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Practical feeding strategy to manage health at weaning

Reducing antibiotics in pig feed is often not just a matter of finding that one replacing ingredient. Piglet health is dependent on many factors, so ensuring a care-free growth should depend on a broader feed management concept as well.

By Pierre-Stéphane Revy, research manager, Calcialiment-Vilofoss and Jacob Dall, head nutritionist swine, Vitfoss-Vilofoss

Weaning is one of the most stressful periods for a piglet. The piglets are separated from the sows and moved into another room with piglets from other litters. At the same time the piglets must change from highly digestible sow milk, to less digestible and complex dry feed and have to learn to drink and eat separately. The result of these changes is a lack of feed intake and a loss of body weight in the few days just after weaning. Some piglets will not even eat during the first 48 hours of weaning.

It is well known that feed intake in the first week after weaning is a fundamental condition for a successful piglet weaning process. Early feed intake will directly impact piglet health and future performance of grow-finishing pigs. A difference of 100 g/d of feed intake during the first week after weaning is equal to a difference of almost 1 kg of body weight at 42 days of age and at least one week at the end of finishing period.

Another consequence of a lack of consumption is a decrease of villus height (up to 30%) and an increase of gut permeability that allows pathogenic bacteria and enterotoxins to enter the lumen. Once the piglet eats again, the risk of diarrhoea is increased. Antibiotics or zinc oxide at high levels are commonly used to limit this risk at weaning.

With the Primefeed range, Vilofoss offers solutions to wean piglets without using antibiotics or ZnO at high levels in the feed. This approach covers the period before weaning and takes into account components, additives, nutrient levels, presentation and distribution of the feed.

Before weaning

Sufficient colostrum consumption at birth is very important as a source of energy for maintaining body temperature and immunoglobulins for immunity. Each piglet should drink at least a minimum of 250-300 g of colostrum. To achieve this objective at the Vilofoss research farm, alternated suckling was applied in two groups during the first 24  hours with both light and heavy piglets in each group.

Ideally, creep feeding should start on day 4-5 at a frequent rate to teach the piglets to eat, and to achieve sufficient feed intake by the end of the lactation period. As distribution of creep feed is often done manually, for practical reasons feed is usually not applied at an optimal frequency, nor is it started later. At four to eight days of age, a creep/ prestarter feed should be distributed in small amounts which should be frequently renewed (four to eight times a day) to ensure freshness of the feed.

Trials in the Netherlands as well as the company's field trials indicate that as many as eight daily feedings would be beneficial for piglets. The objective of consumption of creep/ prestarter feed by piglet before weaning is to prepare the change from sow milk to dry feed by developing an enzymatic system to digest starch and proteins from vegetable origin and secure that the piglets at weaning have learned to take up feed besides sow milk.

The company's own trial showed that 29% of piglets lose weight in the first three days after weaning when no feed was administered before weaning and 17% in those who had eaten prior to weaning.

New trials at the Swine Innovation Centre Sterksel, the Netherlands, show that a considerable proportion of weaned piglets, even though they have been offered creep feed, have not had any feed intake before weaning. These piglets are very slow starters when it comes to a sufficient feed intake after weaning, hence are in great risk of losing weight and damaging the gut.

On the basis of their own research, Vilofoss recommends that piglets weaned at 21 days of age should eat between 300 to 500 g of feed and between 600 to 1 kg if weaned at 28 days, depending on the piglet age on which the prestarter is offered. This consumption of dry feed before weaning helps to compensate the lack of milk from the sow in high litter sizes because the amount of milk intake per piglet decreases when the litter size increases: -6% from 10 to 12 piglets per litter and -17% from 10 to 14 piglets.

The composition of the creep/ prestarter feed should be adapted to have a highly palatable and digestible feed because we estimate that 68% of piglets are eaters with the use of a prestarter diet and only 28% with a starter diet.

Finally, it is recommended to continue feeding the pre-weaning feed for at least one week after weaning, in order to avoid stress. The company's own trials also suggest that ADG after weaning is reduced by 13% if the feed is changed at weaning.

Palatability and digestibility

The piglet feeds of the Primefeed range have been formulated taking into account the latest research findings in order to be highly palatable and digestible and to limit antinutrional factors and buffering capacity of the feed.

Company research allows classifying protein concentrate sources according to palatability and digestibility. Among the protein concentrate sources of the market, plasma protein is a very adapted source in weanling pigs to stimulate feed intake during the first critical days after weaning. The use of plasma in weanling pigs is widely documented and shows an enhancement of growth performance and feed intake. Literature reviews indicate an increase in feed intake of at least 25% compared to others protein sources (milk and vegetable protein sources). The beneficial effects are greater under conditions with high pathogen exposure than with low pathogen exposure and numerous studies have demonstrated that plasma reduced mortality and the incidence of diarrhoea. Hence, the incorporation of plasma has been proposed as an alternative to antibiotics.

The mode of action is not completely understood but it seems that the IgG fraction of plasma is the component that is responsible for the improvement of growth performance and feed intake.

The effect of plasma has been tested in the aforementioned research farm in collaboration with APC Europe according to three treatments on two periods with two diets from 21 to 28 days and from 28 to 42 days: A treatment with antibiotics, a treatment without antibiotic and a treatment without antibiotic and with plasma, see Figures 1 and 2.

Presentation and distribution

At weaning, piglets are mostly fed with dry feed while liquid feeding is another way to improve feed intake, intestinal health and growth performance. Liquid feeding is often manually prepared and distributed to the piglets and requires labour to ensure high hygiene and low microbial activity in the feed and the trough. In practice, liquid feeding is reserved to the lightest and weakest piglets housed in one or two pens. An improvement that includes a machine in the concept can help overcoming this disadvantage. FirstFeeder is a device that automatically distributes a mix of feed and water to the piglets 24/24. The feed distribution by this approach is fully programmable and feeding is done frequently in small amounts. The triggering of feed distribution is achieved by the piglet using an activation ring. This mode of distribution is similar to the piglet's natural behaviour at the sow before weaning by frequent daily milk intake in small amounts. The sophisticated programming of feed distribution can calculate the ADFI per piglet each 24 hours and can be controlled daily after weaning to respond rapidly if needed. As it is easy to use and easy to clean, this feeding machine optimises the working time because there is no need to check and fill the reservoir several times a day.

It is recommended to use this machine for all piglets from weaning up to 43 days of age. In practice, piglets rapidly learn to use the activation ring and can eat just after weaning. The result of three trials show that body weight and ADG of piglets fed liquid feed increase by 8% and 20% respectively compared to piglets fed the same diet in dry form.

The strategy to manage piglet health at weaning in the experimental farm is to use highly palatable and digestible feed with adapted levels of plasma distributed in liquid form by a suitable feeding machine that ensures the microbiological feed quality and allows following the feed intake per piglet every day after weaning. This strategy allows having feed intake of 230-250 g/d in the first week post-weaning.

Vilofoss is part of the DLG Group, and consists of Calcialiment (France), Vitfoss (Denmark), Deutsche Vilomix (Germany) and Fodermix (Sweden).

[Source: Pig Progress Special – Piglet Health, 2014]

Pierre-Stéphane Revy & Jacob Dall

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