Twenty years ago, early weaning of piglets was defined as 14 and 21 days of age in the U.S. and most of Europe, respectively. Today, weaning ages have advanced to about 21 days in the U.S., and by law, 28 days in the EU (although for the latter, 25 days remains the practical average). Thus we see that weaning age has advanced back to where it used to be, and it will supposedly remain at these ages for the foreseeable future. I doubt the EU will force its members to adopt the 35-day norm followed by some of its members, but more radical regulations have been adopted in other cases.
Several decades ago, when pigs were weaned at 28 days of age and above, there was a need to provide a special feed, mostly as a creep diet, because sow’s milk was never enough, especially for large litters, and piglets had enough time to get accustomed to dry feed before weaning. As weaning age dropped, in some instances by as much as two weeks, so did the use of specialty piglet feeds (the so called super pre-starters or creep feeds). Basically, it was deemed inefficient to provide piglets with any dry feed as consumption during any short lactation period — and the benefits from it — were negligible.
As weaning age dropped, so did the use of specialty piglet feeds.
But, as weaning age was gradually reduced, creep feeds disappeared, and their place was taken by specialty post-weaning diets. Piglets without prior access to creep feed needed to adapt fast to dry diets. Thus, specialty ingredients, not used customarily in pig feeds, were employed to attract piglets to their feed and to trigger the maturation of their digestive system. Such feeds remain invariably expensive as good quality specialty ingredients are always expensive; any low-cost feeds of such nature are simply skimping on the quality and number of specialty ingredients used. Cutting cost by using low-quality specialty ingredients is simply unacceptable, as this eventually leads to poor animal performance.
The nature of complexity and, consequently, the final feed cost, has been the matter of debate for many years. It has become even more challenging to define what is a suitable complex diet as we gained a deeper understanding of the interaction between health and nutrition and the importance of feed management. In essence, the higher the health status of a farm, the less complex the feed needs to be. In other words, investments in improving animal health can be recuperated, at least in part, by savings in feed cost. On the other hand, proper feed management can also increase acceptance of less costly piglet diets, but usually the sophisticated labor required is more costly or simply unavailable, under most practical circumstances.
Today, weaning age has settled down to a comfortable medium, which by no means resembles anything to natural weaning age (10 weeks of age). Around this fixed figure of 21 to 25 days of age, that is difficult to see it change, farms have established working protocols that involve animal health care and management. Nevertheless, despite all advances in animal health care, outbursts of even the most easily prevented diseases remain a challenge, often being the result of a simple human error or accident in breaching farm biosecurity. And, of course, the issue of high-quality labor remains an exercise of balance between cost and availability that is complicated by the remote location of most large-scale pig farms.
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Several university-related institutions continue to publish results based on which weaned pigs can thrive on very simple post-weaning diets. In fact, they are absolutely correct, and I can attest to the truth of the matter from personal experiences. A rather old (by now) study at a U.S. university had piglets fed the sows' lactation feed (flavors were not widely used at that time, so flavor imprinting should be excluded as a causative factor) as their creep feed and then as their first feed post-weaning. Piglets did just fine, and the researchers concluded that a simple lactation feed is good enough for piglets. I will not disagree, assuming one uses the same high-health, low-scale facilities as those found on a university farm, and the labor force is made up of dedicated university students.
But, in commercial farms, where thousands of piglets are born every day, such conditions simply do not exist. As the magnitude of scale of operations goes up, it becomes impossible even to cater for creep-feeding before weaning, or even for the provision of special (hospital) diets post-weaning for the sick and underprivileged piglets. In most cases, a single feed in dry form in a common feeder is all piglets get as their source of nourishment. And this is when the need to include special ingredients in this otherwise bland feed remains an absolute must to attract them to feed and condition their gut for the forthcoming “rough” feeds without these specialties.
Neither simple corn-soy diets nor super-complex creep or pre-starter feeds are correct by themselves.
Thus, in the always-fluid nature of commercial pig production, the increased weaning age and any advances in practical animal health care, or even the advanced knowledge of the benefits of feed management, have not negated the requirement for complex creep and post-weaning feeds. The continuing integration of the industry has removed the individual attention afforded to piglets raised in small-scale farms. This is where the need for the good-old expensive feeds remains a must for the industry.
What to do?
In conclusion, all I wanted to convey with this discussion is that we cannot accept the concept of one-size-fits-all when it comes to piglet feeds. Neither simple corn-soy diets nor super-complex creep or pre-starter feeds are correct by themselves. Each has a role to play, always taking into account the specificities of each farm. In my portfolio of feed designs, I have very simple piglet feeds that work as fine as the most expensive ones — but not under the same conditions. The former are sufficient in farms that invest in health, management and labor, whereas the latter are required for farms that place emphasis on volume rather than individual animal performance.
Each diet has its place, and a qualified nutritionist can pick the right one for each farm. Doing otherwise is equivalent to spending money without a purpose or denying animals the opportunity to express their full genetic potential. As a generic rule, never ask your supplier of the cost of any piglet feed before you have worked with your nutritionist to decide what kind of piglet feed you need. Only then, go out on a market research trip to find the best product for your money.