Nutritional Management of Nursery Pigs

By Eric van Heugten. Swine Nutrition Specialist, NCSU. Weaning is a stressful event for baby pigs.
calendar icon 30 September 2007
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Dr Eric van Heugten, Swine Nutrition Specialist, NCSU

First, piglets are moved from a known to an unknown environment and mixed with other piglets, creating both social and behavioral changes. Second, piglets are removed from the sow, which previously provided protection from diseases through antibodies in her milk. The immune system of the newly weaned pig is still relatively immature and, therefore, it is very susceptible to diseases. Third, the weaned piglet is switched from a liquid diet of sow milk to a solid feed. It needs to learn to consume the feed and has to develop the digestive capacity to break down the feed into nutrients that can be absorbed.

Sow Care

Feeding the sow correctly during lactation is critical to ensure healthy and heavy piglets at weaning. In addition to feeding the sow, supplying creep feed to the nursing piglet provides an opportunity to familiarize the piglet with solid feed and provide supplemental nutrition to sow milk. Creep feeding does not appear to be very effective for piglets weaned before 28 days of age because intake of creep feed will be very low. For pigs weaned after 28 days, you can use the feed intended as the first feed after weaning as a creep feed. Start with a clean, sanitized nursery room that has been preheated to approximately 85 to 90°F when weaning piglets. Remember, the immune system of weanling pigs is not fully developed and they are susceptible to pathogens in their new environment.

Tailor the Diet to the Pig

Provide the proper feed for the weight and age of pigs you are weaning. Piglets are used to sow milk, a highly digestible, specialized, energy-rich source of nutrients. Nutritionists have designed solid feeds that contain easy-to-digest ingredients that attempt to mimic sow milk. Plasma proteins, fish meal, milk proteins and lactose (whey products) are common ingredients in baby pig diets. These ingredients are very expensive, and so are the diets for newly weaned pigs. However, these complex feeds are essential to allow for a smooth transition from sow milk to solid feed and minimize the post-weaning growth lag and related profit losses. The complexity of the first diet depends on the weight and age of the pig. The younger and lighter the pig, the more complex (and expensive) the first weaning diet needs to be. As the pig grows, simplify the diet by reducing the amount of specialty ingredients and increasing the amount of corn and soybean meal. Assign a certain amount of feed to each pig before switching it to the next less-complex diet. For example, when using a three-phase nursery feeding program, feed 2 to 5 lb of the first starter diet per pig, followed by 10 to 15 lb of the second starter diet, and finish with 40 to 50 lb of the third starter diet. Feed more of the initial complex starter diet to the lightest pigs to allow them to adequately adjust to solid feed. The costs of complex starter diets fed immediately after weaning are high, but they are worth the investment. Feed cost is only part of the overall picture. The cost of the feed should be viewed relative to the value of improved pig growth performance. In addition, the amount of the first diet fed is very low. Therefore, it contributes less to the overall feed cost than you may think. The bottom line is net value (output minus input). Keep in mind that, generally, for every 1 lb of additional gain (due to good diets, feeding and management practices) in the nursery period, we expect an additional 2.5 lb at the end of the finisher period. When considering feeding programs, educate yourself and test them out. Many feed companies offer programs that allow you to test their products, which will allow you to make decisions based on actual performance in your facilities.

Maximize Feed Intake

Maximizing feed intake as soon as possible after weaning is critical to ensure top nursery pig growth performance. Make sure that pigs have feed in front of them at all times. That does not mean that the feed trough should be full. Closely manage feeders so that approximately half of the bottom of the feed trough is covered with feed. Start with the agitator plate set at a small gap width, and gradually increase the gap such that half of the feed trough is covered with feed. Feeders that are too full will lead to feed spoilage, fouling in feeders, and piglets rooting feed out of the feeders, which all increase wastage of feed and decrease profits. On the other hand, feeders that are set too tight may limit access to feed and consequently reduce growth. Observing the eating behavior of pigs in the first few days is important. Some pigs do not consume feed and can be easily identified by their fuzzy hair coat, sunken abdomen, and sunken eyes. If labor resources permit, paying special attention to these pigs may be cost effective. Feeding some feed on mats either “as is” or as gruel may help transition pigs to solid feed. However, wastage of feed will likely be high, and gruel feeding needs to be managed properly to avoid feed spoilage.

Ensure Adequate Water Intake

Nursing piglets meet their requirements for water by drinking milk. A source of clean, easily accessible water is essential because piglets that do not drink will not eat. Check drinkers often, clean cup drinkers daily, and make sure that water flow rate is adequate (at least 2 cups per minute). While good management practices are always important, they are especially critical in the nursery phase. Basic observation followed by quick attention to detail will help newly weaned pigs thrive.

August 2007
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