As a production system, how much time are you allotting per week, month or quarter on your plan to start pigs on feed? One of the most important phases of getting a pig to market is the transition of a weaned pig on to feed.
If you get the first day and or week of the transition on to feed wrong, you cost yourself a decreased number of grade-one pigs marketed, decreased final market weight, increased days on feed and increased medication costs. If you get the conversion on to feed right, you set the pig up correctly to maximize return over costs for the rest of the growing phase.
It is unmistakable to me that a production system should spend a significant amount of time in developing, executing and validating that the plan to transition pigs on to feed is done correctly every time. Thus, to build off the previous columns "lessons learned as a swine nutritionist during COVID-19" and "lessons learned as a production system's first nutritionist," this edition will pass on the four biggest lessons learned over the past three years in starting pigs on feed.
Lesson 1: Understand that coaching and communication are key
The first lesson I learned in how to successfully start weaned pigs on feed, is regardless of what plan or protocols you have in place, they must first be coached and communicated, clearly, concisely and often. The protocols and strategies need to be easily understood and applied. These protocols should be unable to be incorrectly interpreted. Furthermore, as referred to in previous editions of "lessons learned as a production system's first swine nutritionist," you must continuously re-coach these protocols and strategies. Do not assume that if you go over the protocol once it will be done correctly forever.
It is also helpful if you create a validation system to ensure that these protocols are being done correctly. Our team created a first 10-day-on-feed protocol checklist that is initialed daily by the primary caretaker and at the end of the period by the production manager. This assigns personal accountability on multiple levels to ensure that pigs are started on feed correctly. Validating if your protocols and strategies are being done correctly or not, will allow you to go forward with a better feed program and coaching plan.
Lesson 2: Understand the pig you are receiving
The second lesson I learned is you must understand the pig you are receiving. Not all weaned pigs are created equally. There are major biological differences between 17-, 21- and 24-day-old wean pigs. They must be fed differently to achieve the best outcome possible. The younger the pig when he or she is weaned the poorer its feed intake, digestive capability, enzymatic action, absorptive capacity and heat generation are. The younger pig needs a more nutrient-dense and digestible diet than its older contemporary. Furthermore, the younger pig has a lower feed intake and decreased body mass. Therefore, they need more supplementary heating to maximize their nutrient utilization and subsequent weight gain.
There are also major biological and feed intake differences among health statuses. If a pig is being weaned from a porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus-positive sow farm, its intake during the first week on feed is often 25% to 50% less than its PRRSV-negative counterparts. There is more evidence that these poor-intake pigs should not only be fed to their decreased nutrient intake but their different nutrient requirements.
Additionally, there are differences among health statuses in whether they will be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics do a great job of neutralizing harmful bacteria, but they will also eliminate microbiota populations associated with good gastrointestinal health. Thus, if antibiotics are likely to be used to mitigate bacterial pathogens (i.e., Streptococcus suis) you will likely need to support digestive health via minimizing undigested protein (increase quality of protein sources and increasing synthetic amino acid use), optimizing fermentable fiber and using probiotics.
Lesson 3: Understand what logistics will allow you to execute
Building on lessons 1 and 2, it is important to know what you can realistically execute at the mill and slat level when designing your starter feed program. In most of our feeding locations, we have the logistic capabilities to deliver different starter feeds and adjust our protocols to optimize starting pigs on feed based on the differences outlined in Lesson 2.
However, other systems may not be as logistically capable. It is important to know what you can change first at the mill level. Can your mill have multiple sets of starter formulations? What is the minimum volume they can manufacture? Can they handle different premixes, bases and or ingredients? Can they execute the program you want to design?
Next, it is important to know what you can execute at the slat level. Can you deliver specialty bagged feed to extend the feed budgets of younger or poor health pigs? If you can deliver this feed, can you coach your team to feed the correct amount to the desired pigs during the ideal period? These are important questions you must answer and continue to answer in designing your starter feed program.
Lesson 4: Understand that management of the environment and timely treatment/pulls are key
The last lesson that is important to understand is that there is more to starting pigs on feed than just having the correct formulation and feed management protocols. Environment and pig care are colossal parts of the equation.
Pigs must have a dry, thermoneutral environment in which they have plenty of airflow. Pigs must be sorted correctly initially. At AMVC, we categorize the bottom 10% and or any pigs below 17 days of age to feed and manage them differently. It is also important that pigs are pulled and sorted correctly post-placement. Ensure treatments are timely and that fallback pigs are placed in a social environment they can compete in.
Moreover, water intake cannot be ignored. We have learned that even the poorest pigs will consume water even if they do not eat. Being able to provide optimal water access (i.e., nipple bars or additional waterers) and supplement the water (with any electrolytes, nutrients or medications) as best as you can is key.
A simple and important key is just getting the pigs up as much as possible. When newly weaned pigs are stirred, they almost always eat and drink. Thus, if you can get pigs up by mat-feeding, gruel-feeding or just walking pens as frequently as possible the greater their feed, water and associated medication intake will be. An easy way to double the amount of time the newly placed pigs are getting up per day is to mat-feed and gruel-feed at the start and conclusion of doing chores. Thus, if the caretaker can only get through the barn in the morning and afternoon, at least the pigs have been gotten up at the minimum four times per day.
What I have ascertained is there are several keys to starting pigs on feed correctly. You must have a clear and coachable plan, understand the weaned pig you are receiving, understand what logistics will allow you to execute, and understand that there is more to starting pigs on feed than just having the optimal diet formulation.
I encourage your production system and yourself to assess how much time is allotted to starting pigs on feed, compute the success rate and conceptualize how we can improve our execution.