Breeding Physiology

Controls of Litter Size—Do Conclusions Drawn from Institutional Research Herds Always Have Relevance to Commercial Swine Production?

  • Kimberly A. Vonnahme (Iowa State University)
  • Stephen P. Ford (Iowa State University)
  • Matthew E. Wilson (West Virginia University)
  • George R. Foxcroft (University of Alberta)
  • Gene Gourley (Swine Graphics Enterprises)
  • Teddi Wolf (Roche Vitamins)
  • Michelle Quirk-Thomas (Pig Improvement Company)


Increasing litter size in pigs has been an ongoing concern of many producers because it has the greatest impact on profitability of the swine enterprise. To study the biology of conceptus growth and survival, many models have been used by researchers. It was determined that a major component in limiting litter size results from the impacts of limitations in uterine space (i.e. uterine capacity). Placental efficiency, which is the ratio of a fetus’s weight compared with that of its placenta, has been shown to impact litter size, and is heritable. Selection for breeding animals having a high placental efficiency at term, has been shown to increase litter size. Furthermore, although piglet weight was only slightly decreased in offspring of boars and gilts selected for increased placental efficiency, placental size was profoundly reduced. This reduction in placental size was coupled with an increase in vascularity, thus nutrient and oxygen uptake by the conceptus could be accomplished over a decreased surface area of attachment to the uterine wall. Reproductive data obtained to date have been gathered largely from university swine herds that may have little relevance to commercially used US pig breeds. In contrast to the constant evaluations of physiological changes associated with increased litter size at universities, swine seed stock producers have selected for many generations simply on increased litter size and have not bothered to evaluate the resulting physiological changes associated with increased fecundity. Therefore, it was the objective of this study to investigate the reproductive characteristics of a commercially relevant swine herd in Iowa (PIC Camborough Line) at selected gestational ages. Multiparous sows (ranging from 1 to 14 parities) were slaughtered on days 25, 36, and 44 of gestation, time periods corresponding to intervals which are before, during, and after the time when uterine capacity becomes limiting. At the laboratory, the uterine horns were measured and ovulation rate was determined. Conceptuses were removed and fetal and placental weights were determined. Uterine horn length and ovulation rate did not differ between the three gestational groups. Conceptus number decreased from 15.8 ± 0.6 on day 25 to 12.9 ± 0.5 and 12.1 ± 0.4 on day 36 and day 44 (litter size in this population averages ~11.5 liveborn piglets/litter). Conceptus survival to day 25 was 60.2 ± 0.1%, which then decreased to 50.1 ± 0.1% on day 36 and 46.3 ± 0.1% on day 44. There was a positive correlation between conceptus number and ovulation rate on day 25 but by day 36 this association was lost. Conceptus number was not associated with uterine length on day 25, but by day 36 there was a positive association that remained through day 44. On all three gestation days there was a negative association between conceptus number and placental weight, but no association between conceptus number and fetal weight was observed, indicating that larger litters are comprised of conceptuses having small placentae, but the same sized fetuses. These data indicate that, compared with commonly reported values for university herds (16-18 ovulations), ovulation rate in these mixed parity production animals is extremely high, whereas conceptus survival as estimated from the number of conceptuses divided by the number of ovulations was very low. Additionally, although conceptus number was related to the ovulation rate on day 25, by day 36 the limitations of uterine size began to reduce conceptus number irrespective of ovulation rate. These data suggest that ovulation rate is not a limiting factor in litter size in this line of commercially relevant pigs. In contrast, the higher than expected ovulation rate observed in these pigs resulted in significant embryo losses and early uterine crowding. The consequences of this early conceptus crowding may have detrimental impacts on prenatal and postnatal growth rate and survival.

Keywords: ASL R659

How to Cite:

Vonnahme, K. A., Ford, S. P., Wilson, M. E., Foxcroft, G. R., Gourley, G., Wolf, T. & Quirk-Thomas, M., (2001) “Controls of Litter Size—Do Conclusions Drawn from Institutional Research Herds Always Have Relevance to Commercial Swine Production?”, Iowa State University Animal Industry Report 1(1).

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Published on
01 Jan 2001
Peer Reviewed