Piglet litter sizes have increased noticeably in recent years but ensuring these piglets survive has presented challenges to producers. Thanks to a combination of a specialised feeding system and a carefully formulated milk replacer 1,700 extra piglets survive the critical weaning period each month.
By Pieter Wolleswinkel, Provimi, the Netherlands
Average litter size has increased in the past five years. For example, in the Netherlands there has been an increase of 1.3 piglets per litter, as shown in Table 1. But this has presented challenges as litter size is strongly correlated with birth weight. The more piglets that are born, on average the lighter the piglets are. Besides, sows have more difficulties in coping with large litters. This has resulted in an increase of piglet mortality in the farrowing house as well as a reduction in average daily gain pre and post weaning. Whilst both factors are of concern to producers, the increase in mortality also draws attention from a welfare perspective.
Producers have tried to improve results by cross fostering or using foster sows. But the results were not satisfactory and this procedure does not suit all-in-all-out management.
It became clear that help was needed to improve survival rates in the farrowing house using a new and different approach.
New milk replacers
Although milk replacers have been on the market for quite some time, in recent years there have been some developments that allowed big steps to be made in the quality and suitability of these products. These developments include the use of blood plasma. This highly digestible animal protein source contains immunoglobulins, which supports the intestinal tract against infections. Also blood plasma is well known for its positive effect on the palatability of feed. This is of key importance for young animals.
The development of highly digestible vegetable sources resulting from new raw material processing techniques has also added to the development of advanced milk replacers. Specific gut enzymes are stimulated and prepare the piglets for the transition towards solid feed.
And a third improvement is the new technique for the acidification of milk replacers that helps to avoid rancidity and guarantees the quality of the product for a longer period.
Combining these improvements into a modern day milk replacer has been shown to add to their success in performance. Palatability has improved, no diarrhoea occurs, quality is more consistent and the lag in performance at weaning is significantly reduced. Milk replacers are increasingly used in the farrowing crate which improves weight development and reduces preweaning mortality.
Whilst feeding milk replacers to large litters can improve survival and growth rates significantly, they should not be fed on day 1 as this can limit intakes of the sow’s colostrum – an essential ingredient for piglet survival. Milk replacer can be provided in a bowl and hand-fed from day 2 until day 12 or 13. As a rule, piglets should be emptying the bowl within three hours. Research shows that this approach to feeding a milk replacer stimulates the intake of prestarter feed in the farrowing pen by 60% and this in turn eases the weaning process.
A complete concept
In the past, vulnerable piglets could not be taken away from the sow until 7 or 8 days after birth. Now, with the improvements made to milk replacers such as those in RescueMilk, piglets can be raised away from the sows at day 3 or 4.
And to further improve the survival of these vulnerable piglets and to create a safe environment, Provimi developed a dedicated incubator. Positioned on top of a farrowing pen, this RescueDeck provides piglets with a microclimate. It means they can stay close to the mother in the farrowing pen and fit into the all-in-all-out system.
Milk is supplied to the RescueDeck through a pump from a storage bin. The deck contains three cups: one for the water and two for milk. These cups are the secret of the system. The nipples enable sufficient supply of milk for the little piglets, yet avoid over supply that would lead to wet piglets and too much milk spoilage. In addition the nipple prevents backflow of milk. The system only needs to be cleaned once a week and its design limits the amount of milk lost during cleaning.
Outperforming litter mates
Research indicates that all piglets perform well in the RescueDeck: healthy piglets, small piglets and lagging piglets. Figure 1 shows the performance of lagging piglets compared with stronger litter mates. Piglets with a normal birth weight were selected and placed in the RescueDeck as they had insufficient sow milk intake at day 4 (limited stomach fill). These piglets recovered in the RescueDeck and by day 14 post-weaning they had equalled piglets raised on the sow. This demonstrated the positive effect of the RescueDeck system on gut development, where piglets hardly faced a weaning dip. This is a result of the high feed intake in the RescueDeck – piglets could typically achieve intakes of 3 kg of RescueMilk and 3kg of prestarter until weaning.
In general, the RescueDeck reduces piglet mortality by 3% to 5% depending on the initial situation. Average weaning weight improves by approximately 350 g for all piglets as the remaining piglets have more space at the udder. And finally, the litter index improves as less foster sows are required. To obtain these results, one RescueDeck per 12 sows is needed but this ultimately depends on the litter sizes.
- Looking at the economics, the benefits of the RescueDeck system in a 500 sow herd can yield an extra €36,500:
- 4% reduction in piglet mortality: €16,500 (635 piglets extra weaned per year)
- 350 g increase in weaning weight: €10,000 (5,000 kg extra weaning weight per year)
- 0.05 reduction in litter index: €10,000 (eight extra production days per sow per year)
A return-on-investment calculation indicates a ROI of 3 to 1. The payback time is around six months. Given the ongoing development of pig production such investments are required to keep performance at the required level. Currently there are 2300 RescueDecks installed in Europe. This indicates that there are new tools for helping producers to deal with larger litter sizes and reduce piglet mortality. These tools can be cost-effective. Most importantly, they provide a means of harnessing the progress made in litter sizes and ensuring that piglet output moves in the same direction.