Pork producers pride themselves on productivity, and over the years, their efforts to improve it have paid dividends. Pig farmers send more hogs to market faster and at heavier weights than ever before resulting in more pounds of pork per sow per year.

From 2003 to 2013, pigs per litter increased an average of 1.4 percent each quarter on an annualized basis. Then, in 2013, the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) hit, causing more than a 5 percent drop by the winter and spring of 2014. Today, with PEDV under control, litter sizes are again setting new productivity records.

But another trend line has surfaced that demands attention – a concerning rise in whole-herd mortality rates.

“Mortality discussions often start with the sow, but it doesn’t end there,” said Ken Stalder, swine geneticist at Iowa State University. “Mortality at all production levels is creeping higher, and we need to address it proactively.”

Stalder authored the Pork Checkoff-funded U.S. Pork Industry Productivity Analysis, 2011-2016. The data represent 40 percent of the U.S. swine industry. The analysis showed a wide range in pig survivability between producers in the top 25 percent of productivity and those in the bottom 25 percent. That piqued the interest of the Pork Checkoff’s Animal Science Committee.

“The loss of pigs and sows prior to market is a major impingement on pig well-being, productivity, sustainability, and profitability,” said Chris Hostetler, animal science director for the Pork Checkoff. “With multiple factors involved, a system-wide assessment was needed.”

To kick-start the effort, a Pig Survivability Working Group of producers, veterinarians, geneticists and other specialists organized to identify priorities and guide research. This led the National Pork Board to invest $1 million in research to improve pig survival in 2018, with projects in three areas:

  • Pre-weaning mortality – “While this is the shortest portion of a pig’s life, the mortality risk is greatest,” Hostetler said.
  • Post-weaning (nursery to market) mortality – “We need to learn more about how today’s heavier market weights impact survivability,” Hostetler said.
  • Sow mortality – “This is a complex and multifactorial challenge,” Hostetler said. “What impacts mortality on one farm may be very different on another.

He added, “Making changes will not happen overnight; it is a long-term commitment.”