Thinking ahead – also needed for healthy weaners

17-06-2014 | |
Thinking ahead – also needed for healthy weaners

In Pig Progress’ Sow Management Special Edition last year, attention was paid to the need to ‘think ahead’. The same goes for piglet health before, during and after weaning. How to alleviate this traumatic period for piglets?

By John Gadd, pig management consultant, UK

Thinking ahead starts with a good birth weight. A weight of 1.45 kg rather than 1.2 kg means a stronger and healthier piglet at weaning, especially when weaning at 21 days or under. A trawl through published research suggests that for each 100 g added birthweight, pre-weaning mortality is likely to fall by 0.4%. Some personal research into eight farms’ records since 2006 taught me that these were rather higher, asTable 1 shows, both in ‘percentage mortality’ and the more pragmatic ‘piglets lost’ term, which also takes in litter size.

Better birthweights

There is plenty published on the subject of better birth weights. ‘Thinking ahead’ comes in much earlier than many breeders realise. Among the 14 or so factors, some of the more important involving thinking ahead are:

  • Good, level implantation 12 to 24 days from service is vital, so read up about what affects uterine condition before weaning as well as synchronous/ asynchronous follicle release, and how management influences both of them. Even       litters are less stressed and so are likely to be healthier. Table 2 summarises some of the early evidence.
  • Don’t let sow body condition ‘nose-dive’ in lactation.
  • Use prostaglandins, but not too early. Get the administration dates right.
  • Check with nutritionists about target daily nutrient intake for the sow (rather than just which diet to feed) between weaning and service under farm-specific conditions. Especially for first-litter sows, somewhat thin, or underweight sows.

All these can affect bigger, stronger pigs at weaning, which are likely to be healthier.

Outside the piglet

Producers are aware of the vital importance of cleanliness and temperature in ensuring a healthy weaner. Trouble seems to be that on 75% of the farms I tour, the conditions before and after the weaning process just aren’t clean enough and that temperatures on a third of the units are either too hot or too stuffy, due to lack of modern controllers.


Thinking ahead again towards a healthier weaner, conditions in the litter’s first week after farrowing have to be spotless and from then on ‘very clean’. Some experimental units these days can only be viewed through glass panels because of their hospital-like conditions.

It is important to point out several features:

  1. How much time did they spend on maintaining such cleanliness over this preweaning stage? Total time they spent pre-weaning was above 25 man hours/ sow/ year, half of it spent in keeping things very clean. Many of the farms I visit barely reach 12 hours/ sow/ year spent on pre-weaning and only four to six hours/ sow/ year spent on cleaning. Not only is more time needed to be with the baby pigs but a greater proportion needs to be allocated to hygiene and repeated cleaning, time after time. It’s a pain, but it pays – and could be a candidate for a performance bonus scheme after swab tests by the vet.
  2. Performance is also interesting – what were these farms’ pre-weaning mortality? One had 4%; another had 5.1%. Converted into Absolute Mortality Figure (AMF), which takes into account ‘percentage of what?’ – this was 0.53 pigs lost/ litter before weaning and 0.75 on the other farm. Again, in my personal experience since 2009, mortality has been 1.49 pigs lost/ litter – three times higher, reducing a ‘weaners raised/ sow/ year’ figure by 3.47 pigs. So a producer achieving a reasonable 25 could raise it towards 29 by more attention to hygiene.
  3. Monitoring health also needs some attention. Should veterinarians do this? It may help. From my personal experience I can tell pre-weaning mortality, called disease profiling, could provide as much as a pig per litter more.


Another management strategy is to give underprivileged piglets a better chance of resisting infectious challenge by weaning time. A huge subject – there are no less than eight different systems – too many to describe here, from emergency fostering due to the dam’s death to the ‘Rescue Deck’, an excellent concept which replaces the final, eighth option – the nurse sow.

Here are three basic rules before starting:

  • Fostering can occasionally inflame some diseases. In that case, it is wise to seek the advice of a veterinarian familiar with a farm’s specific disease profile and knows the staff’s skill level.
  • Practical advice from successful fosterers is useful. Particularly listen to their section heads who practice the concept – their front-line experience is valuable and will save you making inevitable mistakes.
  • Essential for baby pigs are patience and good observation – be careful about voluntary fostering if staff lack these characteristics.


