Steady production of piglets is one of the best indicator of a farm’s wellbeing. Produce too few and the facility will not have enough pigs for replacements, and the facility will have to lower its pork output. Produce sufficient numbers, but supply them with insufficient conditions and the same scenario takes place. The metric commonly used for measuring reproductive capability of the farm is the number of piglets per sow per year (piglet/sow/year). This number can give insight into any number of factors affecting reproductive efficiency; from genetic makeup, through sow wellbeing, husbandry techniques, all the way down to feed quality and temperature. However, keeping neonatal piglets alive is all about reduction of stress on the animals.
There are a number of factors that can affect piglets wellbeing. Most commonly the greatest dangers come from the sow. Sows can be as much as 10 times larger than the piglets and can easily crush them unintentionally. If there is competition within the litter, some piglets can become malnourished. Lack of heat can contribute to early struggles as well, as can diseases. However some stress factors cannot be avoided for the wellbeing of the piglets. Young males are generally castrated as uncastrated pork meat is undesirable and has a distinct smell and flavor. Needle teeth and tails are clipped and docked, respectively to avoid harmful fights and subsequent injuries. Pasture-raised piglets receive nose rings to discourage the pigs from digging in the dirt, which can bring early erosion and general destruction of property – which can become dangerous down the line. Neonatal piglets also receive permanent ear notches for identification, and vaccines. The reason for such a barrage of stressful procedures is to reduce the risk of serious complications and unnecessary injury to the piglet. Castration for example, no matter how traumatic of an event it is, is much less invasive and painful when done early.
Some procedures seem elective, such as nose ringing; however, one has to make a decision weighing the momentary animal welfare and the environmental impact that the swine farm can have on its surrounding for a long time. On the other hand some stress factors can be more easily avoided. Proper farrowing area planning and close monitoring by the staff allows for reduction of sow-related incidents and malnutrition.
Next foreseeable stress factor that piglets encounter is weaning. Weaning traditionally happened at as much as 15 weeks, but modern techniques and high quality feeds allow the piglets to be weaned from the sow’s milk as early as 2, but preferably around 3 weeks. This can be a delicate time in the piglets life when it is not only separated from the mother, but possibly a large number of siblings and placed in a structured group housing. However, because modern techniques are quite advanced, there is no evidence of trauma on the pigs, and being as young as they are, they seem to adjust very rapidly. There is simply no evidence for the argument that longer weaning periods are better for the animal welfare of a piglet. Therefore, discounting the stress factors imposed on the piglets by the humans to vastly increase piglet’s welfare in the long run, the only factors of concern to piglets welfare are environmental.