The right mix of ingredients and planned preparation gives you a good recipe whether you’re preparing a meal for yourself or for your pigs.

Certainly that same thought process is true in what can be the temperamental nursery-pig phase. The better you prepare for the piglet’s transition — the better chance of success regardless if you run a nursery or wean-to-finish facility.

Keep in mind, there’s more to the recipe than just having the right feed mix. There are several steps to prepare before you put pigs into the barn.

Let’s run through a set of 10 challenges, as outlined by KansasStateUniversity swine experts, that you face when you wean and move piglets. You’ll also find ideas for dealing with each situation.

1. Effective communication:

Do you understand the personality of the employees who will be handling the piglets? If there is trouble getting instructions or messages across to your employees it’s often not their fault. You may need to sharpen your communication skills and work on getting the message across differently.

One example that Steve Dritz, DVM, KansasState, points to involves feeder adjustment. You know the importance of feeder adjustment to enhance feed efficiency, yet it’s still the No. 1 cause of sub-optimal feed efficiency on operations.

When you discuss feeder adjustment with your employees, there’s usually a disagreement on how much feed should be in the pan. A good tool to use is feeder-adjustment photos, such as the ones available from KansasState at www.asi.k-state.edu/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabindex=1007&tabid=889

2. Start with healthy pigs:

It’s imperative to deal with health challenges immediately, which includes proper diagnostics and therapeutic plans. “If you have unhealthy weaned pigs, you will have problems with their feed intake during the first few days after weaning,” says Dritz.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic formula here; it involves things like watchful eyes, vaccination programs, dedicated interaction with your herd veterinarian, biosecurity and much more. Early attention to health follows the pig through its life.

3. Proper facility cleaning, disinfection and drying:

No big secret here, a clean environment boosts pig performance. Because young pigs are highly susceptible to infections, sanitation is especially critical for weaned-pig facilities. Wean-to-finish units can throw you a curve, because rough surfaces, such as concrete, are more difficult to clean than smooth surfaces like coated wire.

Dritz says that you can remove 99 percent of bacteria by thorough cleaning. You can remove 90 percent of bacteria by eliminating all visible organic matter; disinfectants kill another 6 percent to 7 percent, with fumigation eliminating the last 1 percent to 2 percent.

Develop a specific cleaning and disinfection protocol for your operation, and train your workers on the details involved.  You can learn more by going to page 20 in this issue. You also should check out “Are You Washed Up?” in the April 2006 issue of Pork or you can find it at www.porkmag.com/directories.asp?pgID=728&ed_id=4058&component_id=875

4. Proper setup:

Before pigs arrive, set ventilation controls so the room will dry and be warm for the piglets’ arrival. Place heat mats and other supplemental heat sources in the pens. Most importantly, make sure they’re working.

Also check that the waterers are working and adjusted to proper heights. Of course, you’ll have to adjust them as pigs grow. A simple rule is to place nipple waterers shoulder high for the smallest pigs in the pen.

Regardless of whether the first diet after weaning is in bags or bulk, close the feed gate in all feeders before you add the pellets. Open the gate so that a small amount of feed is visible in the feed pan. Placing pelleted feed into empty feeders with the gate open will cause feed wastage and make it difficult to properly adjust the feeder.

During the first 36 hours after weaning, pigs need to find the water and feed. Watch the animals and make adjustments to ensure proper access, especially for water. Ensure that feed is always available in the feeder. Small amounts placed on mats can help trigger piglets’ interest. 

“Water intake is crucial in the newly weaned pig. Because of the low body weight in proportion to the metabolic rate, dehydration occurs easily in young pigs,” says Bob Goodband, KansasState swine Extension specialist.

Unguarded, center-flow nipple waterers work well for this age of pigs, he notes. It’s also important to ensure the water pressure is below 20 pounds per square inch so that pigs can operate the nipples easily. Some producers will block or tie the nipples open for the first 24 hours to help piglets find the waterer.

Recheck the building’s temperature and zone heat to ensure piglet comfort. It’s difficult to cite an ideal temperature because flooring materials, heating sources and drafts in a room vary. It’s best to make small adjustments and let the pigs acclimate to their surroundings.

5. Quality counts:

Now is the time to watch ingredient quality. Adding fat to the piglets’ diet will depend on how economically you can purchase the feed. You also can potentially increase growth efficiency and decrease costs by synchronizing feed processing and delivery.

