This popular practice requires some clarifications so that it does not end up wasting valuable resources.
The use of pre-weaning supplementary feed (creep feeding) has been debated without conclusion for more than 50 years.
The arguments for this practice are two-fold:
- Less body condition loss for the sow and thus improved reproduction performance
- Better piglet condition at weaning expressed as heavier weaning weights, advanced enzymatic system development, and thus a less expensive starter feed program.
There are, however, arguments against creep feeding and not the least of which is potential problems with allergenic reactions in the gut wall initiated by certain feed antigens (e.g., untreated soy proteins). There is also the risk of financial loss if creep feeding does not offer any real benefits.
Work carried out at Bristol University over several years showed clearly that small sensitizing doses of soy allergens when given over a short period of days pre-weaning can drive massive hypersensitivity reactions post-weaning when piglets are exposed to larger amounts of the same feed proteins.
The solution, therefore, is to apply a creep feeding program that will involve relatively high feed intakes before weaning takes place to properly expose the digestive system to dry feed. Most nutritionists would agree that approximately 500 g of feed per piglet before weaning will cause immunological tolerance to in-feed antigens and prevent most adverse reactions after weaning. To achieve this target feed intake, a rigorous management protocol has to be applied to every litter. Fresh, highly digestible and palatable feed should be offered at least three times daily and the feeding should start at seven days after birth. In commercial practice, the first stage post-weaning feed is frequently used also for creep feeding.
Creep feeding is strongly recommended when weaning age exceeds 21 days, but most research has failed to demonstrate any benefits from creep feeding piglets less than three weeks of age. In contrast, when weaning age exceeds 21 days, the benefits from creep feeding are clear.