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Livestock Production
Monday, September 15, 2003 1:48:28 PM
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Size Matters -The Three Phases of 'The Start Of A Lifetime' - Stage One


Dr Mike Varley - SCA United Kingdom



Stage One - Maximising Birth Weights


The Start Of A Lifetime



The way a baby piglet grows in its very early life can have a very significant impact on the ultimate growth rate all the way through to slaughter at around 100 plus kg liveweight.  Any reduction in the achievement of growth potential from birth through the post-weaning period has an amplified effect on growth through to slaughter. Until recently, there have been few trials demonstrating this effect and most of these were conducted either pre-1985 or were carried out in North American where management conditions and dietary programmes are quite different to those in the UK and Australia/New Zealand. 


With data generated from SCA's Green Hill Feed Evaluation Farm, we have been able to demonstrate quite clearly, that in order to maximise overall productivity, piglets should be given 'The Start Of A Lifetime'. This means, in effect, that to sustain excellence in pig performance all the way through to 100 plus kg, the piglet must be given appropriate inputs of nutrition and management at the beginning of its life and this should be seen as an important investment for the pig's future and the enterprise's profitability. The payback on this initial investment comes many times over in terms of enhanced growth performance and efficiency of gain through to slaughter.


There are a number of key reasons why improving early growth has long term effects throughout the pig's life:

    • Firstly the absolute maximum growth potential is set by the genetics of the individual pig and at any stage of growth the daily liveweight gain, seen in the next immediate phase, is determined by the weight already achieved.  In other words if a young pig is well grown at the start then it will carry on being a fast growing pig later on in life.
    • Secondly a young fast growing piglet will also tend to be a healthy piglet because its immune system is boosted by rapid growth.  This good immune status, coupled with a low sub-clinical disease burden, carries a biological momentum that allows the pig to stay healthy at later stages of growth. All of this again helps the fast growing piglet to be a fast growing finisher pig.

The three phases of 'The Start Of A Lifetime'


There are three phases of pig management that must be correct to ensure that early performance will impact and enhance lifetime performance.  

1.   Phase One.  Good birth weights, which are achieved via excellence in sow feeding and management.


2.   Phase Two.  Maximise weaning weights via good growth rates in nursing piglets. Creep feeding and the management of the lactating sow are of vital importance.


3.   Phase Three. The expression of high growth rates following weaning, with a minimum growth check. This is of paramount importance to maximise growth rate through to slaughter.

Phase One The importance of maximising birth weights.


It has long been recognised that the better a piglet's birth weight, the better the pig will perform throughout its lifetime.  In order to maximise birth weights the nutrition of the sow has to be correct.  It has been well documented that in the last three weeks of gestation the weight of the foetus within the womb almost doubles and growth rates in excess of 90 grams per day are believed possible in some instances.  This final part of gestation is therefore crucial to achieve good overall birth weights.


With this in mind many producers are advised to increase the feeding rate from day 90 from 2.0-2.5 kg of feed up to 3.5 kg of feed.  In some instances a specific lactation feed or a high nutrient density supplement can be introduced at this stage in order to maximise nutrient intake.


Evidence on the importance of birth weight and its effects on subsequent performance has been demonstrated in the following study from Provimi's Green Hill Farm in the UK.


A total of 266 piglets were monitored from birth through to weaning at 23 days of age; creep feed being introduced at 10 days of age.  Statistical analyses of these data indicated that 37% of the variation in weaning weight is accounted for by the birth weight.  On average an improvement in birth weight of 0.5 kg equated to an improvement in weaning weight in excess of 1 kg. 


In subsequent articles in this series we will describe how higher weaning weights and improved post-weaning gain will continue to give growth benefits all the way through until slaughter weight.  In this present article we will focus on the aspects of birth weight that are important in this complete chain of events.


Birth weight is of course important not only because of its long-term effects on growth but also because of the immediate influence on the survival prospects of the piglet. Piglets with a birth weight of over 1.2 kg have definite survival advantages over litter mates that are below 1 kg at birth. This has been demonstrated in many surveys in the past and especially from the work of Dr Peter English at Aberdeen University.  


 Figure1 The relationship between birth weight and weaning weight.  (Green Hill Farm, 1999) 



It is also clear that the variation in birth weight within a litter is important.   Whilst the average weight of piglets born may be acceptable there can still be a wide variation in weights.  Obviously, this will affect the performance of the herd through to slaughter, so evenness of the litter is the key. Those litters with low levels of birth weight variation will tend to be the ones where far fewer piglets are lost before weaning. It is also evident that litters with a low degree of birth weight variation tend to show maximum litter weight gains during the time they are on the sow. This is because the between piglet competition is reduced within even litters, and all piglets are able to compete in an equally robust manner for space at the teat and so receive similar amounts of sows milk.


Data from Green Hill Farm taken during the spring of 2000 clearly demonstrates this

point (Figure 2).  The graph plots an index of the total variation in birth weight within a litter, against the average weaning weight ultimately expressed by the piglets within a litter.  In this study, a variation of 0.4 is equivalent to a range of birth weights (between the lightest and heaviest) of less than 1 kg, whereas a value of 0.6 is equivalent to a range between the lightest and heaviest birth weights of 1.5 kg.  It is also evident from these data (Figure 2.) that a difference of only 0.5 kg in birth weight variation can lead to litter weight differences of 0.8 kg at weaning thereby exacerbating the litter size variation problems.


