Experience speaks: Producers tackle weaning success

February 23, 2016

11 Min Read
Experience speaks: Producers tackle weaning success
<p>In a research trial, pigs offered creep feed for three to five days <span data-scayt-lang="en_US" data-scayt-word="preweaning">preweaning</span> were able to transition through weaning smoother than those not offered creep.</p>

No two swine operations are alike, but many face similar challenges. Here, four swine experts talk about what they do to keep pigs growing during the stress of weaning and other challenges.

Mike Kleinhesselink is a partner at a nursery-to-finish operation near Orange City, Iowa. Each month, a group of 2,500 newly weaned pigs arrives from northern Saskatchewan. That’s a long haul for little pigs, and his first goal is to help them recover from the journey.


Roger Walk and Allie Weber of Walk Stock Farms of Neoga, Ill., are farrowing 4,700 sows at two locations and managing a gilt multiplier herd. A primary operational goal is for 96% of pigs that enter the nursery to continue to market.


​Dari Brown is the senior director of technical services for Purina Animal Nutrition. The company’s working farm in Gray Summit, Mo., includes a new 880-head wean-to-finish facility, an 800-head nursery and a 700-head finisher building. Here, the research team works hands-on to develop nutritional solutions for production challenges.


Wesley Holmes of Alta, Iowa, farrows 125 sows. A primary goal of his operation is to support consistent performance through weaning for long-term performance. He believes in addressing problems before they start.


Q. How do you address stress caused by transportation or other challenges?

Kleinhesselink: We are bringing pigs in on a monthly basis, and they tend to arrive healthy but stressed and sometimes a little dehydrated. We feed a highly palatable electrolyte, and we think it helps pigs thrive despite the stress.

In years past, we were feeding a combination of antibiotics, electrolytes and vitamins as recommended by our veterinarian. However, under that direction, the pigs were still facing health challenges at 48 hours after arrival. It often took as long as five days for them to get back on their feet and growing again.

Our suppliers are happy with the way we’re using electrolytes to help pigs take off when they get here. When our pigs are graded at 48 hours, very few are graded as doing poorly. That means our suppliers are getting full value for their pigs.

In addition, with pigs responding so well to the electrolytes, we no longer routinely use antibiotics in the water.

Weber: We mat-feed a palatable gel to all pigs post-weaning. This has made a noticeable change when pigs arrive at other facilities. Like us, contractors who raise the pigs for finishing have noticed benefits in pig growth and early transition. The feedback I get from the growers is that the gel product is one more tool they can use to help pigs transition to starter feeds.

Brown: There are several strategies we suggest to producers and use at our farm to help pigs undergoing stress (transportation and/or weaning) or other challenges. One strategy is to provide a highly palatable electrolyte via water medicator or gel during the stressful period as well as a few days after to help keep pigs hydrated and eating to ease the transition. Also, adequate water and feed intake is important for gut health. Another strategy is to feed a creep feed the last few days of farrowing prior to movement to the nursery facility to create eaters. Pigs provided a creep feed in farrowing start eating and therefore gaining quicker in the nursery period. This isn’t just because creep feed helps pigs adjust to the taste of dry feed. It actually helps prepare the pigs’ guts to digest feed.

Baby pigs have a digestive enzyme called lactase, which breaks down lactose in sow’s milk. When it’s time to eat dry feed, they need a different enzyme, called amylase, to digest the starch in the feed (see Figure 1). Feeding creep feed stimulates the development of amylase to give pigs a head start on digesting dry feed before they make the full switch at weaning.

By supporting gut health, we encourage pigs to keep eating and drinking during transitions to avoid slowdowns and to reach full potential.

Holmes: We mat-feed gel to every group in the nursery preweaning. We feed it again when pigs are commingled post-weaning at 21 days to minimize the challenges they face at that time. The gel helps support the pigs during these two stressful periods. The length of time the gel is fed depends on the pigs’ weight and the stress they endure. Smaller pigs (10 to 12 pounds) might receive gel for up to two weeks, while larger pigs might only receive gel for about a week.


Q: How do you encourage young pigs to become eaters?

Kleinhesselink: Offering a palatable electrolyte has helped our pigs transition quickly to starter feeds. Once we made the switch, the results were almost immediate. Water and starter feed consumption went up dramatically in the first 48 hours.

We make use of that same palatability when introducing prestarter feeds. We have chosen a line of feed that has been designed to mimic the taste and smell of sow’s milk. That consistency in both the electrolytes and then the prestarters eliminates something new the pigs might otherwise have to adjust to.

Weber: Our team has learned that the sooner we get pigs onto dry feed after weaning, the better dividends we see down the line. Feeding gel supports that transition. We feed the gel on mats, and the pigs get up right away and start eating.

Brown: We have found creep-feeding pigs can be one way to get them eating and keep them growing during weaning, if you own sows, so they have the best chance to reach their optimum weights at finishing.

In our research trials, creep-fed pigs experienced early and sustained gains in the nursery compared to pigs that weren’t creep-fed. Creep feeding resulted in 28% higher average daily gains and 13% higher average daily feed intake during the first week after weaning compared to pigs not offered creep. 

