Getting weanlings off to a good start

When we think of nurturing young pigs, it’s always the piglets in the farrowing rooms that take centre stage. Yet, in just the time it takes to move piglets into the nursery, those same piglets find themselves in a strange environment, without their mother and her generous milk bar. Not only is this stressful and disorientating, but the change in environment and food source can lead to health problems that can impact performance through the rest of a pig’s life. Time invested in care during the first week after weaning can have a large impact on performance and profitability.

Thorough preparation of the nursery room for a new batch of pigs is the first important step to success. After cleaning and disinfection, all equipment should be checked over and necessary repairs made. Young pigs are very susceptible to damage from sharp edges on feeders, flooring or steelwork in the pen, which can cause infections and abscesses. Feeders should be completely dry before putting feed in them because the slightest dampness will hasten deterioration of the feed. Also, drinkers should be at the correct height for the size of pig — about shoulder height depending on the type of drinker — and drinker operation should be checked. Finally, the ventilation controller must be set up for the correct starting temperature and heaters turned on to check they are fully operational.

It is normal to pen weaned pigs according to weight, because that allows the feed budget to be applied based on size, not time. It is important to separate the smallest pigs and those that are compromised in any way — lame, thin, or injured, for example — so that they can be given special care in a less-competitive environment. In addition, a small pen should be available to use as a treatment pen later on.

Temperature

The thermal environment is one of the largest influences on successful establishment of the nursery pigs. The correct starting temperature will depend on weaning weight. For example 29 C is appropriate for a five-kg pig, while a later-weaned 7.5-kg pig requires about 27 C, both assuming that there are no drafts. Variations in temperature can have a detrimental effect on performance and maximum/minimum temperatures should be recorded every day on a temperature chart and action taken if there is more than a 2 C variation. Some modern ventilation controllers have a monitoring function, which make this job easy, however, the key point is that action must be taken if variation occurs.

Nursery temperature is often kept high for too long after pigs are weaned, which will reduce feed intake. Temperature can be reduced from as little as two days after weaning, provided pigs are eating well. The special-care pen should have an infrared lamp or heat pad to provide a warmer local environment for the smallest pigs. Assuming a starting temperature of 29 C, a reduction of 1 C can be made about every three days, reaching 27 C by day seven and 25 C by day 14. After four weeks, when pigs are consuming large amounts of feed, a temperature as low as 21 C may be adequate. Observation of pig behaviour is a key part of monitoring the environment and ensuring pig comfort. Groups of nursery pigs that are comfortable will lie mainly on their side, together as a group, but not in a heap. If they are too cold they will huddle to reduce their heat loss.

Feed and water

Time spent on encouraging newly weaned piglets to eat and drink will be well rewarded. Pigs are usually dehydrated and tired after weaning and benefit from being offered water from shallow feed trays once sorting is completed. Many will then tend to rest or sleep for several hours before becoming active again. Where possible, weaning should be carried out early in the morning so that nursery staff have time to work with the pigs. If this is practised, newly weaned pigs tend to become active again in the afternoon and staff may use this opportunity to teach pigs to find feed and water.

Ideally pigs should have several small meals on the day of weaning before they settle down again in the evening.

Pigs can be taught to recognize feed by using the same feed tray(s) that water was given in. Calling the pigs to feed will help to persuade them to come and eat solid feed. A small quantity of pre-starter feed (10 g/pig) should be placed into the feed tray and pre-starter feed should also be placed into the normal feeder.

Because early feed intake has such a large impact on overall nursery growth rate, it is worth spending the time to stimulate higher intake. It is possible to increase day one intakes dramatically by repeating the first stimulation feeding routine every two hours for as long as possible. Assuming that pigs are weaned in the morning, feeds at 1 p.m, 3 p.m., 5 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m are recommended. Where weaning is carried out later in the day, this same routine can be performed on day two.

Even in situations with good management and environment, about one per cent of pigs will fail to adapt to solid feel and will “fall back.” It’s essential to differentiate these pigs from those that are small or disadvantaged physically because they need different treatment. Early recognition of fallback pigs is critical and if not treated by day four they are unlikely to survive. Removal to a separate pen and providing regular feeds of warm gruel will get these pigs eating before they can be transitioned back to dry feed.

In my next article, I’ll look at nursery feeding in more detail and describe how to implement a feed budget successfully.

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