A Successful Nursery Nutrition Program

Contributed by Bob Goodband, London Swine Conference 2006 Presentation, Summary by Cydney Keith and published by Hypor - There are many strategies for feeding weaned pigs, but a recent article by five scientists from Kansas State University helps to clarify some of the most important points to ensure a successful nursery nutrition program.
calendar icon 17 July 2006
clock icon 8 minute read

First: it’s best to start with as heavy and old a pig as feasible.

Second: switch from complex to simple diets as quickly as possible.

Third: provide good management -- start pigs promptly on feed and water and continually monitor and adjust feeders.

Increasing Weaning Age

According to the Kansas State U scientists, (Main et al, 2004, 2005), research indicates that increasing weaning age through 21 days linearly will increase growth rate and reduce mortality from weaning to market. More specifically, “linear improvements in growth and mortality rate largely occurred in the initial 42 days post-weaning period, with some ongoing growth improvements in finishing performance.

Financial performance improved linearly as weaning age increased up to 21.5 days.” The studies measured ADG, mortality, off-test weight per day of age, and weight sold per pig weaned. Ultimately, the studies suggest increasing weaning age up to 21.5 days to improve wean-to-finish growth performance in a multi-site production system.

Switch From Complex to Simple Diets As Quickly As Possible

Diet formulation for feeding weaned pigs should be designed with certain key considerations in mind: 1) feed intake drives growth performance; 2) complex diets with specialty ingredients are beneficial during the first few weeks after weaning because they increase feed intake; and 3) diet complexity must be reduced rapidly as the impact on feed intake declines.

When preparing nursery diet formulations, there are some common pitfalls to avoid. One problem is selecting ingredients that are highly digestible but not highly palatable. Another problem is using whey or protein sources that are not high quality. Using high fiber ingredients in an attempt to help gut health is another pitfall. And finally, feeding complex, expensive diets longer than necessary is something to avoid.

Feed Budgeting:

An effective nursery nutrition program aims to transition pigs to a low cost, grain-soybean meal-based diet as quickly as possible after weaning without sacrificing growth performance, regardless of the number of diet phases used. Research suggests that a four-phase program offers the greatest success even when pigs are weaned older and heavier.

7 TO 11 kKG
At this weight, the diet is typically a grain-soybean meal-base diet with 7 to 10 percent high-quality lactose and a small amount of specialty protein source, such as spray-dried blood meal or high-quality fishmeal.

For U.S. producers, growth-promoting antibiotics and zinc oxide are often used at this point. Research has shown that 2,000 ppm zinc is the optimal inclusion level (Smith et al, 1999), and when zinc is used for growth promotion, high levels of copper sulfate are not necessary (Smith et al, 1997). Typically, 7 kg of feed is budgeted for pigs during this phase.

11 TO 23 KG
This diet will be a simple grain-soybean meal diet without any specialty protein products or lactose sources, resembling a grow-finish diet. The digestive capacity of pigs this weight means that specialty products are unnecessary, and including them will only increase the feed cost per pig with no added benefits.

Growth promotion levels of zinc should not be used in this phase. Instead, copper sulfate at 125 or 250 ppm of complete diet will meet with more success.

This is the lowest-cost diet in the nursery program, but since consumption is greatest at this stage, it accounts for more than half of the total feed cost from weaning to 23 kg. Typically, 20 to 23 kg of feed is budgeted for pigs during this last phase.

According to the Kansas State U scientists, it is critical to practice strict discipline when using a feed budget to prevent overfeeding of the more expensive nursery diets past the desired weight range. Often this is the cause of high feed costs in the nursery.

Feed Ingredients and Animal Management

Ingredients and Ingredient Quality
While adding fat to the diet will depend on its cost, it is routinely added to SEW and Transition diets because these diets are often pelleted. Added fat helps to lubricate the pellet die and helps increase its quality. For pigs greater than 7 kg, added fat often produces improvements in average daily gain and feed efficiency. A range of three to five percent added fat is a common recommendation. Fat sources should be good quality: white grease or plant oil, such as soybean oil, is recommended. Fat from beef tallow, poultry fat, and restaurant fats should be avoided.

