Reducing mortality and morbidity is a challenge during the pig’s post-weaning period. Of course, you want to avoid slow-growing pigs that fall behind and fail to reach the targeted final weight at the end of the nursery period.

The transition from the sow to the nursery phase is a tough one for the young pig, as the food supply and environment change drastically. While many factors impact nursery performance, the most common reason why some pigs do not perform well during this period is that they do not start eating feed right after weaning. Typically, these pigs do not eat because they do not drink water. Therefore, they become dehydrated and the spiral begins. They do not eat, they do not gain weight and they often get sick.

Some of these pigs will eventually learn to drink and eat on their own, but left unassisted they will never catch up to the pigs that started drinking and eating right after weaning. By taking a few relatively easy steps, you can help these pigs recover and catch up with the rest of the group.

Water intake = feed intake

To avoid the scenario outlined above, it is necessary to make sure that all pigs start drinking as soon as they have entered the nursery room. There’s not an effective way to monitor the water intake of each individual pig, but pigs that do not drink become dehydrated and, with some attention, can be easy to spot.

Signs of dehydration are easy to recognize within four to five days after weaning. These pigs are thinner than the rest of the group, their stomachs simply don’t look full and they’re often seen licking fluids from the slats. Dehydrated pigs frequently are the pigs that will be sucking on the navels of other pigs.

Special care and water

The only way to get dehydrated pigs to start eating is to make sure they start drinking. This can be accomplished if the affected pigs are moved to an empty pen as soon as you recognize that they are not drinking water. If these pigs are given a bit of special care and you provide water in a trough, they will typically respond quickly and start drinking. The trough should be filled with water manually, cleaned and refilled at least two times a day. The objective is to give the pigs easy access to clean water from a different source than the nipple waterer that they, for whatever reason, don’t like to use.

Sometimes it may be necessary to add some milk replacer to the water to entice the pigs to drink. As soon as these pigs have learned to drink, they will start eating. They also will then quickly learn to drink water from the nipple waterer. So, the troughs are only needed during the first two to three weeks.

Pigs in the pens with the water troughs are fed the Phase I diet until they have learned to drink and are eating well. They shouldn’t receive the Phase II diet until they’ve reached the same weight as the other pigs did when they were switched to this diet. That way both sets of pigs get the same quantities of the Phase I diet. Unless another issue surfaces, both pig groups will reach the targeted weight at the same time.

Empty pens are key

To execute the outlined strategy and to avoid losing pigs that are slow to learn to drink, you will need to leave some pens open as you restock the nursery or wean-to-finish facility.

Of course, the number of pens to leave open will vary between operations or even pig groups. In most cases, pigs that are slow to learn to drink and that require a separate pen will total 5 percent to 10 percent of all pigs. The important thing is that you make this space available and part of your management routine. The other important step is that all pigs are closely monitored during the immediate post-weaning period. Since dehydrated pigs usually show signs within four to five days after weaning, you should sort out affected animals and move them into the empty pens at that point. Keep a close eye on them during this period to look for signs of other issues that may be lingering and keeping these pigs from reaching their potential.