Pendulums continuously swing, and in the pork industry weaning ages are often influx. The trend now is toward weaning pigs at older ages, mostly because it pays off in the finishing stage.

However, what age is the right weaning option for your system; and what are the best options to get you there?

Bob Goodband, Extension swine specialist at KansasStateUniversity, cites the results of two trials to identify the effects of weaning ages on pig growth performance and profitability. The first trial looked at pigs weaned at 12, 15, 18 and 21 days of age. In the second trial, pigs were weaned at 15.5, 18.5 and 21.5 days old. All were weaned from one sow farm on the same day and moved into the same all-in/all-out nursery site, as well as the finishing site. Each trial was completed in four blocks.

Researchers looked at growth performance, costs and revenue. The point was to collect specific economic returns for each weaning age.

One important point was that when selecting a weaning age, the researchers sampled the entire normal weight distribution within an age. “This replicates what you would do on your farm, because when you wean pigs, you wean the entire farrowing house,” explains Goodband.

In both trials, average daily gain in the nursery improved as weaning age increased. “When we moved from 15 to 21 days we saw about a 0.2-pound increase in average daily gain in both trials,” he reports.

There was a similar, but less dramatic, increase in finishing pigs’ average daily gain. “Looking at the overall wean-to-finish daily gain in this study, we go from 1.28 pounds average daily gain when pigs are weaned at 12 days to 1.5 pounds when they’re weaned at 21 days,” says Goodband.

Nursery mortality with 12-day-old weaned pigs was 5.25 percent compared to 0.54 percent for pigs weaned at 21 days.

“Bassically, we see increased improvement in average daily gain when weaning age increases,” says Goodband. “Most farms should see this kind of benefit, even for those that don’t have a high death loss.” There was little difference in finisher mortality among the different weaning ages.

In the first trial, the combined wean-to-finish mortality saw death loss go from 9.4 percent to 3.6 percent as weaning age moved from to 21 days. In the second trial, mortality declined from 3.9 percent to 2.5 percent when weaning age increased from 15.5 days to 21.5 days.

Because of mortality and average daily gain improvements in the first trial, production costs declined from $37.41 for pigs weaned at 12 days of age to $35.33 for pigs weaned at 21 days. That translated into a $2-per-pig savings. If the weaning age moved from 15 days to 21 days, another $1.50-per-pig savings occurred.

So, on a fixed-day system, a producer should see a reduction in production costs. Then, because he’s selling more pounds of pork, he should increase profits. “In the first trial, we saw a $7.19 profit for pigs weaned at 12 days and a $17.42 profit for pigs weaned at 21 days,” says Goodband.

“Not many producers are weaning as early as in the past,” he adds, “and they won’t change as dramatically as in the study (12 to 21 days), but it does tell us that there is a predictable increase in average daily gain as pigs are weaned older. If you can increase your weaning age one day or even a half day, you’ll see more pounds go out and more profit coming in.”

Here are some options to help you increase weaning age: 

  • Reduce the number of litters farrowed each week by reducing sow numbers. “That would buy you a couple of days,” says Goodband. But, he notes it’s not a popular option because it reduces finishing space utilization.
  • A short-term option would be to increase lactation space utilization. Such options would be to load the farrowing house closer to the actual expected farrowing date, clean and refill the farrowing house faster, and examine the feasibility of weaning on multiple days of the week.

Increasing lactation space efficiency will provide a $692.34 per week or a $36,000 annual increase in net value for each day that weaning age increases. “Weaning pigs three times a week instead of one or two will reduce the turn-around time when sows are weaned to when the farrowing house is refilled,” explains Goodband.

That’s the best option for many producers because they don’t have to build extra farrowing room and don’t have that capital expense. The challenge is where to find those small efficiency gains.

To add lactation space, Goodband offers perspective by looking at an example from a hypothetical 2,600-sow unit. It has 415 lactation crates, farrows 120 litters a week and weans 17.2-day-old pigs. “Increasing farrowing crates from 415 to 425 would create about a 0.6-pound daily gain in terms of increased weaning age,” he notes. “Taking into account the added expense, we are still looking at $420.12 per week ($21,846 per year) gained in value by selling heavier pigs for each day that’s added to the weaning age.”

“We see a lot of producers increasing weaning ages by increasing crate numbers,” says Goodband. “If you add another 20 crates, you can increase productivity by about 42 pounds per crate per week or 2,167 pounds per crate per year.”

Get away from the mindset of quantity versus quality of pigs, suggests Goodband. Look for opportunities to reduce costs and improve profitability.

So while the pendulum will always remain in motion, the challenge is to find a point that works best for you. n

By Roger Stevens, a freelance writer in Indianapolis, Ind.

Options to Consider

There are several ways to address your herd’s weaning age. Bob Goodband, KansasStateUniversity swine specialist, offers these additional recommendations if you want to evaluate your weaning ages.

  • Short-term, lactation space utilization. Examine if there are opportunities to better utilize your existing lactation crates. For example, examine the prospect of weaning pigs multiple times in a week. Also, load and turn farrowing crates around faster.
  • Long term. Increase the number of lactation crates. The cost/benefit of adding lactation space offers the greatest opportunity to move to older weaning ages. However, this will require you to look at refining sow productivity methods.