Tips to keep more baby pigs alive

calendar icon 12 April 2022
clock icon 9 minute read

Editor's note: This content was developed in partnership with Trouw Nutrition to share the latest scientific insights and proven practices for the early-life stage. LifeStart Swine is a new industry knowledge platform facilitated by Trouw Nutrition. It’s your one-stop shop for up-to-the-minute knowledge and real-world advice – all supported by the LifeStart community of experts.

Keeping more piglets alive and healthy starts by farrowing a uniform litter size. To achieve this, you need to begin in the previous lactation of the sow by encouraging good feed intake, so at weaning the sow is in good body score condition, which is the basis for good health status and sets the stage for her next lactation. In the following interview with Peter Smid, Technical Director at Trouw Nutrition, learn more about why body condition is so important for the sow, management tips to keep baby pigs alive, how to boost colostrum and how to keep pigs from nursery through weaning.

“If the sow has been well fed during lactation, then she will have a good body score condition to start with which means she'll be focusing on reproduction,” said Smid. “If she's lost too much weight, she'll focus first on body repair which will result in smaller litters and less uniform litters, because the egg cells will not be as uniformly developed.”

The luteinizing hormone, which acts on the ovaries to make follicles release their eggs and prepare the uterus for a fertilized egg to be implanted, will not be a short high peak, rather it will, over time, be more broad and lower. This means some egg cells will pop out in the beginning of the process and some later, which is the cause for the loss of uniformity. The moment the eggs get into the uterus, they will compete with each other, thus the early arrivers have a head start, and uniformity or non-uniformity is determined at the very beginning.

“The average birth weight can be steered much more at the end of gestation,” said Smid. “About 60% of the body weight of piglets is put on in the last month of gestation, but uniformity is a different matter. It requires the right preparation for the sow.”

Feeding management

To monitor body condition score, measure back fat during the gestation cycle to determine if your feeding strategy is working.

“It’s especially important to measure how much back fat sows are losing in the farrowing houses as it’s also connected to weaning age,” he said. “If you wean at three weeks versus four weeks, it's a major difference. During that extra week, the sows can really lose a lot of extra back fat.”

The second step in the process is to keep the sow healthy and fit around farrowing time, including trying to get them to drink plenty of water to prevent constipation.

“Generally, about one week before farrowing sows will be put into the farrowing houses and will receive lactation feed simply out of convenience,” he explained. “There's usually only one feeding system so it's lactation feed which means the sow goes from a hind gut digestion with a lot more fiber to a small intestinal digestion, which is a huge shift for the sow. Suddenly, the sow must digest much more starch fat instead of fermenting fibers in the hind gut. Simply put, there's less fiber in the diet and they become constipated.”

Manure around farrowing time should always be soft - not diarrhea, but smooth. If round hard balls are seen, that's a very clear indication that a sow is constipated. Constipation in sows means there is no out flush of microbes. The microbes, like E. coli, stay in the hind gut and keep fermenting and multiplying. As they multiply, they also produce toxins.

“As a result, the sows will not feel very well and the birthing process will take much longer,” Smid said. “The piglets will suffer more and be weaker, and there will be more stillborn piglets. Also, the colostrum production will be impaired.”

There are two ways to manage sow constipation:

  1. Around or before farrowing encourage sows to drink more by putting additional water in the trough.
  2. Supply additionally 0.5 kg a day of wheat bran or a suitable fiber source in the last days before farrowing, to ensure they get more fiber in their diet.

“The downside is that it's additional manual work,” he noted. “Experience has taught us to not reduce feed around farrowing. There are some farmers that believe the digestive tract must be empty because the piglets need to get out, but that will stimulate constipation and will bring sows into a negative energy balance. So, it's better to keep feeding at least three kg per day.”

Sow diet during gestation

A high fiber diet is quite positive in the beginning of the gestation and provides a better retention of embryos, and thus a positive effect on the number of piglets born. The sows likely feel fuller because the feed is bulkier and that keeps them calmer and less stressed.

Ideally, feed a high fiber stage one gestation diet, and for the second part of gestation or the last month, feed a lower fiber gestation diet.

Monitor barn temperature

Don't make the farrowing houses too warm because it can reduce sow feed intake. Because a sow cannot sweat when it's too warm, there are only two ways for her to deal with heat stress:

  1. Panting
  2. Reducing feed intake to produce less heat

“At temperatures above 22°C (72°F), a sow will compensate by eating less, so that’s the warmest it should ever be in a farrowing house,” he said. “Ideally, the temperature would be 20°C (68°F).”

