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Aspects of creep feeding not to ignore

Two simple creep feeders.John Gadd, in his early career as technical director of Britain’s largest pig farm, introduced creep feeding to them, but soon ran into all sorts of objections both from the owner and the farm staff. These were eventually overcome by much better performance to slaughter. Since then he has taken a detailed interest in all aspects of creep feeding when visiting expert breeders in 32 countries worldwide.

By John Gadd

From my travels I estimate out of every 100 breeders, 20 do not creep feed at all for a variety of reasons – cost, ‘very milky sows’, the extra work involved, disappointing results, etc. Of the 80% who do, about a third (possibly more) provide by today’s standards a poor quality feed. So getting on for a half of the breeders in the countries I visit are missing out on the full value of creep feeding. Of the other half, about a third of them are not managing to do a good enough job of creep feeding anyway. This leaves only a third who seem to be doing things really well in this vital area.

Why vital?
The sow first: Not so long ago we had litter averages of ten born-alive putting on 43 kg total litter bodyweight by 28 days. Now we have litters of 13 putting on 86 kg – double that of 20 years ago. The sow still needs to provide 4.5 g of milk for every 1g of piglet growth. We have now reached the tipover point when she cannot eat enough nutrients to support this huge demand per litter grown to 7kg. More than 350 litres. And after supplying all that, she still has to maintain her subsequent reproductive competence. Trouble is – she doesn’t! Unless we take some of the nutritive load off her. This is especially of concern with our new hyperprolific gilts. First, the ‘second litter problem’ has always been in the background, and now it is back with a bang. Also, think about stress. A gilt struggling to sustain a big litter undergoes stress and stress reduces her immune competence – or at best slows it down. Result, more disease. A greater threat: But there is an even bigger threat to our profitability which is linked to parity 1 and 2 performance, and that is the seriously short SPLs which I come across when looking at the records of the farms I visit. These magnificent geneticallyimproved sows are only lasting barely 3.5 litters on average. Farms are struggling to achieve a lifetime output of 360 kg Weaning Capacity (liveweight of weaners at normal weaning age produced by the sow in her lifetime), which should be at least 500 kg. This is not the fault of the geneticist – but the farmer. Comparing records between those achieving five or more litters per lifetime with those averaging 3.65 showed that the former needed 31.5% less replacement capital. There are many ways of taking the load off gilts and young sows, but creep feeding is one of the most important!

How important? There are now plenty of reliable trials showing the difference between creep and no-creep feeding. I have looked at nine of them and the average payback from a higher Weaning Capacity has been around 2.9:1. There is more. Creep-fed pigs grew faster to slaughter, and from less food needed plus the reduced overheads, the combined return from growing pigs rose to over 4:1.

Home-made creep feeds. Taking this a little further, in 2008 I organised four trials comparing home made creep feeds with the three times more expensive top-quality manufactured brands. The commercial brands cost an average of £2.86/slaughter pig more, but yielded an extra 29 kg saleable meat per tonne of food eaten (MTF 333 kg v. 304 kg), giving an REO (Return on Extra Outlay) of 3.58:1 – an impressive result considering the same genetics, conditions and labour on each individual farm.

The cost and extra work. Major objections with some breeders. Cost is understandable, as some modern creep feeds can break the €1,500/tonne barrier. “Are they really worth that?” they say. Yes they are. An average 3:1 payback is not to be ignored – after all the creep fed portion of the total feed eaten to slaughter is only 2.6% which in 2011 costs only 2.5% of the total feed cost. Objectors respond by saying, “But will I really get that?” Answer: “Yes, you will, providing you purchase them freshlymade and store them properly.”

And the extra hassle? After outlining what is involved in the ‘feeding them properly’ area the next objection is, “But that’s a lot of hassle – I’m not certain that my staff are up to it!” The only reply is this. Please think about your breeding farm cash flow improving by a third and probably getting fewer reproductive problems like returns and sow diseases. In addition your slaughter results are quite likely to yield well over 20 kg more lean meat per tonne of food fed. At today’s prices this alone is equivalent to a 12 to 16%/tonne price reduction in all the food fed from weaning to slaughter. Desperately looking for feed cost savings? Well – there’s one to start with! If you feel your staff is not up to the discipline and skills proper creep feeding needs, then you must set about training them, and consider a bonus scheme using some of those likely savings as an incentive. This is what some of my clients are doing successfully.

But why that considerable cost? All down to the equally considerable sensitivity of the suckling pigs’ absorptive gut lining. Nature never meant it to have their milk supply removed suddenly and far too soon. But we have to wean before nature intended. Any form of solid food is in danger of inflaming the gut surface lining, which then refuses to absorb it. An undigested blockage occurs, hostile bacteria proliferate in it and the piglet scours to remove the toxic traffic jam – a type of ‘lavatoryflushing’ reaction. The tiny pig soon runs out of body fluids to do this and its whole metabolism runs down. So in order to lift the nutrient intake demand on the sow by offering creep feed, the ingredients must as far as possible be predigested by the manufacturer. If the piglet is too young to do it, we must do it for him. The box on the right lists how it is done.

