Becky Bierlein
Becky Bierlein

Whether your pigs are destined to enter the sow herd or the finishing floor, farrowing and nursery management defines their success. To get pigs off to the right start, farrowing and nursery management is critical.

One gauge of a positive outcome in young pigs is an operation’s fallout rate. Fallout pigs are those that lag behind the rest of the group in terms of gain and performance. Research from the University of Illinois suggests that pigs that fall behind in growth have a greater probability to be impacted by diseases and often require greater days to reaching their full potential.

When pigs fall behind in the nursery, producers often see a larger gap on the finishing floor or in the gilt pool. In fact, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine found that for each 1 pound below target bodyweight at 10 weeks of age, an additional 5 days are needed to reach market weight.

To promote uniformity, producers are encouraged to work toward a minimal fallout rate. The current industry goal is less than 0.5 percent fallout in the nursery.

Becky Bierlein, an animal specialist for Purina Animal Nutrition, says the first step in reaching this goal is to pull out the bottom 10 percent of the group immediately when they enter the nursery.

“That bottom 10 percent needs to be separate because these pigs need a little extra care to keep up with the others,” she says. “You need to be able to feed them more specifically, be a bit more comfort-specific and monitor them more closely than the other pigs.”

Keeping the fallout rate for the rest of the pigs under the targeted 0.5 percent also requires close attention and management.

“If you do have fallouts, look for the reason as to why the fallout happened,” Bierlein advises. “Maybe the pig never found water, didn’t have the opportunity to get to the feeder because of competition or wasn’t acclimated to dry feed before weaning.”

Along with post-weaning monitoring and group management, producers can help prevent fallouts before the weaning period begins. Keeping the group uniformly growing and healthy through the nursery begins by minimizing the stress of weaning.

Set the Stage for Stress-free Weaning
A full potential pig begins on day one in the farrowing room. Attending farrowings, drying and warming piglets and promoting adequate colostrum consumption can support the transfer of passive immunity to piglets.

“The importance of colostrum cannot be stressed enough,” Bierlein says.

In a recent study, a group of pigs that consumed less than 200 grams of quality colostrum experienced a pre-weaning mortality rate of 43.4 percent, while a group that consumed greater than 200 grams of quality colostrum had a pre-weaning mortality rate of 7.1 percent.

Still, piglet immune development stems beyond the first feeding of sow’s colostrum and milk. The immunocompetence of young pigs must be maintained by the producer from farrowing through weaning and is impacted by having adequate nutrition to support not only animal maintenance but also growth and immune development. 

If nutrition is lacking, piglet development may suffer; thus the importance of providing the piglet with adequate nutrition throughout this period. Because of the evolving enzymes (lactase enzymes early in the pig’s life to break down milk and then amylase to break down carbohydrates as dry feed is introduced) in the pig’s digestive tract, pigs must receive a diet that is relative to the evolving enzymes during development to ensure proper digestion and absorption of nutrients for growth and immune development. 

Develop Appetite
To become successful eaters, pigs must receive adequate nutrients while in the farrowing facility. The sow provides the majority of these nutrients, but additional support can keep pigs on track. Work from Iowa State University shows that, because of lactation demands, nursing sows may “have a difficult time consuming enough feed to meet both the demands of milk production and body maintenance.”

In addition to a greater potential for long-term issues in the sows, piglets in the current litter can be delayed from a lack of nutrients. A gel-based product or creep feed can be used to complement the sow’s milk – lessening the demands on the sow and ensuring adequate hydration and nutrients to the pigs.

"Gel is a supportive program that allows the sow to get back on her feet without causing stress to the pigs,” Bierlein says.

Gel-based products are often fed free-choice to the pigs in the farrowing facility. Bierlein encourages producers to provide gel to pigs that are challenged both pre- and post-weaning as well as to all litters during times of stress, including weather challenges and 1-day prior and 1-day after vaccinations.

 A gel-based product focuses on hydration capabilities and intake-enhancing ingredients to promote consumption. This combination can address dehydration and aid in transition to dry pellets while supporting intestinal health.

“Creep feeding gets the pigs ready for the transition (by creating eaters at weaning) and also helps take some of the pressure off of the sow,” Bierlein says. “Anytime we have the ability to acclimate or transition the pigs into a new setting, we should take that opportunity.”

Bierlein recommends producers start creep-feeding 3-5 days prior to weaning at a rate of 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of dry feed per day per litter to create eaters.

Research from Kansas State University shows the benefits of feeding piglets a complex creep feed 3 days prior to weaning. In a recent study, 68 percent of the pigs fed creep became eaters pre-weaning versus 28 percent of the pigs when fed only the sow’s milk/diet. In this study, pigs that became eaters during the pre-weaning phase, gained 6.2 percent better (P < 0.01) and had greater average daily feed intake (P < 0.002) post-weaning than non-eaters. The eaters also had improved average daily gain and body weight uniformity due to a reduced post-weaning lag.

Palatability is Paramount
“The first impression needs to be a good one,” says Bierlein. “The first feed can be a great stepping stone in beginning the transition. We need to remember, though, that the feed before weaning and the feed after weaning should be very similar.”

In addition to palatability, creep feeds should include a complex combination of nutrients with a variety of amino acids, probiotics and neutraceuticals. This combination helps to stimulate all gut areas and encourages strengthened immunity; all of which are needed before the stress of weaning.

Pigs that have had access to dry feed prior to moving to the nursery are more apt to begin eating dry feed when entering the nursery. Weaning is often the most stressful period of the pig’s life, so familiarity with feed can eliminate one stress factor as the pigs move into a new environment and new groups.

Watch Water Consumption Too
Pigs that are moved to a new facility may experience slumps in water consumption. Dehydration can be problematic at weaning because approximately 55 percent of a pig’s bodyweight is made of water. In young, lean animals, the water level may be closer to 70 percent. If a pig loses 15 percent of its water weight, mortality issues are more prevalent.

Electrolytes can prevent dehydration during the transition by providing necessary nutrients, including sodium, chloride and potassium as well as calcium and magnesium to the pig. Researchers at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center recommend providing electrolytes to weaned pigs for the first 5-7 days post-weaning. Electrolytes can be administered via water medicator. 

To select an electrolyte, look for a product with high palatability and ingredients that help pigs absorb glucose and prevent malabsorption post-weaning. The addition of Vitamin D in the electrolyte can also support performance.

In addition to a post-weaning, Bierlein provides electrolytes to pigs during times of stress including health challenges, vaccination periods or environmental fluctuation. “Electrolytes can provide the extra push that pigs need to keep them on track for an exit from the nursery at 45 days,” she says.

It’s a combination of management strategies and nutritional focus that keeps fallout percentages in check. Following good management protocols through these important transitions minimizes the stress of weaning and positions pigs to reach their full potential.

Bierlein says, “When we provide the right nutrients and management to our pigs, we can enjoy seeing the results in the facility and we can keep our fallout levels to a minimum.”

Editor’s Note: Jeff Hoffelt is a writer with Filament Marketing LLC and prepared this article for submission on behalf of Purina Animal Nutrition. For additional information on nursery management and nutrition, contact Becky Bierlein at RLBierlein@landolakes.com or call (419) 773-0280.