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Feeding technology for modern piglet rearing

Housing and feed are important elements during weaning, but feeding young piglets requires specific feeding systems and management strategies. Modern feeding systems have shown to support the pig farmer to better control post weaning stress and loss in daily gain.

Feeding technology for modern piglet rearingBy Dr. Anne Elkmann and Norbert Bärlein, Big Dutchman, Germany

In recent years a number of trends have been recognised in piglet rearing, which have influenced the design of feeding techniques and the management of feeding. Amongst others, they include:

  • The weaning of piglets in groups, resulting in larger groups of animals
  • Placing piglets in separate houses, spatially separated from the sows
  • Compartmentalised arrangement of pens
  • Increased requirements on feeding techniques

A consistently high animal performance is only possible when technology and management are optimally adapted to the different growing periods of the piglets, thus permitting the farm manager to quickly react to any situation.

In piglet rearing, there are three main phases, which are repeatedly emphasised by specialists:

  1. The first 10 days after weaning
  2. The 11th day after weaning until the weight is approximately 16 kg
  3. From 16 kg onwards until the end of the rearing phase, around 28 to 30 kg live weight

The first couple of days after weaning represents the most critical phase for piglets. Priority is given to the piglets to adjust from the highly digestible, natural sow milk to artificially-produced compound feed. In addition, they have to adjust to their new surroundings and to unfamiliar group members. As, at this time, the piglets’ digestive and immune system are not fully built up yet, there is a high risk of intestinal diseases. A preventative measure against the resulting diarrhoea is to frequently feed only small portions of easily digestible nutrients. In addition, the piglets should become accustomed to the new feed as quickly as possible, however, in order to minimise the inevitable “growth break” after weaning this should only happen gradually.

Liquid feeding for consistency
To support a gradual transition liquid feeding should be considered, as this system delivers liquid to porridge-like feed with a consistency which is optimal for the nutritional requirements of piglets. In this context, special sensorcontrolled liquid feeding systems are becoming more and more important. In such systems, individual feed portions are transported to the trough by means of compressed air which also ensures that the feed pipes are left completely empty after feeding.

In order to support the adaptation to the new situation (different house, different house environment, larger groups, different feed) it is necessary to establish a synchronous feeding routine appropriate to the general feeding behaviour of piglets. This is ideally attainable with an animal to trough space ratio of 1:1. The feed amount can thus quickly be increased, until approximately 10 days later, when ad libitum feeding is reached. The supply of warm feed has proved itself because it is much better accepted by the piglets. The feed is tastier and easier to digest, especially by the more sensitive piglets. Moreover, due to the higher temperature, it can be utilised and converted into growth much better.

In the ad libitum phase, feed intake is increased by more frequently dosed small portions of fresh feed. Feeding breaks during the natural quiet times at midday and at night ensure that the feed troughs are getting emptied completely.

Advantage of block feeding
Wet/dry feeders have a drinker...From a weight of approximately 16 kg, the piglets enter a phase where they must share the feeding area with other piglets. For the piglets this means ranking fights and therefore an increased level of stress. As soon as the social structure has been developed the order for feed intake is set according to rank. The higher-ranking piglets eat first, and the lower-ranking ones afterwards.

From a feeding perspective, this phase should be accompanied by ad libitum feeding block. This means that piglets receive their full ration during several feeding blocks per day. Within a feeding block, a staggered delivery of food also gives lower-ranked piglets the possibility to take in sufficient feed. With the classic ad libitum feeding, lower-ranked piglets can begin with their feed intake after the higher-ranked piglets have eaten their fill.

The hygiene status in the entire rearing house – particularly the feed and water supply – is of the highest importance. Exposure to germs of any kind must be absolutely avoided and monitored at regular intervals! The entire feed supply chain, from the storage of the raw components to the preparation of the feed mixture, from the transport routes to the feeding area, must be closely observed. If too little attention is paid to hygiene in liquid feeding systems, the feed lines might develop bio films which act as a nutritional solution for the growth of different bacteria. The quality of the water, which is one of the most important components in piglet rearing, should be checked regularly. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case.

Dry feeding – simple and hygienic
In many operations today, rearing piglets are fed dry feed. In particular, the simple technology and the hygienically favourable supply of feed are named as advantages. The feed supply and the feeding system itself are easy to manage. In the classic dry feeding situation, feed is from the start supplied ad libitum to piglets. The piglets have to insalivate the feed a lot more so that the feed intake takes much longer than with porridge- like or liquid feed. It is important to make sure that there is a sufficient intake of water via easily accessible drinkers, since piglets repeatedly switch between the feeder and the drinker while eating. If it is not possible for the piglets to take in sufficient water, the feed intake might decrease. In order to lower the risk of diarrhoea, many farms work with additional feeding places (e.g hand-feeding bowls) in the first few days. This is done to facilitate the transition from the rationed milk intake at the sow to ad libitum feeding at the feeder. Over the last couple of years, with regard to dry feeding, technological requirements concerning animal performance and health have increased continuously. Feed consistency in the trough, feed composition, animal / feeding place ratio and frequency of feeding are the most important parameters which receive more and more attention.

Wet/dry feeders
The wet/dry feeder has established itself as a better alternative to the classic dry feeder. Thanks to drinkers inside the trough, the piglets can mix the dry feed into a mash by themselves. This porridge- like feed is much better accepted by the piglets so that the daily feed intake is higher than with pure dry feed. Wet/dry feeders do require slightly more management as the settings on the metering system must be frequently checked. The settings should be such, that the piglets cannot dampen too much feed at once, which then will not be entirely eaten.

Frequent, small feed rations can reduce the risk of diarrhoeal diseases as an overfilling of the gastro-intestinal tract is thus prevented. Thanks to modern, computer-controlled feeding systems, this feeding strategy can also be realised with a dry feeding system. In a dry feeding system the quality of the feed is also very important. In this context tastiness, feed structure and nutrient composition, and silo hygiene play an important role.

From a technological point of view, two computer-controlled dry feeding systems have to be distinguished – depending on whether the feed is measured into the individual valves based on volume or based on weight.

A volume-based feed measuring system requires no mixer as the feed is mixed directly in the conveying tube. The extraction hopper beneath each silo contains a frequency-controlled auger which measures the individual components into the conveying tube as required. Inside the tube, the components are mixed to form the desired recipe which is then delivered to the valves. Such a volume-based feed measuring system is simple and economic. There is no need for a separate distribution unit and feed kitchen. The individual ingredients only have to be measured in litres. A computer-controlled dry feeding system with weight-based feed measuring operates with a weighed mixer. It is thus possible to produce an individual feed recipe for every valve with a very good mixing quality and mixing precision. It is furthermore possible to establish phase feeding at every valve or upgrade the system to sensor-controlled feeding. In this case, every feed hopper contains a sensor which sends a message to the computer when the hopper is empty at the start of the feeding cycle.

Each of the before mentioned systems can support piglet growth resulting from weaning stress; however the conditions on a farm, individual requirements of the producer, as well as the specific feed components are decisive factors of whether a liquid or dry feeding system is to be installed. The main key to success is a feeding system which is carefully adapted to the respective farm.