It has always been a difficult task enticing weaned pigs to consume dry feed. Post-weaning feed intake remains invariably below needs for expressing full genetic potential for growth in modern pigs. Traditionally, this thorny issue has been attributed to early weaning at 2 to 3 weeks, as opposed to natural weaning at about 8 weeks of age, but similar unsatisfactory results are still observed today with 3 to 4 weeks weaning.
Many nutritionists call this problem “anorexia,” or loss of appetite. It is as if piglets prefer to remain starved instead of eating dry feed. A visit in any barn with weaned pigs where the post-weaning problem has not been resolved will tell otherwise. Pigs are hungry and will instinctively eat dry feed, they just don’t know where and how to find it. In my experience, it is not piglet anorexia that is the problem; instead, it is a problem of not recognizing piglet biology and adapting feeding management to it.
Thus, under commercial conditions, weaned pigs invariably experience some degree of involuntary feed intake deprivation. This increases production cost and reduces growth performance through the finishing stage, affecting overall profitability in a negative way. It is not uncommon for pigs to starve for as long as 3 to 5 days after weaning, whereas when things are done properly from the beginning, piglets should start eating within a couple hours after placement in the nursery building. Let us examine how this can be effected:
1. Buy the best possible post-weaning diet
Even under the worst financial scenario for a farm, cutting corners in piglet feed is not the wisest move. It is a given that the best diets do and should cost a fortune, but luckily, we do not have to feed much to get out of them their most wanted benefit: getting piglets to eat dry feed. A well-balanced, palatable first diet will attract piglets to the feed, and once this is accomplished, a less expensive second diet can follow. Feed up to two kilograms per piglet, if possible, but even 250 grams per piglet will suffice if feeding management is done correctly.
Piglets will instinctively look for feed on the floor.
2. Start feeding on mats
Most producers will place dry feed (often pellets) in the typical feeders and expect piglets to recognize this as their new feeding medium. There is nothing more wrong than this. Piglets will instinctively look for feed on the floor, and placing a very small amount of a meal type diet on their floor mats will provide them with a chance to taste dry feed. The same feed should be placed in their normal feeders and/or in those (usually red) plastic, lock-down communal feeders. Pellets are best reserved for the second feed, and always first blended with the first stage meal diet.
3. Use special ingredients
There are two types of ingredients/additives: one that increases digestibility/palatability, and one that increases gut health. In fact, increasing gut health ensures pigs will eat to their maximal potential, whereas increasing digestibility ensures pigs will continue to eat the second and third diet. Such ingredients, in no specific order, are antimicrobial agents at growth-promoting levels (where still allowed); zinc oxide and copper sulfate at pharmacological doses (or their modern alternatives at lower dosages); certain organic acids (always at high dosages); in-feed immunoglobulins (from hyper-immunized egg protein or animal plasma); and, of course, lactose-bearing ingredients. Highly-digestible protein sources such as fish meal, skim milk and wheat gluten do offer growth-promoting advantages, as well.
4. Keep the feed budget balanced.
Even though high-quality piglet diets are very helpful in promoting growth performance after weaning, their advantages can be easily lost if they are fed for too long (pigs will scour on high lactose/sugar diets) or at the wrong amount for each weight class of weaned pigs (waste of money). A properly designed feed budget allows more of a complex diet for light-weight pigs and less for heavy-weight pigs. However, a common mistake is to disregard the fact that heavy pigs are accustomed to consume large quantities of milk, and thus they tend to take longer than light-weight pigs to adapt to dry diets. Therefore, a small allotment of the first diet should always be budgeted even for the heaviest pigs.
5. Milk replacers
Nursery pigs will readily consume a warm liquid milk replacer of the proper temperature and composition. Feeding a milk replacer for 3 to 4 days can easily double dry matter intake compared to a pelleted starter formula. However, pigs reared solely on a liquid diet may fail to relate to dry feed unless the milk replacer is combined with a high quality starter diet or milk pellets. Good sanitation and frequent feeding are essential to prevent spoilage and attract pigs to eat. Milk replacers are best suited for low-weight and orphan pigs because of cost constrains. An investment in equipment and labor is also required to reap the full benefits of milk replacers.
6. Gruel feeding
In farms where pigs are fed dry diets on a regular basis, a warm gruel (50:50) of feed and water can be offered to weaned pigs in special bowl-type feeders during the first 2 to 3 days post-weaning. This practice prevents starvations and, more importantly, dehydration. Unless the gruel is gradually thickened (70:30), some piglets may fail to adapt to dry feed. Precipitation of solid matter in bowls is not problematic as long as the bowls remain filled with water. Field results with this practice are very encouraging.
7. Creep feeding even if it is not working
Assuming piglets are weaning after 21 days of age, creep feeding should start as soon as 4 days of age. Sooner is not recommended, not because pigs will not consume any, but because most such feeds contain sucrose, and before this age piglets do not produce sucrose, making sucrose toxic. Even though piglets will not consume enough creep feed to provide a tangible benefit at weaning (heavier pigs), their experience with creep feed will make them come sooner to dry feed in normal feeders, reducing the need for mat or gruel feeding. Of course, the right creep feed formula and the correct feeding method can produce heavier pigs at weaning.
Assuming piglets are weaning after 21 days of age, creep feeding should start as soon as 4 days of age.
After 25-plus years of studying, feeding, designing, manufacturing and consulting about piglet feeds and feeding, I can no longer accept that pigs suffer from anorexia after weaning; instead, they suffer from hunger, and it is our fault they do not eat. It is up to us to pick the right piglet feed to offer them and train our staff to use it in a manner that will convince piglets to start eating, not within days, but within hours after weaning.