Supplementary rearing worth a second look

Genetic advances in litter size over the last 15 years have provided hog producers with the potential for 14 or more piglets born alive per litter and the ability to boost herd output to 30 pigs weaned per sow.

But as I have pointed out in previous articles, this presents a number of challenges and requires a new approach to management in the farrowing room. While the initial objective immediately after birth is to ensure that newborn piglets ingest sufficient colostrum (through techniques such as split suckling and stomach tubing), the problem is that, in highly prolific herds, there are insufficient teats for the number of piglets.

The traditional way of dealing with this situation is to “shunt foster” or “cascade foster.” This involves weaning a sow, then transferring a litter of seven- to 10-day-old piglets onto her and then moving a whole litter of two- to three-day-old piglets onto this sow. That leaves the recently farrowed sow available to suckle newborn piglets after they have received colostrum from their own mother. While this is very effective, the increase in the days that sows spend suckling leads to lower litters per sow per year, so it is counterproductive to overall output.

Another solution to this dilemma is to use a supplementary rearing system to take surplus piglets, usually from about 10 days of age when they will adapt to eating solid feed fairly quickly.Supplementary rearing is not new, and the Piggy Deck is widely seen on farms in Western Canada. However, in the past, results have been mixed. A major part of the problem related to the difficulty in maintaining adequate hygiene where liquid milk was fed.

Now more viable

In addition to the practical challenges, the high cost of milk powder made the economics questionable. But now that the upside is so much greater due to the potential to save more piglets, supplementary rearing is worth revisiting. New products such as the Rescue Deck, with integrated milk mixing and delivery systems, make the technique more viable and eliminate some of the problems of previous, simpler, decks. Also, recent data from a farm trial carried out by the British Pig Executive (BPEX) suggests that using Rescue Decks can result in a 47 per cent return on capital.

British producer Stuart Bosworth installed 10 Rescue Deck units on his 270-sow farrow-to-finish farm, which were monitored by BPEX. Bosworth had increased litter size in his herd by two pigs born alive per litter over the previous 10 years. However, piglets weaned per litter reached a plateau at 11.2, despite various measures to enhance piglet survival.

The Rescue Decks were mounted above the crates and a room was constructed as a kitchen area for feed storage and preparation, housing a compressor, pneumatic milk pump and milk-mixing tank, as well as a hot water system for mixing milk at the recommended temperature of 55 C. An electricity meter in the kitchen recorded energy use to run the system. Piglets were moved into the Rescue Decks at 10 days of age and at a weight of 4.4 kilograms. They were fed liquid milk up to three weeks of age and then weaned onto solid feed. Thus, notes the BPEX report, they were nutritionally more advanced than suckled piglets supplemented with creep feed.

The Rescue Deck system raised numbers reared by 0.56 pigs per litter over the course of the trial period.

“If the results of the trial period are replicated for a full year, an extra 358 piglets would be weaned by the Rescue Deck system, almost seven extra pigs per week,” the report states. “The detailed results show that the more that the stockman used the system, the better the results that were achieved.”

As well, the overall quality of weaned pigs improved because there were fewer piglets suckling on ineffective back teats, particularly on older parity sows, the report states. It also appeared the nutritional drain on the sow was reduced by having 15 per cent of piglets transferred into the decks. This resulted in an increase in litter size in these sows’ subsequent litters.

Stockmanship key

Stockmanship and farrowing house management have to be first rate to get the best from the Rescue Deck system, the study found.

“As always, attention to detail is imperative for best results and this is particularly important in hygiene and regular cleaning of the milk line system,” the report states.

On average, Rescue Deck weaners were 0.11 kilograms lighter than suckled pigs at weaning, despite often being the stronger pigs in the batch on entry into the decks.

“However, because Rescue Deck pigs are fed creep pellets and water from three weeks of age in the decks, they have been through their post-weaning growth check before the rest of the suckled pigs in the same weekly batch,” notes the BPEX report.

“Despite being lighter at weaning, the Rescue Deck pigs grew at 406 grams per day in the first 27 days after weaning compared to 370 grams per day growth rate for suckled pigs.”

A detailed cost evaluation was carried out, which included the additional labour costs involved as well as the cost of milk powder, creep feed, cleaning chemicals, power and depreciation. Based on the trial results, the 358 extra pigs would generate an additional margin over all costs of 10,321 ($16,370). With an initial capital investment of 21,631 ($34,610), this results in a 47 per cent return on investment.

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