Call the Vet: We Need a Definition

Provided by Farm Journal | Written by: William Hollis| November 2020

Often in production herds, and specifically in sow farms with more experienced staff, we begin to build internal farm system language or “barn speak” that can take on a life and meaning all of its own. It is the responsibility of the veterinarian to develop health programs specific to the population and further investigate the proper execution of health protocols. Misunderstanding of “why” or specific challenges to “how” can often lead to failure of any specified health program.

Over the past 25 years of my practice time, I have encountered a handful of health programs which commonly fall into “barn speak” on a regular basis. I’ve tried to clarify three predictable areas of confusion that I hope will encourage greater communication before the veterinarian hits the shower for the road home.

1.    Gilt Acclimation

Incoming breeding gilts are both a risk and an opportunity for the sow farm. Before you jump to how you intend to prepare gilts for the herd, I suggest you first hold a robust discussion of facilities, gilt age at entry and gilt isolation from the herd. Once the vet and the production team have landed on a plan for safe gilt entry, the next conversation needs to include known endemic risks or diseases to the herd that the gilt may need immunity for prior to entry. Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) and Mycoplasma are two infectious diseases that could be stable in a positive sow herd, but in incoming gilts (often known naïve), could lead to instability of the herd if improperly acclimated and monitored prior to entry.

Some methods of gilt acclimation such as late entry cull mixing or continuous flow gilt rearing can lead to greater activity among the gilts at a bad time to begin gilt pregnancy. If the production teams do not understand why this is bad, they could be creating a greater level of instability in the herd which leads to instability in the farrowing house and poor-quality piglets leaving the farm.

Separate from respiratory or enteric diseases in gilts, there is also good reason to expose gilts to organisms such as parvovirus (parvo) at a young age prior to late-stage development. Parvo is known to commonly shed in fecal materials, which has made fecal matter from young gestation sows a common tool.

2.    Feedback

Pre-farrowing development of maternal immunity in sows and gilts within the last month of gestation has proven to be a good control measure for the development of colostrum protection for the piglets. Unfortunately, this practice can take on so many different patterns of execution that I even find some farm staff completely opposed, or worse, completely wrong, in their delivery of feedback materials.

Disease organisms that cause viral diarrhea are best given as live exposure at least two weeks prior to farrowing. Veterinarians further reinforced the great value of this method during outbreaks of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV). This practice, however, can be very risky if used as a routine in PRRS-virus positive herds. The practice of feedback may also be better controlled with known specific pathogen identification and secure materials created intentionally for the purpose of prefarrow immunity.


The practice of Management Changes to Reduce Exposure to Bacteria to Eliminate Losses (MCREBEL) was first explained in a 2000 AASV article in Swine Health and Production written by the late Dr. Monte McCaw.

McCaw studied the reduction of piglet cross fostering and the removal of the worst quality nursing piglets during significant disease pressure as a management method to reduce the spread of bacteria known to lead to prewean and early nursery losses.

MCREBEL has now taken on different meanings to different systems. I find it more valuable to list specific management practices outlined for specific periods during lactation. For example, in the most restrictive periods of a disease outbreak, it may be valuable to reinforce practices which can still be allowed such as use of a replacement nurse sow to save a whole litter from a mother unable to milk.

Call the Vet

Routine herd visits can lead to complacent communications between farm staff and the veterinarian. “Barn speak” can also lead to confusion in the expectation of a specific protocol. Three common management practices which tend to drift from protocol are gilt acclimation, feedback and MCREBEL. Schedule additional time during your next veterinarian visit to discuss these clearly defined practices and share both why and how these benefit the herd.