4 Nursery Strategies for Weaned Pigs

piglets USDA
( USDA )

By Joel DeRouchey, Mariana Menegat, Mike Tokach, Steve Dritz, Jason Woodworth, and Bob Goodband of Kansas State University

Ready to design the optimal nursery nutrition program for weaned pigs? First, you need to understand a few key concepts. Here are four points to consider as you evaluate your program.

1. Wean good quality pigs.
After weaning, pigs undergo a period of adaptation, which contributes to lower feed intake and growth performance, impairment of gut barrier function and greater susceptibility to diseases. Weaning pigs when they are at least 21 days of age is beneficial to ameliorate the stressful effects of weaning and improve growth performance in the nursery and finisher. The ability of late-weaned pigs to perform better is not only a consequence of heavier weight at weaning, but most importantly a consequence of a physiological change in the pig. Late-weaned pigs have improved gut barrier function and immune response against pathogens compared to early weaned pigs. 

2. Maximize feed intake after weaning.
Feed intake is a key determinant of performance and health status of weanling pigs. While most pigs begin consuming feed within the first 24 hours after weaning, about 30% take between 24 and 60 hours to start on feed. Weanling pigs are in a highly energy-dependent stage of growth, which means that any increase in feed intake results in improvements in growth rate and lean deposition. Moreover, feed intake is important to sustain an adequate gut structure for nutrient absorption and to reduce the occurrence of diarrhea in weanling pigs.

The most important way to maximize feed intake is to have feed available and offered ad libitum as soon as pigs are weaned. One strategy is to use feeding boards or mats to supply adequate feeding space. Another strategy is to offer a gruel with a mixture of feed with water. Make sure feed is available in the feeders, and use these strategies temporarily during the first few days after weaning as to not discourage consumption of feed in the feeders. It’s critical to appropriately manage the boards, mats and gruels to prevent feed spoilage and disease transmission. 

Feeding behavior after weaning is also stimulated by providing creep feed while pigs are nursing to ease the transition from milk to solid diets. A viable strategy is to offer a creep diet for three days before weaning to increase the proportion of pigs consuming creep feed and to improve feed intake after weaning. 

3. Remember the biology of the pig.
Newly weaned pigs are able to easily digest lactose and specialty protein sources, but they have limited ability to digest plant protein sources and sugars and to utilize fat. In general, it’s important to provide adequate amino acid levels from highly digestible protein sources, because weanling pigs have a high capacity for protein deposition in relation to feed intake level. However, it’s not effective to use fat to increase the energy density of the diet to counteract the low feed intake level. 

4. Adjust pigs to simple diets as quickly as possible.
One of the goals of the nutritional program in the nursery is to prepare pigs for grow-finish diets. Although the use of specialty ingredients results in excellent performance in the nursery, benefits do not result in further improvement in grow-finish performance. Thus, specialty ingredients should be paid for in the nursery without projections of improved finishing performance. The goal is to gradually remove specialty high-cost ingredients from nursery diets and replace them with typical lower-cost ingredients, such as grains and soybean meal, as quickly as possible.