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Livestock Production
Wednesday, September 17, 2003 6:43:30 PM
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Size Matters-The Three Phases of 'The Start Of A Lifetime' - Phase Two
Dr Mike Varley - SCA United Kingdom



Phase Two-The Importance of Weaning Weights


In the first of these articles reviewing the three phases of the Start of a Lifetime, the importance of birth weight was examined. Here in this second article, the importance of maximising weaning is covered.


Creep Feed - Get them going for growth


The second period when size really matters is when the piglets are suckling on the sow. Milk production varies enormously from sow to sow and has a significant bearing on weaning weights. In addition litter size inevitably varies greatly even despite the use of cross fostering techniques to even out the differences.  This leads to big variations in the level of nutrition to individual piglets.


This variation has been recognised for some years and it is also well understood that it can be overcome by the use of creep feed supplements to overcome the vagaries of the sow's milk production.  A high quality creep feed such as one of the Startrite diets that are palatable, readily eaten and highly digestible can even out much of this variation. 


Between litter variation in creep intakes depends on both the acceptability of the diet by the piglet and the manner in which it is offered and presented. Management and stockperson skills are of paramount importance. Hygiene, frequency of feeding, trough design, water access and trough location are all facets of this objective that need to be managed carefully in order to maximise weaning weights.


This was demonstrated in some recent work carried out at SCA's Green Hill Farm unit. Using two groups of 20 sows per treatment, Startrite 90 was introduced from 10 days of age to one group of pigs whereas the other group received only sow's milk.  By weaning at 24 days there was over one kilogram difference in weight between the two groups (Figure 1). 

Figure 1   The Benefit Of Creep Feeding On Weaning Weight



It must be pointed out that all sows were fed exactly the same.  Normally individual sows would be fed differently to maximize milk production and to minimise weight loss by the sow.  However the differences in weaning weight in this trial were still exceptional.  Further analysis of the data recorded at Green Hill Farm, which included over 6000 piglets during 1999 showed that there was a positive correlation between the quantity of creep feed consumed pre weaning and weaning weight (Figure 2).


Figure 2   The effect of creep intake on weaning weight



Piglets that consumed less than 400 grams of creep feed before weaning were weaned some 400 grams lighter at approximately 7.8 kg compared to piglets that had consumed 600 grams of creep feed that were weaned at about 8.3 kg.


Furthermore the data clearly showed that piglets which received creep feed prior to weaning had a markedly better growth rate in the immediate post-weaning period.  Post-weaning gain in the first seven days post-weaning was increased from 180 grams per day to 240 grams per day as a result of increasing creep feed intake from 400 to 600 grams per piglet in total (Figure 3).

Figure 3   The effect of creep intake on post-weaning daily gain




Piglets that receive creep food prior to weaning  not only had increased weaning weights that directly lead to better post-weaning performance, but will also have enhanced post-weaning performance due to their enhanced digestive system.  Piglets that have had experience of creep feed are not so challenged by the process of weaning and are familiar with the smell and taste of the post-weaning diet and have better development of the enzymes needed to digest their food. 


The importance of weaning weight is really seen when we look at its impact on the whole lifetime performance of the pig up to slaughter. Data collated for all pigs from Green Hill Farm during 1999 have been analysed in this way. There was a very strong degree of relationship between weaning weight and the weight of pigs 7 days after weaning. The bigger pigs at weaning are the fastest growing pigs immediately after weaning.



Figure 4   The effect of weaning weight on weight 7 days post-weaning



All this leads to the inevitable conclusion that maximising weaning weight is an important component in ensuring piglets experience a minimum of post-weaning growth check and maximum post-weaning daily liveweight gain.


The data illustrated in Figure 5 from the same study show how weaning weight not only influences daily liveweight gain in the first week after weaning but this effect continues on.  These data show the growth rates (average daily liveweight gains) during the period between 7 days post-weaning and 25 days post-weaning. Clearly there is a strong positive relationship here and every extra increment of weaning weight adds on extra growth. 


Clearly maximising pre-weaning performance to optimise weaning weight has benefits in realising the full genetic potential of pigs. There is a check list (given below) that deserves full attention in achieving this.


Figure 5   The effect of weaning weight on post-weaning Daily Liveweight Gain


A check list for building better weaning weights 

1.  Feeding the dry sow.  An improvement of 250 grams in birth weight is worth 0.5 kg at 25 days post partum.  Feed intake should be increased from day 90 onwards to around 3-3.5 kg per day having restricted intake in earlier pregnancy to a maximum of 2.5 kg per sow per day dependent on condition.  This will help to promote feed intake in lactation.


2.  Feeding the sow during lactation.  Maximising milk production is the most efficient way of maximising pre-weaning growth rate.  Feed intake should be gradually stepped up from 1 kg a day on the day of parturition to ad libitum intake by day 14-18, using a specialist lactation diet.  The D.E. content of the diet should be 13.5-14.0 MJ/kg, with a lysine concentration of 0.9-1.0%.


3.  Water supply for sows.  Ensure the sow has good access to fresh clean water at all times.  Flow rates should be 1.5-2.5 litres per minute through a nipple or nose drinker. If necessary fill the feed hopper with additional water following morning and afternoon feeds.


4.  Ensure adequate colostrum intake.  Colostrum is the first milk produced by the sow within the first 24-36 hours after birth and, contains the immunoglobulins needed to protect piglets against disease until their own immune systems are fully functional.  Weak piglets may need some assistance in taking colostrum and the use of a colostrum complement such as SCA Nutrition's Kiss Of Life can help.  Providing a readily available energy source Kiss Of Life enables the weaker piglets to suckle and then take colostrum.


5.  Cross-fostering.   Litters are evened up within the first 24 to 48 hours after birth, to reduce the amount of competition within the litter for space at the teat.   Care should be taken at weaning not to foster older piglets backwards, which can pose a real disease threat to younger pigs.


6.  Encourage early rooting behaviour.  The use of a feed attractant such as SCA Nutrition's NaturStart introduced from day four can help to encourage rooting behaviour and this ensures that adequate creep feed is consumed when introduced between days 10 and 14.


7.  Maximise intake of creep feed.  Creep feed should be offered form days 10 to 14 on a little and often basis. Creep food is preferably fed from a specialist creep hopper or trough and fresh feed should be introduced at least 3 times per day with stale feed removed beforehand.  Creep feed will not only directly enhance growth rate, but familiarises the piglet with the feed it will receive after weaning.


8.  Use of gruels. Where creep intakes are proving difficult to achieve, the use of a gruel such as Piglet Porridge can be effective.  Mixed at 2 parts meal in one part water, providing a gruel twice/three times a day can stimulate intake. The piglet that is used to receiving meals and water in one feed in this way is able to continue as such with this one type of feed.


9.  Water supply for piglets. Ensure piglets have an adequate supply of water.  A flow rate of 0.7 litres per minute from a nipple drinker which is located 100-130 mm above the pen floor is a useful guide.


10.  Hygiene and disease control.  Practice AIAO (all in /all out) management and always move piglets into clean, dry, disinfected rooms.


11.  Create the correct environment for piglets 

    • Provision of a dry creep area, with a temperature of 30
    • Ensure the piglets are not exposed to draughts
    • Insulate flooring
    • Control flies.


Link to Part Three of This Article


Link to Part One 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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