Sow Management and Feeding Strategies to Wean More Viable Pigs

Part 4 - Factors to consider for gilt development that may reduce lameness and improve productivity

In this series of articles, we have been discussing some critical factors that swine producers and nutritionists must consider when managing sows, in order to support them to wean healthy and viable pigs. Now, it’s time to bring another hot topic to that discussion: lameness and its impact on sow herds.

As we know, lameness is a common clinical manifestation in the swine industry worldwide, with multifactorial causes that impact an animal’s welfare, reduce productivity, promote premature culling, and, subsequently, cause significant economic losses (Lucia et al., 2000). Lameness can have infectious and non-infectious causes. Among the non-infectious causes are several risk factors closely related to gilt development that contribute to lameness, such as flooring types, housing conditions, congenital disorders, seasonal influence, nutritional imbalance, feed management, and genetic predispositions (Mondal & Biswas, 2021). However, when these risk factors are properly evaluated, the farm can reduce lameness, extend the reproductive life of gilts, and thereby improve pork production.

Now, let’s dive into the nutritional aspects. The diet’s composition is an important aspect to be considered when planning to supply the minerals and vitamins that are necessary to avoid limb abnormalities and, consequently, lameness. Copper, zinc, and manganese are trace minerals that are important for proper bone development (Beattie & Avenell, 1992; Dibner et al., 2007). When supplied in complexes or chelates with an organic ligand instead of inorganic trace mineral salts, they become more bioavailable and bioactive (López-Alonso, 2012; Miles & Henry, Peter, 2000). These trace minerals are essential for both pregnant and non-pregnant sows for a variety of reasons, including reducing lameness (Nair, 2011; van Riet et al., 2013), improving locomotion scores (Quinn et al., 2015), and increasing bone mineral density (Hartnett et al., 2019; Quinn et al., 2015). In addition to the supplementation of trace minerals, rearing gilts in female-only groups helps to reduce the number of joint lesions, improving limb health and longevity of sows (Hartnett et al., 2019).

The diet composition and feeding strategy are important considerations that affect the growth and development of gilts intended for breeding. For improving the limb health of gilts, there is increasing evidence that strategies to optimize growth and development (rather than maximize growth rate) can reduce the incidence of osteochondrosis and, consequently, lameness. Ad libitum diets and dietary restrictions may also influence limb health which, depending on the age of the pig, can lead to osteochondrosis or possible lameness. Osteochondrosis is a disturbance in the ossification process of growing pigs, especially those between 7 and 13 weeks of age (Ytrehus et al., 2004a, b, Ytrehus et al., 2007). De Koning et al. (2013) demonstrated that dietary restriction (80% of ad libitum uptake) has an age-dependent effect on osteochondrosis development in gilts. When fed with dietary restriction until 10 weeks of age followed by ad libitum feeding, gilts had the highest prevalence of osteochondrosis. On the other hand, gilts continuously fed in a restricted manner or only experiencing restricted feeding after 10 weeks of age can have a reduced prevalence of osteochondrosis (de Koning et al., 2013). In many instances, developing gilts are housed in groups with feeding systems that are designed for ad libitum feeding. With an ad libitum feeding system for gilts in groups after 10 weeks of age, it can be beneficial to feed a high-fiber diet that is lower in energy. Feeding a balanced, high-fiber/low-energy diet to replacement gilts ad libitum may slow growth for improved development, while increasing satiety and reducing competition and variability in feed intake; thus, providing benefits for both welfare and sow longevity (Belkova and Rozkot, 2022).

Another strategy to prevent osteochondrosis and consequent lameness is to strengthen bone and cartilage from the nursery phase to the finishing phase (Wardale & Duance, 1994). 25-hydroxy-cholecalciferol is one of the metabolites of vitamin D3, known to help maintain calcium plasma concentration, promote cartilage and bone metabolism, and reduce tibial dyschondroplasia in growing broiler chickens – which presents similar lesions to those seen in pigs with osteochondrosis (Fritts & Waldroup, 2003; Ledwaba & Roberson, 2003). Upon supplementing 50 μg/kg or 100 μg/kg of 25-hydroxy-cholecalciferol for 42 days to 60-day-old gilts with an average initial body weight of 23.13 ± 1.39 kg, the expression of calcium and phosphorous transporter genes was improved without affecting skeletal integrity and growth performance (Regassa et al., 2013). Also, Brana et al. (2012) observed that supplementation of 56-day-old crossbred growing gilts with 50 μg/kg of 25-hydroxy-cholecalciferol until selection improved bone development and structural soundness.

Besides nutritional effects, many other factors are involved in lameness, which leads to reproductive failure, premature culling, and a shortened lifespan. The method of feeding, the group and space size, as well as the type of housing all serve to influence the animal’s behavior – which can lead to stress, trauma, and lameness (Hallowell & Pierdon, 2022). Moreover, sows with lameness generate fewer total litters in their lifetime, produce a greater proportion of piglets with low birth weight, have a higher piglet mortality rate, and wean fewer piglets per litter. These outcomes are likely due to the pain and stress caused by lameness, that may subsequently impair ovulation, estrus behavior and maternal care (Einarsson et al., 2008; Hallowell & Pierdon, 2022). Also, since there is convincing evidence that litter-of-origin variables are associated with the development of reproductive functions and lifetime productivity, strategies must be implemented to improve birthweight and decrease intra-litter variation (Flowers, 2022).