High-quality protein such as spray-dried animal plasma and blood meal, fishmeal and lactose sources should be purchased from reputable sources to ensure quality is not a limiting nutritional factor in nursery pig diets.

Proper Nursery Pig Management
Even the best nursery diet cannot compensate for poor management. Pigs entering the nursery need to have continual access to both water and feed. Common mistakes in nursery management are:

  1. not making feed and water easy for the pigs to find after weaning;

  2. treating starve-out pigs with antibiotics rather than helping them find feed and water;

  3. having too much feed in feed pans leading to spoiled and wasted feed.
Water and Feed Access
Newly weaned pigs dehydrate rapidly, and should have easy access to drinking water. Regardless of method, proper positioning and sanitation of watering devices are essential. It's important to set them to trickle water for the first 12 to 24 hours after pigs are placed in the nursery, so that the pigs can find the water source. Also, nipple drinkers should be adjusted so that the nipple is shoulder height of the pig.

To maximize feed intake, pigs should be provided unrestricted access to feed. Research has shown that limit feeding increases the risk of diarrhea, and is also a frequent cause of reduced nursery exit weights. Once pigs have started on feed, feeders need to be adjusted often to reduce wastage and achieve excellent feed efficiency.

Social interaction between piglets while eating is also important. A properly designed feeder is one without solid partitions, encouraging proper social interaction and maximum feed intake. Feeding mats are useful at this stage, but must not be kept in the nursery too long, or they can lead to feed wastage and increased disease risk.

Feeder Adjustment
Proper and frequent feeder adjustments are the keys to excellent feed efficiency and low feed costs in the nursery. That means the feed gate in all feeders should be closed before placement of the first pellets; it should then be opened so that only a small amount of feed is visible in the feed pan. More specifically, about "50 per cent of the feeding pan should be visible in the first few days after weaning," to help pigs become accustomed to the location of the feed. Then the feed in the feeding pan should be decreased to less than 25 per cent coverage.

Identifying Starve-Outs
Although weaning older pigs will reduce starve-out pigs, it will not eliminate them. It's imperative to identify those pigs at risk and teach them where and how to eat. The most critical time to identify and assist pigs is within 30 hours after weaning.

The main signs to help identify starve-out pigs include:
  • mental status: depressed

  • body condition: thin

  • abdominal shape: gaunt

  • skin: fuzzy

  • appetite: huddled with no activity at the feeder

  • signs of dehydration: sunken eyes.
Pen Space
Since one of the largest advantages that the scientists observed with later weaning "is the improvement in pig growth rate, both in the nursery and finishing stages," it means that nursery pen space must be managed carefully. "With higher initial weight and the expected increase in growth rate, space allotments per pig need to be adjusted accordingly."

Sorting Pigs by Weight
A recent study by Tokach et al in 2003 showed that sorting pigs by weight had no advantage on final weight on the percentage of cull and removed pigs. The Kansas State U scientists indicate that this could even have some negative effects on growth rate. The researchers do, however, recommend that the 10 to 15 per cent of the lightest pigs, including any lame, runt, ruptures or other pigs requiring specialized attention and care, be placed into "hospital" or "disadvantaged pig" pens, and be allowed increased amounts of the initial starter diets.

They note an exception, however, if you will be feeding the entire room or each individual pen a different feed budget, or managing individual pens of pigs differently (ie. Vaccinations, environmental modifications, etc) then it is probably worth the added labour to sort pigs by weight.

Creep Feeding
The scientists point out that the effectiveness of creep feeding is a controversial area, and more research needs to be done. However, if producers do decide to offer creep feed to pigs, supplying a high-quality starter diet equivalent to a SEW diet for earlier-weaned pigs is recommended. They note that creep feed must be kept fresh and in feeders or troughs to prevent excess wastage, and that if not managed properly, creep feeding is likely to increase costs beyond the returns.

Eating After Weaning


A successful nutrition program for older weaned pigs is similar to that for younger weaning ages, and it’s absolutely critical to get them started on feed as soon as possible. Ultimately, producers who have high nursery feed intake, follow strict nursery feed budgets, use high-quality ingredients and maximize sow lactation feed intake will also maximize profitability.

Source: Hypor - July 2006

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