Practical Strategies to Improve Weaned-pig Productivity

Transitioning a weaned pig to the growing phase presents challenges, but details and actions impact the outcome.

Whether weaned pigs are entering a nursery or a wean-to-finish facility,

getting them off to the right start is the single most important thing you can do to ensure their continued growth and productivity. While that’s not exactly a secret, it’s still an area that demands attention.

There’s no one answer; rather, the pig, the facility and the flows will direct your strategies, and it’s the many little things that will add up to impact the outcome.

“If you don’t get pigs through the nursery, you’re not going to get them through the finisher,” says Chris Sievers, DVM, Swine Vet Center in St. Peter, Minnesota. “You need to start with the end goal in mind, and that is to deliver grade A market hogs to the packer.”

To build the foundation, start with recordkeeping and benchmarking. “If you don’t measure the current status, you don’t know if you’re making progress or falling

backward,” he adds. “You need accurate data systems and then compare data year by year, month by month and group by group.”

It’s important to set goals and communicate those from the sow farm to the grower, manager and employees. But be realistic and be prepared to make adjustments when health or pig-flow challenges arise.

To help the cause, Sievers and

his colleague, Ryan Strobel, DVM, offer a range of strategies to improve weaned-pig livability and productivity.

Prepare the Facility for Weaned Pigs

Establish all-in/all-out at least by room — by barn or by site is preferred but not always achievable. The key is to minimize the age range, particularly when  dealing with certain diseases, such as pneumonias. “You don’t want older, potentially sick pigs exposing the young pigs coming in,” Strobel says.

Once the facility is empty, the preparation plan needs to include a hot-water wash and then allow enough time to dry, disinfect and dry again. Have it inspected, but not by the person who washed the barn, to confirm the most difficult areas were cleaned thoroughly — the corners, under the feeders and gates, and even the gate rods. Plan to degrease the building periodically, especially if scour issues surface.

“If you don’t put pigs in a clean  barn, you’re fighting an uphill battle,” Strobel says. Increasingly, producers are white-washing rooms with hydrated lime and water, he adds. But the key is to get a thick coating over everything — the walls, under feeders, and the concrete.

Too often Strobel sees stale water and feces left behind in waterers between groups, jeopardizing the weaned pigs’ transition. Water makes up 75 percent of a young pig’s bodyweight, so it can dehydrate quickly. A good solution is to use a battery-powered leaf blower to blow out and get the water cups clean and dry. Also, clean the water lines with an acidifier between pig groups.

Clean and test brooder heaters or heat lamps and then check them daily while in use. Another common mistake is that the “heat-on” and the fan setpoint are tied too close together, Strobel says. This not only wastes propane because fans turn on too soon, it results in temperature variations and fails to provide a comfortable environment for the pig.

For pig comfort, focus on what the pig feels — and that’s not the 80° F setpoint on the controls. For weaned pigs, the temperature probe should be placed in the sleeping area, 35 inches up from the floor and at 51 inches for finishing pigs.

Inspect the building’s exterior, including cleanliness and function of the pit fans. A 1/8 inch of dust can reduce fan efficiency by 40 percent, which will quickly compromise ventilation rates.

While specific ventilation details need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, the overall goals are to remove or control excess humidity (below 70 percent), provide proper air exchange, keep pigs comfortable and minimize stress. The two veterinarians also recommend measuring carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and ammonia levels to make sure those gases are not starting to creep up.

Other common ventilation pitfalls that Sievers sees are not enough or blocked attic inlets and soffits; incorrect inlet settings; incorrect heater settings; broken or dirty fan blades or louvers; electrical issues; and leaks around doors, curtains and such.

“The end goal is to understand your barn and your controller,” Sievers notes. “It’s about using the pig as your gauge and making daily adjustments according to pig comfort. Don’t just go off of the numbers on the controls.”

Know the Pig; Set the Plan

The starting goal is to get the highest quality weaned pig possible, and that involves working closely with the sow farm, communicating how those pigs perform on the sow and how they perform throughout the growth phase.

“You need to know the current status of the pig supply — the age, weight, health and genetics. These things really impact the way you set up your post-weaning program,” Sievers says.

