should be fed according to condition score until they are pregnant.

Table 2. Increases or decreases to the average daily feed allowance for pregnant sows based on their individual body condition score.

Sow body condition score

Likely feed requirement in addition to the average daily feed allowance for sows in pregnancy (lb./day)










Average daily feed allowance1





1 When a highly concentrated diet is used or the unit is exceptionally well manged, average allowance may be around 4.5 lb. per sow daily. The average feed allowance is more usally around or in excess of 4.9 lb. per sow daily.

The problems associated with condition scoring systems are: 1) This is an indirect measure of fat depth and errors can be dependent on sow size and shape. 2) Condition score is dependent on the subjective opinion of the scoring technician and standards can shift over time. 3) The response of condition score to change in feed intake is not well documented and is variable.

Lactating and weaned sows

Under ad libitum conditions the daily feed intake of the lactating sow will be between 6.5 and 20 lb. daily. Lactation weight and fat losses are directly related to lactation feed intake. Higher feed intakes may achieve maternal body weight gain and fatty tissue balance as described in figures 1 and 2 (Whittemore, 1993). Lactation weight losses may be largely prevented at feed intakes above 11 lb. per day, which may be quite readily achieved. Lactation fat losses may be largely prevented at feed intakes above 18 lb. per day which are not at all readily achieved.

The following summary checklist was developed by Close (1994) to ensure maximal appetite during lactation. Obviously diets should be balanced so that all nutrients are provided in the correct proportions for nutritional requirements and energy balance. Ingredients should also be selected that are easily digestible. Flavors of sweeteners may be added to provide a consistent taste.

  1. High feed quality. The feed should always be fresh, never stale, dirty or contaminated. For lactating sows it is best to feed on a "little and often" basis. This may entail feeding lactating sows 4 to 5 times per day and whenever their feeder is empty.
  2. Good presentation. Pellets give better intake than meal and wetting of feed achieves higher intakes than dry feeding. However, wet feeding reduces the time that feed may stay in the trough and be fresh.
  3. Gradual increases. Feed levels must match the needs of the sow at all stages of lactation. Starting after farrowing with an intake of about 4 lb. and increasing 3 lb. per day until the sows are at full feed. After the sows intake is established they should be fed to appetite.
  4. Constant water. Nursing sows need to consume 8-10.5 gallons of water every day. One rule of thumb is a water to feed ratio of 5:1. Their waterer should deliver a minimum of .25 gallons per minute and ideally .5 gallons per minute. Sows will quickly become frustrated if the flow rate is low and this will influence their appetite for dry feed. Water temperature and quality are also important.
  5. Reduce environmental stress. High temperatures found in the farrowing house can also cause low appetites. The appetite of the lactating sow will be reduced by about .22 lb. per day for each 1 F above comfort temperature. The use of sprinklers has been shown to increase feed intake and reduce body weight loss (Table 3; McGlone et al., 1988) during lactation. Similarly, increasing the rate of air movement around the animal by maximizing ventilation rate will improve appetite. Also remember that the flooring with low warmth retention will help to reduce the heat stress on the sow.
  6. Lower metabolic demands. Another way of closing the gap between lactation feed intake and needs is by reducing the sow's nutritional requirements. Possibilities include a shorter lactation period, cross fostering to balance litter size for suckling and split weaning.

Table 3. The effect of management on the appetite of lactating sows.

Water drip

Snout coolers

Feed intake (lb./day)

Body weight change (lb./28 days)

















(McGlone, Stansbury and Tribble, 1988)


It is must also be appreciated that the weight of feed provided to breeding sows is dependent on nutrient concentration. The estimates used here for optimum levels of feed supply refer in general to diets with around, or above, 5.9 MJ DE and 68 g CP (pregnant sows) or 6.1 MJ DE and 74.8 g CP (lactating sows) per lb. fresh weight.

Management methods for the lean genotype sow are not very different than the management of any other sow type. The difference is in how closely these management practices have to be followed in order to optimize production. As sow genotypes become increasingly leaner management has to focus on closely maintaining body fat and weight during the reproductive cycle. The lean genotype sow will reach maturity at a later age and larger size with fewer body fat stores that can be used for milk yield. The practices described here attempt to minimize fat and weight fluctuations in order to keep the sow at maximum productivity.


Close, W. 1994. Lactation feeding in hot climates. Pig International, August 1994, pp 26-28.

Foxcroft, G.R., J.R. Cosgrove, F.X. Aherne. 1996. Relationship between metabolism and reproduction. Proceedings of the 14th IPVS Congress, Bologna, Italy 7-10 July 1996. pp 6-9.

Johnston, L.J. 1996. Sound sow nutrition builds productivity. National Hog Farmer. Vol. 41, No. 10, p18.

Whittemore, C. 1993. The science and practice of pig production. Longman Group, UK. ISBN 0-582-09220-5.

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