The success or failure of any piglet nutrition program depends on the degree to which it reaches its targets in terms of growth performance, which often is used as an indicator of profitability under intensive production conditions.
In this review, a set of performance targets is proposed as a general guideline. This set of targets may be used in the field to assess performance status of a unit and evaluate the success of an existing nutrition program. This set of targets has been developed based on commercial experience worldwide and as such they are just that: guidelines and not the golden rule. Local professionals should adjust them not only for national/regional purposes but also for farm-specific reasons.
Three levels of performance
There are three levels of performance proposed by these guidelines. These are projections and, due to natural variability, many farms will fall in between these levels. These estimates are not performance guarantees as many factors affect piglet performance under commercial conditions. This may sound like common sense, but experience has proven time and again that common sense is never as common as we want to believe. So, it is better to explain to pig producers that targets and actual performance must differ as we should always strive to improve.
In this group belong farms with severe health and management problems, and also farms following older nutritional guidelines but using modern genetics and facilities. All these farms experience unrealized growth potential (and profit) and, thus, they are often grouped in this category of poor performance. Farms falling in this group should immediately take action to improve their profitability. The first step would be to correct all other problems before tackling the issue of nutrition, unless this is their major issue.
Here, we anticipate finding the majority of farms that follow traditional nutritional, health and management guidelines. What is keeping these farms from achieving greater performance is often a more aggressive nutritional program in terms of nutrient density and ingredient complexity. Farms in this group can benefit from pushing the boundaries of husbandry and nutrition, but as this requires an up-front investment (cost), such an exercise remains for the brave, hence the next grouping.
The most progressive farms usually attain the highest levels of performance because they consider early life performance an investment for the rest of the animal’s life. In these farms, management realizes that cost per kilogram or pound of feed is not as important as cost per kilogram or pound of live weight gain. A high-density, high-quality feed that appears to be the most expensive option often yields the lowest cost per unit of weight gain. Farms in this group can further benefit from improving animal health conditions.
Each successive level indicates better animal performance targets.
Feed intake explained
In Table 1, the columns predicting feed intake per week are used routinely as benchmark in evaluating development of appetite in piglets. The greater the feed intake, the greater the growth rate and the better the feed efficiency.
Another useful application of weekly feed intake estimates is in placing a feed order or scheduling feed manufacturing. For example, a farm weaning on a weekly schedule may arrange for appropriate amounts of feed to be delivered each week based on projected feed intake.
Another benefit of weekly feed intake estimates is in frequent formulations changes, even on a weekly basis. If feed is manufactured off-site, then it takes only a phone call to ask for “Week 2” or “Week 5” diet to be delivered next week. In this case, a qualified nutritionist must develop a weekly nutrition program based on farm-specific conditions. This assumes a farm is large enough to justify such program.
Expressing growth performance
The most common way of describing growth performance in piglets is by final weight at the end of the nursery phase. For example, it can be said that, in such-and-such farms, piglets are expected to weigh 20 kg at 60 days of age (as is in Spain, for example). Likewise, the industry average in France is 25 kg in 65 days, whereas in the U.S.. the target is 30 kg or even more in 70 days of age. Of course, weaning age plays a tremendous role in final nursery body weight. Here, we will assume piglets are weaned between three and four weeks of age.
Another useful index of performance is feed efficiency or the feed conversion ratio (FCR). For example, overall feed efficiency from weaning at 5-6 kg until exit at 20-25 kg body weight can be anticipated to fall between 1.3 and 1.6 kg of feed per unit gain. When higher (worse) values are observed, it is most likely that there are severe nutrient imbalances in formulation and/or incorrect design of feed budgets. Tremendous feed cost savings can be realized by working with this aspect in the last phase of the nursery period, where the majority of feed is consumed.
In intensive production systems, like the majority of modern commercial farms, achieving greater growth performance usually leads to higher profits not only during the nursery phase, but well into the finishing phase. For example, it is expected that, for each extra kilogram body weight at the end of the nursery phase, pigs should reach market age between 3 and 5 kg heavier. To improve the growth performance at a specific farm, the following, non-inclusive list of measures is proposed for consideration.
This is the most important factor that usually caps growth potential. If animals suffer from subclinical forms of diseases, nutrition alone cannot fully restore lost growth performance potential. A qualified veterinarian should be advised on appropriate measures to enhance health status at a farm level before in-feed additives are even discussed.
Management and facilities
Animals in well-designed and -managed facilities always perform better, not least because they enjoy better health status and reduced levels of stress. Training employees on basic husbandry routines and improving facilities can pay real dividends in terms of improved animal performance. Sometimes, buying the correct feeder dramatically improves feed efficiency as it cuts down on feed wastage.
Today’s traditional nutritional programs are not adequate to push piglets to their modern genetic potential. Nutritionally dense diets, well balanced for all nutrients, with minimal excesses of anti-nutritional factors, are sure to improve growth performance and minimize feeding cost. A qualified nutritionist should be consulted to design a farm-specific nutrition program matching genetics, health status and management/facilities.
Not all commercial additives are effective under all conditions. Usually for each farm, only a selected few additives will boost performance. For this, a qualified nutritionist should evaluate a farm in consultation with a veterinarian. More often than not, a trial-and-error approach is needed for each farm as the bacterial profile of each location differs widely. This is especially true in antibiotic-free production schemes.
Quite often, improving feed efficiency and growth is as simple as reducing particle size of corn or wheat. Other techniques involve the use of cooked cereals, thermally processed legumes, pelleting and extrusion. Feed storage under undesirable conditions can also limit its nutritional value. Finally, using quality ingredients at the right amounts is a guarantee of success.
It is impossible for one person to keep updated on all current nutritional advances. Ask for help, because you can always improve your profitability by improving your growth performance.