Added fat will lubricate and help make a high-quality pellet. “By increasing fat in diets for pigs larger than 15 pounds, the pigs will often respond with improved average daily gain and feed efficiency,” notes Dritz. “A common recommendation is 3 percent to 5 percent added fat.”

However, poor-quality fat sources negatively affect weaned pigs. Therefore, Dritz recommends choice white grease or plant sources such as soybean oil. Avoid using other fat sources such as beef tallow, poultry fat and restaurant fats at this production stage.

Using high-quality protein sources, such as spray-dried animal plasma and blood meal, fish meal and lactose sources, purchased from a reputable supplier can ensure feed-ingredient quality.

If you produce nursery diets in meal form on the farm, consider granular specialty protein and lactose sources that have better flow-ability properties. Products with poor flow characteristics can lead to problems with bins and feeders bridging, thus limiting feed intake.

“Maximizing feed intake after weaning reduces stress and increases growth rate,” says Goodband. Once piglets’ post-weaning feed intake increases, the environmental temperatures can be lowered, which further helps maximize growth rates.   

6. Maximize weaning age, weight:

There is much debate about optimal feeding patterns for lactating sows. However, the research results are clear, contends Goodband. Restricting feed, protein or energy intake during any part of lactation will reduce milk production, hurt litter-weaning weights and impair subsequent reproductive performance,

KansasState research shows that increasing weaning age from to 21 days increases growth rate and reduces weaning-to-market mortality. Each day added to weaning age increases piglet weight by 0.56 pounds (taken prior to weaning) and 4 pounds at marketing, notes Goodband.

7. Teach feeding behavior:

Within the first 36 hours, most pigs will find food and water. It’s up to you to identify those pigs that haven’t, and teach them how to eat. You may have to hand feed pellets or feed gruel through a syringe. But, do whatever is needed to get a piglet eating.

“Developmentally, pigs weaned at early ages don’t learn to eat dry food as quickly as pigs weaned at 21 days,” says Dritz.

Identifying which pigs need help, as well as how to teach feed behavior, is something you, a manager or veterinarian should incorporate into employee training. With proper nursery management, piglets requiring extra attention should only run 2 percent to 4 percent, says Dritz.

You can use this checklist to identify problem pigs:

  • Mental status – alert or depressed.
  • Body condition – robust or thin.
  • Abdominal shape – round or gaunt.
  • Skin – sleek appearance or fuzzy.
  • Appetite – eating at the feeder or huddled off to the side.
  • Signs of dehydration – normal or sunken eyes.

8. Minimize sorting:

A common sorting strategy is to put lightweight pigs together, medium-weight pigs in another pen and heavyweights in yet another.

Goodband says a better option is to put the lightest 10 percent to 15 percent of pigs together, then put the other 85 percent together randomly. This actually can help establish social order. You won’t have 25 same-sized pigs in one pen fighting to establish an order, he adds. With different-sized pigs, the big ones might pick on the small ones a bit, but it can ultimately lead to order and less stress. It also saves on labor time.

9. Adjust feeders frequently:

“If your fingers don’t ache from cleaning the feed gates, you aren’t adjusting them properly,” says Dritz. To stimulate feeding behavior, it’s common to put lots of the first nursery diet in the feed pan. However, that usually has a negative outcome.

“Energy deficiency can result because pigs sort the diet, causing a buildup of fines in the pan,” notes Dritz. “The fines then lodge in the feed-agitator mechanism, making it difficult for new feed to flow.”

You can remedy the problem by adjusting feed amounts in the pan. About 25 percent to 50 percent of the feed pan should be visible during the first few days after weaning. As piglets become more accustomed to the feed location and adjust their behaviors, you can cut the feed coverage in the pan to less than 25 percent.

Also, test feed-agitators often to ensure that any buildup of fines doesn’t keep them from working properly.

10. Compile and analyze closeouts:

Nursery closeout records are essential for diagnosing nursery performance problems. “We know enough about diets today, that we’re working on other details to fine-tune with management,” says Dritz.

He encourages producers to keep their production data in Excel spreadsheets. “This provides an opportunity to analyze seasonal data and yearly trends,” notes Dritz. For example, if you build a new barn, these records will help compare pig performance in the new barn versus the old barn.

Once you have closeout data, review it with your herd consultant, barn manager and employees. This way everyone knows what’s working and what areas need improvement.

There are plenty of challenges beyond diet formulations to get weaned pigs growing. The key is finding the right mix between management and nutrition to create your own recipe for success.