Feeding creep feeds properly.
Success takes patience, discipline and commitment.

  1. Managers and owners. Give your farrowing house staff enough time to be with the piglets. The typical farrow- to-finish breeder is only affording 6% of his total labour force availability (about 1.32 man hours/sow/year). It should be twice to three times as much. This is borne out by six of my clients who consistently wean 28 pigs/sow/year and who on average spend 3.75 manhours/sow/year (17%) in just looking after baby pigs.
  2. Keep things cleaner. This is made easier by my ‘Three-Threes’ approach. Within three days from birth, offer enough creep feed to last three working hours and continue this for three days. Then revert to a day’s supply which will vary according to each litter. Uneaten creep is given to the sow or to any female losing condition. The creep receptacles must be cleaned and dried daily. This takes time, of course, but time must be made available.
  3. Start early. Still controversial with older breeders and their stock people living in the past when creep feed design was in a dark age. They caused looseness/scouring if too much was fed. Modern creep feeds do not. If there is diarrhoea, then look for other causes. Figure 1 shows the benefit of starting early as there always seems to be a time-lag until solid food uptake is measurable. Naturally baby pigs prefer their mother’s milk, so give them time to develop their natural curiosity and begin to copy what their bolder siblings have already started doing!
  4. Ensure sucklers eat 400 g by weaning. Given a modern creep feed, the experts tell us that this is sufficient to ‘prime’ the gut surface before the milk disappears at weaning, so as to avoid a ‘digestive shock’. This must be a main reason why there is a trend towards 28 day weaning – by then 400 g is much more likely to be eaten (Figure 2).
  5. Order small amounts/store carefully. Of all farm feeds the creeps are the most delicate and subject to deterioration. A creep doesn’t have to be ‘off’ to reduce uptake – just stale. This happens rapidly if storage is over 28°C and humidity over 70%.
  6.  Dusty pellets are a menace. Likewise more than 2% fines. We never accepted more than this and sent them back.
  7. The right type of creep feeders. Small and easily cleaned but difficult for the piglets to shift. Too many creep feeders are far too large – a throwback to the days when creep feeding started at 14 days or more. These just don’t get sanitised sufficiently. Once the piglets are eating well – then perhaps permissible, but they still need sanitising frequently.
This trial suggests that earlier a good creep feed is offered - the better.
Estimated creep feed average intakes from five authorities. 
The future?
  • The rescue deck concept will become the norm, adding to the ideas already used to take the load off the sow in lactation.
  • Imprinting to increase uptake will reemerge now that modern creep feeds are so gut-friendly. It failed 30 years ago because it encouraged piglets to eat too much unsuitable feed!
  • Earlier weaning. Will return from creep feeds which aggravate the gut even less and we become more skilled in feeding them. The present 400 g threshold intake will then fall accordingly.
  • Sanitation early on is so important that ‘disposable’ creep feeders could appear.

Critical make-up of a modern creep feed
• Sow milk is rich in lactose so similarly high levels are needed in creep feed. Lactose supply has to compete with the human baby food industry – so it is expensive.

• Normal soyas, okay for older pigs, are excluded as the villi largely cannot absorb them. The same with several affordable alternative proteins. Soya has to be treated if used at all.
• Low cost fish meals are banned; only the expensive ‘low temperature’ processed raw fish, cooked slowly, is allowed.
• Meat meals should be avoided for very young pigs. Groundnut is a sure road to scour.
• Non-starch polysaccharides in cereals interfere with digestibility and are classed as ANFs (Anti-Nutrient Factors). There are ways round this by being careful to analyse wheat and barley (expense) and include certain enzymes to assist in damping them down – more expense. Maize is relatively low in ANFs but can be high in mycotoxins,
• Specialised egg protein powder is an essential ‘new’ ingredient which materially helps the piglets immune defences and now is preferred to plasma protein. Anyway the public is wary of by-products from dead animals in the food chain, even at this early stage.
• To help with the ‘non-aggravating’ protein supply, nucleotides are being considered – forerunners of amino-acids.
• Fats and oils for digestible energy need to be specially refined.
• Specially-protected vitamins add to the cost.
• ‘Bioplexed’ organic trace elements are needed and are more efficiently absorbed than the cheaper inorganic sources we have used for years.
• Manufacturing. To provide lactose, a high proportion of milk products makes pellet manufacture difficult, requiring sophisticated equipment to produce a very small pellet of correct particle size and texture, with no fines at all.
Not an option. OK, says the breeder – “Why not increase the nutrient density of the lactation feed and leave it to the sow. After all, nature knows best.”
Unfortunately this is self-defeating, because if energy in particular is raised too far the sow just eats less and we are no better off.