Start Weaned Pigs Off Right: Beat These 4 Obstacles

Proper management and nutrition can help weaned pigs overcome barriers and position them for long-term success. ( National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff )

Starting weaned pigs off right is not only good stockmanship, it’s important for the future of your business. Young pigs have several obstacles to overcome in order to get off and running. From separation from the sow to a new diet, how can you beat the barriers to early feed intake in young pigs?

“This is a critical time in the pig’s life,” says Dana Wilson with CFE Cooperative Farmers Elevator of Rock Valley, Iowa. “In the pig’s case, they are leaving their mom and we are asking them to eat and drink something that looks completely new in how it’s presented to them.”

Wilson says pig farmers employ many methods to get their pigs started right. But one thing remains consistent – the sooner you can get pigs eating and drinking, the better off they will be. 

“Supporting early feed intake can create a strong start in the nursery,” says Emily Otto-Tice, Ph.D., senior swine nutritionist at Purina Animal Nutrition. “That strong start, along with good herd management and nutrition, helps put pigs on track for success in every phase through finishing.” 
Here are four common obstacles producers face when it comes to early feed intake and four ways to overcome them: 

1. Separation 
“The first obstacle weaned pigs face is weaning itself – being removed from a familiar environment and food source with the sow,” Otto-Tice says. “Their new environment looks, smells and is structured differently than what the pigs are used to.”

Because of this, pay special attention to the environment, Wilson says. Make sure it’s dry and warm. Feed intake 3-4 days after weaning is often too low to meet the pig’s needs. Try putting feed out on mats and encourage at least three walk-throughs a day to keep momentum going.

“If we can get feed on the mat out where pigs are rooting around, if that feed has an odor, smell or taste they like, that seems to get their stomachs working and they’ll want to satisfy that hunger,” Wilson says.

Pigs are highly sensitive to taste and smell, so Otto-Tice encourages producers to use that to their advantage. 

“We can use nutrition – including gel hydration products, pre-starters and starters – with recognizable aromas and flavors to encourage early intake,” she says. 
It’s also important to get multiple meals in a day, Wilson adds. Weaned pigs have very small stomachs and can only eat about an ounce of feed at a time, so they need to eat often for adequate intake.
2. Diet Changes

Transitioning from sow’s milk to dry feeds is a big change. There are hundreds of ways to do this well. Companies offer several products to aid with this change. Wilson recommends mixing a little milk replacer in with the feed in the troughs just to help pigs smell or get a taste of something more similar to what they are used to. 

In addition, Otto-Tice cautions producers that subsequent changes between diets can also interrupt feed intake. Each interruption has the potential to impact gut development, which is driven by steady intake of complex feed ingredients and water. 
Maintain consistent palatability and ingredients between diets to reduce interruptions. 

“Approximately 70% of the pig’s immune system is housed in the gut. The more consistently we can keep pigs eating and drinking, the more the gut develops, and the more immunocompetence pigs have,” Otto-Tice says.
A healthy, well-developed gut not only absorbs nutrients better, but it also functions as a barrier to disease.
3. Disease  
Pre-weaned pigs are protected from disease by antibodies in sow’s milk. That protection starts to wane at weaning and is gone after about three weeks. Meanwhile, it takes six weeks from weaning for the pig to develop its own immunity. How do you bridge the gap?
“Ultimately, we see a three-week gap in immune support that can provide a foothold for opportunistic pathogenic bacteria and viruses to cause disease,” Otto-Tice says. “But, through nutrition, we can help the pig start developing its own immunity – and boost its immunity – to stave off disease threats.”
Careful environmental management can also help minimize the threat of disease such as sanitizing pens before bringing in pigs. Providing comfort mats, managing supplemental heat, reducing drafts and ensuring pigs have adequate access to water can minimize stress and support pig health during this phase. 

“There are ways of dealing with each health challenge through feed intake or water intake. If you can help the pig through that challenge that they have and get them back to being healthy, it will perform better for you,” Wilson adds.

4. Poor Communication
Another obstacle producers can face is poor communication when it comes to the health of the pigs they are receiving. Wilson says it’s important that the person receiving the pigs has a good idea of what they are getting.

“Very few pigs come in absolutely disease-free,” he says. “They all have a little something. When you find out what that little something is, it helps the producer be able to address the problem quicker and recognize signs of illness in pigs so they can pull them out and address their health individually.”

Maximize Potential
Weaning is stressful and poses many obstacles for the young pig to overcome. Fine-tuning your weaned pig management to support feed intake will result in more predictable and consistent finishing pig performance. 
“If you get them through this transition and they are healthy, the finishing side can be very successful and easy,” Wilson says. 

More from Farm Journal's PORK:

The Art and Science of Managing Weaned Pigs

4 Nursery Strategies for Weaned Pigs

Get Weaned Pigs Going Strong