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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 Three

Dr Mike Varley - SCA United Kingdom



Phase Three - Boosting Post Weaning Gains


In the third part of SCA Nutrition's series on lifetime performance, Drs Mark Cole and Mike Varley move on from birth weights and weaning weights to post weaning daily gain. Data just published from their Green Hill Feed Evaluation Unit shows the important impact this growth stage can have on end performance.


Immediately post-weaning is a very stressful time for piglets. They face a new social group - which is often very large - and new accommodation. At the same time immunoglobulin and nutritional support from the sow's milk is withdrawn. 


Feed effect on post-weaning performance


We need to reduce this burden on the piglet as much as possible and one of the most successful ways is to provide a nutritional package that helps to spread this load. High quality creep pre-weaning is a good start as it prepares the piglet's digestive and enzyme system. This minimises disturbance and growth check post-weaning.


Choice of the starter diet will have a great bearing on performance post-weaning.  Palatability is one of the most important features but just meeting digestible energy, protein and lysine requirements is not the whole story. Appropriate dietary ingredients are critical. 


Milk products, like skim milk powder, have provided a main stay towards this objective. They are nutritionally excellent for young piglets and also highly palatable. Milk powders also promote the integrity of the pellets themselves so reduce feed waste.


The second main component comes from the cereal fraction of the feeds. Our own trial work supports the fact that heat treating cereals provides a more highly digestible energy component of the diet and promotes palatability. Green Hill results showed intake and growth benefits from using these ingredients. 


In all, this tells us that the composition of the diet itself cannot be underestimated, and by using fixed formulations in our starter feeds we provide some stability in the life of the piglet at this critical time.


Even with the best of management systems, there are some batches of piglets that are below par in eating ability post weaning. There is a strong case for giving an extra boost to their intake potential with the use of appetisers. Fed for four or five days after weaning at the recommended rate, these can stimulate intake of the starter feed itself. 


Other factors affecting post-weaning performance


Young piglets are very perceptive and stockperson skills have a major bearing on post-weaning performance. 


Health status - or the sub-clinical disease loading that a unit will carry - has a huge influence on post-weaning gain. It differs within units, between weeks and weaning batches. There is a real need to understand this area at a better level and to reduce this week on week variation.


Once piglets are weaned at the maximum weight possible, their true potential can really be exploited.  It is important to re-establishing post-weaning feed intake in order to maximise weight for age through to slaughter. 


Work from the USA evaluated piglets from 2500 pigs to see effect of the gain in the first week post-weaning on lifetime performance. Pigs were slaughtered at 128 days,  by which time there were marked differences in performance.  Those pigs that stood still in the first week post-weaning took over 10 days longer to reach slaughter than those pigs that had gained over 230gs per day in the same first week. 


With this in mind, the performance of 5000 pigs were recorded from birth to slaughter at Green Hill during 1999 (Figure 1).

Figure 1  The effect of daily gain post-weaning on overall days to slaughter.




The variation in growth rate in the first three weeks post- weaning resulted in significant differences in the overall gain to slaughter, illustrating that pigs that do not get off to a good start never recover lost performance,

shown in Figure 1.


Another way of looking at this is that if we can increase the growth rate through to 90 kg by focussing on post-weaning gain, then potentially we can increase the average size at which pigs are slaughtered within a given time.


This should be of real interest to the large integrated businesses that work on batch systems to set timetables. They may need to operate with fixed accommodation times for a given building and if they can add 5kg on to slaughter weights this will have a financial benefit.


Green Hill work has also shown that around 30 per cent of variations in growth rate to slaughter are accounted for by performance in the immediate post-weaning period.  At the extremes, there is a 25 day difference in the time taken for pigs to get to slaughter weight at the extremes of the weaning weight range, shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2   Growth Curves from the Green Hill Farm Study 



    • The High Growth group represent 15% of all pigs
    • The Average Growth group represent 70% of all pigs
    • The Low Growth group represent 15% of all pigs 

It is important to consider this in planning post-weaning management and nutrition. In order to maximise the gain, high quality diets have to be used. Poorer, cheaper feeds will not be cost effective.


Only 2.6 per cent of the total feed consumed in a pigs lifetime is eaten in the immediate post-weaning period, but this can affect the daily gain to slaughter by up to 30 per cent, so the investment in the highest quality starter diet is clearly a very good investment. 


Figure 3   The Proportion of Feed inputs at Different Stages to Produce a Bacon Pig




Every unit is different but results from our trial work shows the likely outcomes of variations in weaning weight (Table 1) and in post weaning daily gain (Table 2).


We estimate that on average a 1 kg advantage in weaning weight may well reduce the days to slaughter by 10 days, whilst an extra 50g per day growth in the immediate post-weaning period can reduce days to slaughter by an extra 10 days.  The bottom line is a reduction in cost between 5 and 8 per pig. 


Our work over the past two years shows that 'size matters' in the farrowing house, the weaner house and through to the growing/finishing house. It is crucial to capitalise on this to maximise profitability. The surest way of achieving this is to invest in quality starter feeds and management practices.


Table 1  The effect of weaning weight on realised slaughter weights

Weaning wt (kg)










DLWG (g/day)










Slaughter weight (kg)











Table 2  The effect of size on overall performance






Weaning weight (kg)




Post-weaning DLWG kg/day




Weight at 50 days (kg)




DLWG to slaughter (kg/day)




Weight at 140 days kg





Check list for good post-weaning gain

    • Start with a good birth weight
    • Build on this with good weaning weights
    • High health status is paramount
    • Select the dietary programme after weaning with great care bearing in mind the overall investment that can be recouped all through to slaughter.
    • Feed little and often at first after weaning.
    • Use appetisers like Primistart where necessary.
    • Make the dietary transitions, for example from Startrite 90 to Multiwean to Bonus, at the right moment
    • Keep stress down to a low level
    • Carefully control the environmental conditions within the weaner/nursery units.
    • Review your water supply regularly and monitor flows and drinkers constantly
    • Manage the human resources with care 


Link to Part One of This Article


Link to Part Two 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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