Figure 2. The effect of within litter variation* in birth weight on weaning weight

*Variation is expressed as standard deviations


Clearly the objective must be to produce piglets with both high average birth weights but also with a low variability within the litter.  This is easier said than done in practice, but the following simple checklist will help to optimise both of these parameters in the commercial sow herd.


Enhancing Piglet Birth Weights - C A Check List 

1.   Ovulation rate.  Ensure good ovulation rates through flushing the sow post-weaning.  This is achieved by feeding 4-5 kg of good quality sow feed (or even feeding ad libitum) from weaning until first service.  Some producers have recently tried feeding a starter feed in this phase with encouraging results.  We must be cautious in advocating this on farm if the creep is medicated or contains growth promoters. The possibility of feeding a high nutrient density supplement may also offer an option here.


2.   Avoiding Stress Factors.  Apart from when the sow is weaned, when the mixing of sows may be used as an aid to induce heat, stress factors should be kept to a minimum.  With more and more sows now housed in loose housing systems, repeated mixing should be avoided, since this can trigger abortions, especially at critical stages, including 10 to 18 days post weaning. 

3.   Implantation.  Ensure implantation is maximised by reducing daily feed rate after second service or insemination, to 1.8-2.0kg and using a low lysine diet (0.55%), for up to 28 days post weaning.  If sow condition is poor feed to condition after this time rather than before.


4.   Increased Feed Rate During Late Gestation.  Increase feed rate in later gestation (day 90 onwards) to up to 3-3.5 kg per day and feed or supplement to condition, if necessary, at this time.


5.   Lactation feeding.  Maintain high levels of intake of good quality feed in the farrowing house so sow condition does not dip excessively prior to weaning.  Whilst there are no hard and fast rules as to which feed strategy is correct, the favoured approach is to build feed rate up slowly from the day of farrowing by 0.5 kg per day, until maximum intakes are achieved.  From day 10 onwards sows cannot really be overfed and generally the greater the feed intake the greater the potential for milk production.


6.   Water Intake. As with all classes of pig, water intake and its quality are critical to ensure maximum performance.  The dry sow in late pregnancy requires at least 20-25 litres of water a day and the importance of achieving this level of consumption cannot be underestimated. Consumption in hot conditions can be much higher and the importance of quality even grater. It is very often the case that the water delivery rates in dry sow housing systems are totally inadequate to meet water requirements. Poor water intake leads to poor feed intakes and targets will not be met.  As well as ensuring that the water supply is adequate, check the water temperature in summer. Treating water lines to reduce E.Coli build up may also be advantageous.


7.   Cross Fostering. This can be used effectively to reduce the variation in piglet weights normally seen within litters.  Batch farrowing can provide enough litters farrowing down at once to make this task easier. Prudent use of sow milk replacers can also have a similar effect on variation.  



The Start of a Lifetime requires that the complete sequence of individual events from birth to bacon is completed with precision and with meticulous attention. Any shortfall at any stage of growth will have very serious deleterious 'knock-on' consequences all the way through the rest of the growing cycle. Conversely, if we can achieve high birth weighs coupled with high weaning weights, then this has very significant advantages in growth all the way through to slaughter. The right start at birth can sometimes seem difficult to achieve but the pointers given above are possible factors to examine and consider carefully to achieve success.


The careful management of birth weight itself and the variations in birth weight can yield dividends through the whole life of the growing pig. It is also necessary to emphasise the benefits that accrue from getting this right in terms of neonatal mortality. Good post-natal care has been given attention in many articles in the past, but the factors for success still hold true today. Good creep area design and management with the provision of heat lamps that are located correctly and of course, at the end of the day, it is the quality of stockmanship that makes or breaks the system.



Link to Part Two of This Article


Link to Part Three of This Article



About The Author:


Dr Mike Varley  BSc PhD F.I.Biol C.Biol. R.Nutr.


Mike Varley was raised on an arable and pig farm in Yorkshire, England and has worked in the pig industry all his life.  He worked as a student not only on the family farm but also on a large pig farming company based in the Holderness Area of Yorkshire where the pig industry in the UK is focussed.  He also worked for PIC as a student as a research assistant.


He was educated initially at Newcastle University where he was awarded an Honours degree in Animal Science. He went on to Nottingham University to complete a PhD in reproductive physiology with early-weaned sows and completed this programme in 1976.  After 4 years lecturing experience in the South West of England at Plymouth University he went back to a research career at the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland.  He spent 6 years at the Rowett Institute working on a variety of projects (reproduction in early-weaned sows, applied immunology with early-weaned piglets and basic nutrition with early-weaned piglets).


In 1985 he moved back to England to Leeds University in the Department of Animal Physiology and Nutrition where he spent the next 12 years working in university teaching and pig research. Projects included work with sows and young piglets in nutrition and immunology and also with projects concerned with animal behaviour and welfare. During his academic work he has travelled widely around the pig producing world including lecture tours and visits in North America, Australia, New Zealand, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, South America and all around Europe.


In 1997 Mike left the academic world after producing numerous books and around 150 scientific papers and moved to the commercial world first with NuTec UK and then with SCA Nutrition in Yorkshire, both parts of Provimi Ltd.


Background interests have included soccer and rugby football and more recently cycling and hill walking using the Yorkshire Dales and the Cumbrian Lake District.  He has also been known occasionally to sample some of the excellent beers brewed in Yorkshire. Mike is married with two boys both now at university themselves.

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