Temperature is also a huge subject, with plenty of published tables for different types of environment, especially types of floor covering and expected food intake. So why are so many nurseries hot and stuffy? Mainly because producers do not balance the published temperatures with equally well-published minimum/ maximum ventilation rates for the liveweight housed per room. Aggravated by overstocking – a worldwide failing. There are now sophisticated controllers which take care of all of this. However, when deciding to upgrade, the unit cost tends to put people off. In that respect it is good to remember that the capital cost of the equipment for, say, two nurseries serving the output of 100 sows over a ten year life, is spread out over 60,000 weaners, resulting in a very low cost per pig.

Inside the piglet

There are two technical areas which have made huge strides in the past ten years – genetics and baby/ young pig nutrition. Both involve new discoveries on how immunity is involved in seeing the weaner safely through this traumatic period. Just imagine what weaning has to be like. For the first time away from home and mother! The surroundings and routine strange and frightening. All those new companions, some of them bullying. The food being different and not all that appetising. The temperature alternatively too hot indoors and freezing cold out. It takes a while to get used to it, after which things are not too bad. Poor little weaner!

Food and gut health

The weaner’s digestive system is very fragile, made worse by stress. In the past, due to the overuse of low-cost ingredients, these inflamed the lining of the gut, interfering with efficient digestion, resulting inadequate energy intake, thus chilling and eventual scouring in an attempt to flush the indigesta away. This then leads to dehydration, a build-up of body toxins and the weaner feels very ill. More stress. A vicious circle.

Those days are gone – or they will be when the breeder feels he can afford the latest foods available today which are ‘pre-digested’ so that the raw materials will not damage the gut lining. They therefore have to be expensive. There is still too much sales resistance to what looks like extremely costly food. It is wise to consider the sums relative to production cost. The amount of these specially formulated and manufactured feeds required before, across and for a while after the weaning period are very small compared to the eventual cost of food by slaughterweight because so little by comparison is eaten. The critical peri-weaning period feeds will constitute only about 8% of the total feed eaten to slaughter comprising about 16% of the total food cost per pig. Looked at this way, they are not expensive at all.

The benefits are a much shorter check to growth post-weaning of only one to two days, with every day saved affording three to sometimes four quicker (and healthier) days taken to slaughter with over 2 kg/ day food saved. This gives a payback of 3.8:1 by slaughter weight despite the seemingly high cost per bag or per tonne of this gut-friendly early nutrition.


We all know that a day’s access to colostrum is vital to fill-in the protective ‘immunity gap’ between the immunity in the mother’s foremilk and the piglets rather slow acquisition by its own means afterwards.

So identify the later-born and/ or weaker piglets and make sure they are placed on a forward teat within the first few hours of farrowing so that these vulnerables are sufficiently fortified by weaning time and are less likely to infect their litter mates. Again, lack of staff time and patience are the problems. There are colostrum substitutes from fortified cow milk which can also be used for the underprivileged likely to contract disease and infect their companions. There is a lot to learn – it needs to be more practised.


These, as well as being poisons especially insidious in their action, also interfere with immunity.

Read how to protect all pigs, but especially the youngsters, from them. Even doing all that is needed – keeping food utensils clean and the routine use of in-feed mycostats, provides a payback of 6:1.

The nursery

In the new facility for weaners – the nursery – cleanliness should be a top priority as well. Three procedures are essential:

  • Scrape down, then apply a farm-specific detergent, not the cheaper hospital and domestic forms which are poor against congealed faecal fat. Leave for a short while, then pressure wash off before applying the disinfectant. Use a foaming detergent so as not to miss surfaces. Read the dilution instructions.
  • A good detergent is just as important as the disinfectant. Modern, approved disinfectants penetrate viruses’ tough protective shield but can be weak against organic material which protects it.
  • Thinking ahead, make sure the surfaces are bone dry before putting in the weaned pigs. Every farm should have a garage kerosene blower heater to speed up drying – yet I see few of them. Natural drying to the same extent takes days – beyond the patience of staff with weaned pigs clamouring to be housed.

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

John Gadd Topic: Pig Management