Give Weaned Pigs a Head Start

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As young pigs transition from sow to the nursery, they are at a vulnerable stage, and a healthy head start can prevent problems down the road. Providing a robust start for your weaned pigs can greatly increase the chances of maintaining improved growth rates throughout their growth cycle. Proper feed intake also can dramatically reduce the risk of enteric disease developing in the nursery phase. Certainly with today’s rising feed costs, now is a good time to review your nursery feeding strategies.

Research has shown a linear improvement in growth performance and mortality rates when weaning age increases from 12 days to 21 days. However, if you are weaning earlier than 21 days, a higher percentage of the piglets may weigh less than 8 pounds entering the nursery and may require a specialized diet.

“Feeding a more complex ‘intensive care’ diet can help improve feed intake for these small pigs,” says Robert Goodband, swine nutritionist, Kansas State University. Lactose, spray-dried animal plasma and other highly palatable ingredients will help increase weaned pigs’ feed intake.  However, because of the young pig’s limited ability to digest sucrose at birth, sugar should not be used in diets for pigs younger than 10 days of age. 

Studies show that increasing animal plasma in Phase 1 diets also increases daily gain. Most nutritionists include 4 percent to 7 percent animal plasma in the Phase 1 diet, depending on the other protein source combinations included. Since feed intake drives growth performance, watch pigs closely to identify those that are not eating within 48 hours after weaning. Pigs that are consuming feed will begin to have round abdomens; pigs that have not begun to eat will be gaunt.

Providing creep feeding a week prior to weaning can help acclimate pigs to solid feed in the nursery. Creep feeding needs to be done on a daily basis with fresh feed that has been stored in a cool, dry environment. According to Kansas State research, creep feed can provide an alternative nutritional source to small, less competitive piglets and improve litter weaning weights and survivability. The research also shows that creep-feed acceptance depends more on the piglets’ maturity rather than age at which creep feeding is initiated. The same diet used for creep feeding can be used for the first few days after weaning, Goodband says.  

Despite your best efforts to get weaned pigs to eat, you may still have to teach a few proper feeding behavior. Identify and mark pigs that are not eating within 36 to 60 hours after weaning. “Each pig not consuming feed should be hand-fed by carefully placing a small amount of wet, pelleted feed in the pig’s mouth,” Goodband says. “Then, gently put the pig down next to a feeder so the pig associates the feeder with the food it’s eating.”

A syringe with the tip removed also can be used to dose individual pigs with gruel. Both methods must be performed with care and patience, Goodband stresses. Providing as little as 20 to 30 grams of feed will help prevent starvation.

To draw attention to feed and provide adequate space for just-weaned pigs, feeding boards or mats can help. However, it’s important that pigs at this critical growth stage are not limit-fed. Feed should be available in the feeders at all times, with 50 percent of the feeder pan covered and with no feed accumulating in the corners.

Take care to avoid feed waste. Feeding mats should be removed from the pen once pigs are eating readily from the feeder, typically three to four days after weaning. Make sure all pigs have adequate access to feeders.

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Phase 1 and Phase 2 diets are the most expensive; however, the feed efficiency gains and transitional benefits usually make the higher cost justifiable. “If piglets are heavier or older at weaning, the amount of these more complex diets fed after weaning may be reduced,” says Joel De Rouchey, Kansas State swine nutritionist.

For pigs weighing 15 pounds at weaning, or perhaps for the very heaviest pigs within a group, the Phase 1 diet should be budgeted at a lesser amount while the Phase 2 diet can be eliminated completely.

Feeding Phase 1 and Phase 2 diets can be handled on an individual pen basis while Phase 3 (pigs at 15 to 25 pounds) and Phase 4 (25 to 50 pounds) diets should be budgeted to the average weight of the entire group. Kansas State researchers provide expected feed-use guidelines as a way to minimize feeding too much of expensive starter diets. (See accompanying sidebar.)

Fish meal, blood meal, poultry meal or porcine digest are often used as highly digestible protein sources to encourage nursery pigs to eat. However, since prices for some ingredients have nearly doubled in the past year, you may need some substitutes — provided pig performance doesn’t suffer. The researchers found that replacing specialty protein sources with crystalline amino acids in nursery diets provides an economic advantage. Tryptophan, at a minimum of 16.5 percent of lysine, and valine, at 65 percent of lysine, were fed in place of fish meal without losing growth performance.

It’s important to balance diets on a digestible basis. “Keeping the crude protein:SID lysine ratio below 7.35 offers optimum performance,” Goodband says.

Pellets or Meal?
With feed prices at all-time highs, reducing waste is a priority. With meal diets, feed wastage will be approximately 20 percent greater and daily gain slightly lower compared to pelleted or crumbled diets, according to Kansas State research.

While a few studies suggest little difference in pig performance between meal and pelleted diets, most studies favor pelleting nursery diets, Goodband notes. Pelleting reduces feed waste for Phase 1 and Phase 2 diets.

“We recommend pelleting these diets; a small diameter 3/32- or 1/8-inch pellet or crumble should be used,” he says. However, take care to prevent nutrient degradation in the pelleting process. Typically, a 4 percent to 5 percent fat level is sufficient to lubricate the pellet die. A high-quality fat source, such as choice white grease, should serve as the main fat source, Goodband adds.

Phase 3 and Phase 4 diets can be fed as a meal or pellet. Still, feed efficiency will be 5 percent to 8 percent better with a pelleted diet over a meal diet.

By carefully reviewing your weaning and feeding strategies, you can help young pigs get a head start on their long-term performance. You may even be able to reduce costs while improving performance — both of which are worthwhile objectives.


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