Balance between immunity and infection

When considering the balance between immunity and infection, it depends on your location and the density of pigs in the region. For example, the UK is a mountainous island with a low density of pigs.

“Their strategy should not be really about keeping a balance - their strategy should be to keep all the diseases infectious pressure out. Period,” he said. “Whereas if you would look on the map of pig density in western Europe, then you will see a dense belt of pig production going from Brittany in the northwest of France to Belgium, the Netherlands, to the northwest of Germany, and then to Denmark. There, you cannot keep disease out because the wind will blow in every direction. Thus, in a high pig population area, the approach should be maintaining a balance between infection level and immunity.”

Several products are available that stimulate the general immune system and when applied correctly, they do demonstrate strong results, he noted. It’s important to ensure immune status is robust but not overdone.

“In Europe, use of vaccinations, for instance, should be considered to maintain that balance,” he noted.

Boosting colostrum output

With large litters, producers must make sure that the late-comers and the small piglets receive enough colostrum in the first 24 hours.

“What we've seen in our research is that piglets need a minimum quantity of colostrum in order to thrive, stay healthy and have a strong defense,” he said. “To have more than the minimum quantity of colostrum would be nice, but the extra colostrum does not have a huge impact on piglet health. For example, giving one piglet three times as much will not benefit so much as making sure all the piglets have the minimum quantity.”

Thus, uniformity and colostrum distribution are critical. If a producer is struggling with large litters, a management tool can be to separate the heavier piglets and put them under the warm lamp so they cannot get to the sow, so the other piglets also get a chance to get to the sow and get colostrum.

“In principle I'd preferred to keep the litter together as moving piglets can distribute disease and create stress, but it's not always possible due to the larger litters. So I’d advise producers to move some of the piglets to a third-cycle, healthy sow that already has good thriving piglets and thus has good milk production,” he explained.

A few tips:

  • The first rule is always keep piglets within the same department.
  • Piglets should get a uniform amount of colostrum from their birth sow; movement occurs on day 2
  • Choose a healthy third-cycle sow, preferably one that has been in production two to three days after farrowing
  • Move the smaller piglets to the third-cycle sow, so they do not have to compete with bigger litter mates
  • Try to make sure that all the teats are used as an unused teat will produce significantly less milk in the next cycle

Keep piglets eating

Given the large litters producers see – 15 to 17 piglets per sow are not uncommon in many parts of the world. As a result, there are often more piglets than available teats, making sow milk production a limiting factor for growth. Essentially, the piglets can drink more and grow faster than the sows can produce milk. Offering dry feed is an accepted option, however, there is still lost potential.

“The piglets will not have the weaning weights that they could possibly have at a certain age, and they will not have the preparation before weaning because with dry feed they will only eat a small amount - like 200 - 250 grams per piglet over the entire lactation phase,” he noted. “If they eat more, that would be a very clear indication that the sow's milk production is lacking.”

How do you bridge the gap between the potential of the piglets and the production capacity of the sows as well as preparing for weaning? Milk products are available, but the downside is there's always the risk that it goes through the piglet too fast and leads to diarrhea.

“What I prefer is to provide a feed form like yogurt which is a bit thicker that, in my experience, results in less diarrhea and piglets can look at it as a dessert – if you've not had enough to eat, you take a little bit extra dessert. The best way to do it is with a watering can and an open bowl given three times a day,” he said.

Smid said he’s seen a farm do this using the yogurt for the first 12 days then, the producer mixed 10% of yogurt with the weaner feed and made a porridge that he would provide for the rest of the period.

“It takes a lot of work, but really prepares the piglets as they should be at weaning,” he said. “The producer was weaning at 25-26 days, and he saw 1.5 kg of dry feed equivalent intake per piglet over the whole lactation and 0.5 kg heavier weaning weights. That's the best preparation you can possibly get.”

You might also be interested in these articles:

Accelerating gut maturity with dietary fibre

Precision sow nutrition for optimal piglet performance

Sarah Mikesell


Sarah Mikesell grew up on a five-generation family farming operation in Ohio, USA, where her family still farms. She feels extraordinarily lucky to get to do what she loves - write about livestock and crop agriculture. You can find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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