These advantages were maintained throughout the nursery. Pigs given creep were 1.1 pounds heavier at 20 days post-weaning and 1.8 pounds heavier at day 36 compared to pigs not fed creep. Giving pigs a great start by offering creep feeding is a research-proven way to avoid lapses in performance and support productive, consistent groups.

Another way to encourage pigs to become eaters is to mat-feed gel with a high-quality starter with similar ingredients or the use of electrolytes to help keep them hydrated and thus eating.

Holmes: We mat-feed gel to all our newly weaned pigs to help get them through the shock of weaning. It helps keep them hydrated and encourages them to eat. They don’t lose any ground during weaning, which makes a big difference on what they can achieve. It also has reduced the time it takes to transition the pigs from weaning to becoming actively eating feeder pigs that are ready to move on to the grower.


Q: How do you minimize fallouts and support consistent groups?

Kleinhesselink: We’ve chosen an electrolyte that is easy to use. It smells good and mixes really well with the water. Pigs like it.

Prior to using this electrolyte, we were visually seeing pigs stall out for up to five days after weaning. We sometimes even saw them go backward before they started to take off. We weren’t seeing the results we wanted, and were looking for something that would help our pigs recover faster and yield better results.

We’re still feeding those electrolytes to every new batch of pigs. This has resulted in pigs that perform well all the way through to finishing.

Walk: Our goal is to have 96% of our pigs make it to market, and we use a combination of products. We have chosen products with consistent ingredients to help get our pigs through the transition. We have observed that consistency in products helps minimize downtime and helps pigs move quickly through the weaning period. When our pigs hit the finishing pens, their performance really takes off.

Brown: We recommend producers work toward a goal of 0.5% or fewer fallouts in the nursery. Our team works toward this goal in several ways. First, we actively look for fallouts so we can manage the entire herd to reach its best overall performance. In our experience, it makes sense to separate the smallest 10% of pigs from the rest of the group at weaning and treat them differently. These pigs need extra attention, including focused nutrition and hydration support, to thrive and catch up with their littermates. We make a point of determining what is causing fallouts. Meanwhile, we continue to monitor the main group each day for additional fallouts, checking each pig daily for activity levels and food and water consumption.

Holmes: Three years ago, we noticed the smallest pigs in our groups were falling even more behind at weaning. Eventually those fallouts would start growing again. But for every day those pigs didn’t gain, we were racking up more time and cost to get them finished.

We started feeding a highly palatable gel to our smallest pigs. It is two-thirds water and one-third solids. It’s specifically formulated to support hydration and nutrition and aid in the transition to dry pellets.

We found that the small pigs quickly responded to the gel. By day 3 post-weaning, the small pigs were up and quickly eating all of the gel we put down.

As a commercial producer, you face many of the same challenges as your peers whether you’re weaning pigs from thousands of sows or 100. For management tips to help you address those challenges, go to progresstoprofit.com.

Make the most of creep feeding

Should you creep feed in today’s environment? The answer to this question has changed over time, with the growth of litter sizes, the cost of feed inputs and varying management strategies. New research shows strategically creep feeding pigs can pay financial dividends down the road.

In a research trial at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center, pigs offered creep feed for three to five days preweaning were able to transition through weaning smoother than those not offered creep. Improvements included 28% higher average daily gains and 13% higher average daily feed intake.

Here are three tips to help get the most out of creep feeding:

1. Choose a complex creep feed.  

Feeding a complex creep feed rather than a simple corn-soy mix can help create early, aggressive eaters by encouraging the development of enzymes that break down feed.

The performance difference between complex and simple creep feeds was demonstrated in a Kansas State University study. In this study, more than twice the number of pigs became eaters post-weaning when fed complex creep feeds compared to those fed a corn-soy creep diet. Additionally, the smallest pigs in the complex creep-fed group had the highest percentage of eaters, giving them the chance to catch up to their heavier counterparts.

“This early support can build a foundation for consistent groups through weaning and into finishing,” says Brenda de Rodas, director of swine research at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center in Gray Summit, Mo.

2. Creep feed to fill gaps in sow production.

As litters grow in size, and the industry swings back to weaning pigs at 21 to 28 days, nursing sows could struggle to eat enough to maintain body condition while meeting the demands of milk production. Creep feeding is one tool producers can use to support pigs and sows during this critical time.

“Creep feeding can keep those older pigs from pulling down their sow’s body condition scores,” de Rodas says. “It also can provide consistency in the pigs’ nutrient intake as a sow’s milk production wanes.”

3. Feed carefully for best results.

■ Begin creep feeding three to five days before weaning to support aggressive eating and optimize performance.

■ Feed small amounts on mats twice daily. As compared to feeding once daily, this can reduce waste and give piglets more access to feed.

■ Feed to appetite and remove any refused feed before putting down fresh feed.

■ Feed piglets when the sow is eating. When the sow is eating, she is most often standing, meaning the piglets will not be suckling. If piglets are asleep or suckling when you place the creep feed, they might not notice it.

To learn more, contact your Purina Animal Nutrition representative or visit progresstoprofit.com

Ames writes for Filament Marketing LLC.

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