There is no right or wrong form of feed for piglets after weaning. Whether their feed is presented as meal, pellets or crumbles, piglets will react to it based on their pre-weaning experiences with feed and (or) their ability to perceive feed as nourishment after weaning. Removing questions like aroma and taste, which can or cannot attract piglets to feeds, texture remains an unresolved issue that does not have a single answer, as conditions are never as simple as those in experimental settings.
In fact, based on existing scientific findings, we can easily conclude that piglets do not care for feed form and texture — even for pellet size — assuming their feed is fresh and wholesome. Practical evidence suggests otherwise, and it is worth noticing the different conditions under which different forms of piglet feeds seem to find the highest acceptance among producers.
Meal diets offer many benefits
Traditionally, meal diets have been considered as the least-desirable form for post-weaning feeds. This remains true because they can attribute to higher feed wastage and reduced feed efficiency. Not only that, but they tend to “cake” in bags and silos (when not formulated properly), and they also contribute a fair amount of dust in a hot and humid environment, as often found in modern pig nursery facilities. But meal diets are cheaper (not much, but every cent counts) than further-processed diets. and they can be mixed on the farm using a concentrate (say, 50 percent) while adding another 50 percent of home-grown (or purchased) corn, and so on.
In reality, meal-type diets are not recommended when pigs are healthy above the average norm, and when their diets contain antibiotics at therapeutic levels. They are also not recommended when piglets have previously been exposed (and actively consumed) to creep diets in pellet form; it never pays to change feed form upon weaning when piglets consumed enough of the pre-weaning diet. High-quality pellets (not too soft, not too hard) are ideal for weaned piglets, but such pellets are difficult to produce and, as such, most feed manufacturers err toward harder pellets to avoid fines and dust showing up in feeder pans.
In contrast, meal diets are favored when pigs are expected to suffer from diarrheas, even in the presence of antibiotics, and when no antibiotics are used because they are banned or not desired. In addition, such diets are usually offered in coarser form to reduce the impact of diarrhea, and coarse diets never make for a good quality pellet. Thus, in such conditions, the first diet post-weaning should be in a coarse meal form to ease the impact of diarrheas, sacrificing feed efficiency. Manipulation of feed nutrient composition can also be used in meal diets to create feeds with enhanced organoleptic characteristics (for example, a high-fat/oil diet), but this remains a secondary issue.
Pelleted diets ease logistics
The main characteristic of a pelleted feed is that it makes life easier for everyone. With pellets, gone are the problems of sticky feeds that “cake” inside bags and silos — pellets are always much better. This gives more freedom to the nutritionist to increase beneficial ingredients that enhance feed quality, such as sweet whey, that are also the mail culprits in reducing feed-flowing characteristics. It also removes the need to add flow-enhancing or moisture-absorbing materials — with obvious benefits in cost savings and reduced use of additives for the animal and the feed plant. Thus, pellets are desirable from the human perspective.
Piglets have no problem consuming pellets post-weaning, as long as they are not faced with the adverse conditions explained above in the section of meal-type diets. What piglets object, by reducing their feed intake, is hard pellets — and this has been proven repeatedly. In fact, the younger the pig at weaning, the softer the pellet needs to be; but in practice, the opposite remains the truth. This has to do with the need to improve product value and also with the ingredients used in high-quality diets. Soft pellets are generally considered as inferior products as buyers cannot distinguish between a soft pellet and a badly pelleted product.
In terms of feed efficiency, pellets do offer benefits. They can increase feed efficiency by up to 15 percent, either due to increased nutrient ingestion (due to reduced volume per unit of weight) or due to enhanced thermal processing of certain nutrients, or simply because of reduced feed wastage. In practice, it is a combination of all three of the above factors, with the final “mix” depending on the product characteristics and the conditions under which piglets are raised. What remains to be said is that this improved efficiency needs to be bought at a cost that does not exceed the cost of pelleting such feeds, unless one includes long-term benefits from possible enhanced growth rates, if applicable.
Crumbles are a 'jack of all trades'
Neither a pellet nor a meal, someone once described crumbles to me as “bad pellets,” and indeed, some manufacturers produce a soft and short pellet that “crumbles” easily. Perhaps this is a better proposition than the more professionally looking real crumble that requires an expensive piece of machinery to produce a crumble of uniform size and relatively free of fines and dust.
From a marketing point of view, crumbles continue to offer a different point of discussion, and an interesting product that attracts attention. The extra cost for a properly manufactured crumble is always reflected in the final price, and those who have seen the benefits of crumbles are happy to pay for this privilege. Whether animals do benefit from crumbles is a matter of discussion that has no clear answer, although there are strong proponents for either side. As it happens, the truth is always somewhere in the middle, where crumbles do benefit piglets that could also benefit from meal diets — and quite often such situations exist even with the same pen of pigs. For example, not all pigs had the same chances to consume creep feed pre-weaning, not all pigs are equally susceptible to diarrheas and not all pigs are of the same weight for their age. Thus, by giving them an intermediary product can potentially benefit all types of situations.
From a piglet’s point of view
In brief, from personal experiences, I have found that it is extremely difficult to design, manufacture and manage at farm level a Phase 1 meal-type diet (the first diet piglets are ever exposed to). But, from a piglet’s point of view, I have always championed such diet, despite its difficulties. I have found benefits in terms of piglet performance to outweigh problems that we should be able to resolve instead of hiding inside a pellet. Following the first feed, I consider pellets to be superior until pigs weigh at least 20-25 kilograms (or even up to 50 kilograms in some instances). But, when diarrheas remain a problem throughout the nursery period, I recommend a coarse meal feed, despite the loss in feed efficiency. Finally, crumbles are my favorite form for designer products for specific customers who require a multi-faced approach for their farms.