Therefore, understanding the link between lameness and its multifactorial causes can help producers make better decisions regarding the best housing, the animal’s genetics line, nutritional and management strategies to minimize its occurrence and increase the longevity and productivity of the swine herd.



Beattie, J. H., & Avenell, A. (1992). Trace element nutrition and bone metabolism. Nutrition Research Reviews, 5(1), 167–188.

Belkova, J., & Rozkot, M. (2022). Gilt rearing impacts on sow performance and longevity - a review. J Swine Health Prod. 30(1):10-16.

Brana, D., Gabriel-Landon, J., Cervantes-Lopez, J., Cuaron A. (2012). Use of 25OHD3 favros opportune and sound bone maturation. 45º Meeting of American Society of Animal Science, p.47.

de Koning, D. B., van Grevenhof, E. M., Laurenssen, B. F. A., van Weeren, P. R., Hazeleger, W., & Kemp, B. (2013). The influence of dietary restriction before and after 10 weeks of age on osteochondrosis in growing gilts. Journal of Animal Science, 91(11), 5167–5176.

Dibner, J. J., Richards, J. D., Kitchell, M. L., & Quiroz, M. A. (2007). Metabolic Challenges and Early Bone Development. Journal of Applied Poultry Research, 16(1), 126–137.

Einarsson, S., Brandt, Y., Lundeheim, N., & Madej, A. (2008). Stress and its influence on reproduction in pigs: A review. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, 50(1), 1–8.

Flowers, W. L. (2022). Litter-of-origin traits and their association with lifetime productivity in sows and boars. Molecular Reproduction and Development.

Fritts, C. A., & Waldroup, P. W. (2003). Effect of Source and Level of Vitamin D on Live Performance and Bone Development in Growing Broilers. Journal of Applied Poultry Research, 12(1), 45–52.

Hallowell, A., & Pierdon, M. (2022). Effects of lameness on productivity and longevity for sows in pen. Journal of Swine Health and Production, 30(4), 223–229.

Hartnett, P., Boyle, L., Younge, B., & O’driscoll, K. (2019). The Effect of Group Composition and Mineral Supplementation during Rearing on Measures of Cartilage Condition and Bone Mineral Density in Replacement Gilts. Animals 2019, Vol. 9, Page 637, 9(9), 637.

Ledwaba, M. F., & Roberson, K. D. (2003). Effectiveness of twenty-five-hydroxycholecalciferol in the prevention of tibial dyschondroplasia in Ross cockerels depends on dietary calcium level. Poultry Science, 82(11), 1769–1777.

López-Alonso, M. (2012). Trace Minerals and Livestock: Not Too Much Not Too Little. ISRN Veterinary Science, 2012, 1–18.

Lucia, T., Dial, G. D., & Marsh, W. E. (2000). Lifetime reproductive performance in female pigs having distinct reasons for removal. Livestock Production Science, 63(3), 213–222.

Miles, R. D., & Henry, Peter, R. (2000). Relative trace mineral bioavailability. Ciência Animal Brasileira, 1(2), 73–93.

Mondal, D., & Biswas, T. K. (2021). View of Lameness: A Very Common Disorder in Pigs, Its Causes and Therapeutic Intervention. Biotica Research Today, 3(8), 709–713.

Nair, S., & Anil, S. (2011). Epidemiology of Lameness in Breeding Female Pigs. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA, p. 113.

Quinn, A. J., Green, L. E., Lawlor, P. G., & Boyle, L. A. (2015). The effect of feeding a diet formulated for developing gilts between 70 kg and ~140 kg on lameness indicators and carcass traits. Livestock Science, 174, 87–95.

Regassa, A., Adhikari, R., Heo, J-M, Nyachoti, M. & Kim, W. K. (2013). Effects of 25-hydroxycholecalciferol on growth performance, skeletal integrity, and intestinal transporter gene expression in growing pigs. Abstracts – American Society of Animal Science, 91(2):105.

van Riet, M. M. J., Millet, S., Aluwé, M., & Janssens, G. P. J. (2013). Impact of nutrition on lameness and claw health in sows. Livestock Science, 156(1–3), 24–35.

Wardale, R. J., & Duance, V. C. (1994). Characterisation of articular and growth plate cartilage collagens in porcine osteochondrosis. Journal of Cell Science, 107(1), 47–59.

Ytrehus, B., Carlson, C. S., Lundeheim, N., Mathisen, L., Reinholt, F. P., Teige, J. & Ekman, S. (2004a). Vascularisation and osteochondrosis of the epiphyseal growth cartilage of the distal femur in pigs—Development with age, growth rate, weight and joint shape. Bone 34:454–465.

Ytrehus, B., Ekman, S., Carlson, C. S., Teige, J., & Reinholt, F. P. (2004b). Focal changes in blood supply during normal epiphyseal growth are central in the pathogenesis of osteochondrosis in pigs. Bone 35:1294–1306.

Ytrehus, B., Carlson, S., & Ekman, S. (2007). Etiology and pathogenesis of osteochondrosis. Vet. Pathol. 44:429–448

Published on

19 September 2022


  • Swine


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