In my previous entry, we established how to decide when to start saving small piglets that would otherwise be euthanised. In this entry, I would like to discuss how to feed these small piglets to ensure they catch up with their heavier littermates, at least to the best they can!
In my opinion, this practice should be split in two very distinct phases. The first one is what we do during the first 2-3 days after birth to ensure pigs receive enough colostrum and any supplements we might decide to give them. The second phase is until pigs are weaned.
The most important nutritional and health concern during the first few days after birth is for piglets to consume enough colostrum. A high intake of this most important first milk is crucial not only for its higher fat (energy) content, but especially for its high level of immunoglobulins. The latter are being absorbed intact through the gastrointestinal epithelium enhancing thus the immune system of the newborn piglet. But, after the first 48 hours or so, this opportunity is permanently lost as the developing epithelium is no longer permeable to these very important proteins.
To this end, cross-fostering is the most common way to ensure pigs receive a good dose of colostrum. Whether the small or large piglets are removed to a foster sow is a matter of personal preference or rather farm protocol based on available expertise and facilities. Another way to ensure sufficient colostrum intake for weak piglets is to have a quantity of colostrum already collected from sows (a rather tedius process - and I speak from personal experience, after having milked about 10 kg of sow's milk with the great help of a group of four friends during several days at 5 am, I can attest this is not the easiest method to follow!) Nevertheless, it is a way perfectly suited for very small farms. For better results, the attending veterinarian should be conducted to show the proper way to inject oxytocin intravenously before milking the sows.
Even easier and better suited for farms of all sizes is the use of a paste or semi-liquid supplement that is being administered orally during this critical period. A blend of energy-rich ingredients and immunoglobulins (usually from hyper-immunised eggs) is the best solution giving satisfactory results with minimal labour and cost. It takes only some initial training to ensure the supplement is placed where it will be swallowed instead of being rejected by the piglet.
Once the critical period is over, during which most piglet deaths occur, then it is time to think how to best supplement weak piglets with extra nutrients. First, liquid milk should be offered until pigs are about 10 days of age. This can be an option also for pigs without a foster sow, but some extra attention to facilities is needed in this case. Liquid milk should be discontinued as soon as pigs start consuming solid feed.
Second, from about 7 days of age, a very palatable diet should be offered in addition to liquid milk. This diet should be offered until the end of the first week post-weaning. Any change in diets at the same time of weaning should be avoided to ensure continuous high feed intake and avert the risk of diarrhoea.
Third, feeding management should be carefully considered. Piglets, and especially those of a weak constitution, will not easily accept eating from normal feeders. Thus, open round feeders are best suited in this case. Also, feeding a gruel for a few days before switching to solid feed might enhance the chances of an early appetite for solid feed.
Finally, feeding on floor/sleeping mats is a well proven way for piglets to be exposed at an early age to solid feed.
Farm specific experiences
I am confident each farm has its own protocol on how to take proper care of small piglets. Not all things work in all situations and many home remedies are largely unknown to the rest of us. So, I would encourage you to write and share your good and why not, even the bad experiences, in feeding small piglets under your own conditions.