It’s beneficial to optimize the age and weight of the weaned pig — preferably a 20-day-old pig, but no less than 17 to 18 days, and weighing at least 7 to 8 pounds, with a 13-pound average, the veterinarians say. Whether the pigs are from a single source or commingled also will influence how you set up the barn and the fill plan.

Next is knowing what pathogens the sow farm is dealing with and working to reduce the virus and bacterial  load of weaned pigs. The baseline is to achieve negative flows for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, Mycoplasma pneumonia, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus and Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia.

Previous health challenges and diagnoses will direct the vaccination plans and timing for the sows and pigs, as well as any treatment plans. “What are the main and secondary pathogens you’re dealing with?” Sievers notes. “You have to put together the proper feed, water and injectable-medication strategy for each flow of pigs. It’s not one size fits all.”

It’s always important to clearly communicate details of any vaccinations and treatments the pigs have received, whether the health status or products have changed or if things didn’t get executed correctly. A transfer sheet can follow the pigs and communicate those details through to the finishing phase.

Retrain anyone involved in vaccination and medication applications at least annually, preferably twice a year.

That includes how to store vaccines and medications. “Just telling them or writing out procedures isn’t enough,” Sievers says. “Watch to make sure they’re not going too fast or stressing the pigs. Also, are pigs getting the whole vaccine dose? Are they changing needles?” Use unplanned

visits to confirm procedures.

Make individual pig care and monitoring a priority, but train people what traits to look for. Treatment success doesn’t just depend on the right medication for the right pig but also the timeliness of the application, Strobel says. Finding pigs that need help applies to sorting out the small pigs as well. Plan to leave 5 percent to 25 percent of the pen space open to assign as needed. Designate at least one sick pen, more depending on the health of the flow. Place these pens away from fans and drafts. Also

allocate “graduation pens” to move the pigs along as they progress.

“Spending time during the first 2 weeks in both the nursery and finisher saves a ton of time during the rest of the turn,” he adds. “The more you can sort and plan where to put various pens makes the rest of the time go well.”

Biosecurity is key to keeping pigs healthy by preventing disease introduction, reducing disease spread within a

farm and preventing spread to other uninfected farms. “Consider that the

pathogen is right outside the door,” Strobel says. Set up clear clean/dirty lines throughout the farm. Implement a bench-entry system and shower-in protocols, especially for nurseries. Do not exchange tools between sites.

Establish a disinfection process for supplies and have visitor logs. Place dead boxes well away from production sites and have detailed drop-off and pick-up rules. Procedures for animal movements, trailers, chute use and loading/unloading require specific attention. A swine veterinarian can help set up all of these measures and more.

Target the Feed to the Pig

Although the just-weaned pig is dealing with many dramatic changes, adjusting to feed and the method of eating may be the most challenging. Work with a swine nutritionist to develop a nutrition program from the starter through to the nursery and finisher diets. Pay attention to dietary transitions, and resist the temptation to jump to the next one too quickly or make too large of a jump.

Again, know your pigs and their health history, especially the gut pathogens because that will influence diet composition. “We have to help them,” Sievers says. “Gut health is a priority, and that comes down to consistent and continuous intake of quality feed.”

That can start with creep feeding, just to give them a taste of what’s to come. It’s not meant to provide a full meal, so keep it limited. For weaned pigs, mat or gruel feeding is an effective way to introduce the pigs to feed as well as provide a more familiar social-eating session. But again, don’t overdo it.

There should be no feed left on the mat after 20 to 30 minutes. The same time limit applies to gruel feeding. Allow one bowl for 25 pigs

30 percent dry feed, and work the formula backwards over 5 to 7 days to help them get used to dry feed. After that, proper feeder management and cleaning are key to keeping feed fresh and palatable.

The two veterinarians recommend “four-times-a-day chores” for a period, but that can be accomplished in two shifts. First, walk through the barn, gruel or mat feed, check the pigs and administer treatments. Complete the visit with a second feeding and walk through to get all the pigs up. Do that twice a day. “Their mom used to stir them up and feed them every hour,” Sievers says. “You need to help them know when it’s time to eat.”

A word about water: Ensure a fresh supply and adequate access (1 cup or nipple per 20 pigs). “For pigs that don’t get started on feed or water, there’s not a medication in the world that can save them,” Sievers adds. “Those pigs need to be identified and pulled immediately for extra help, not tomorrow or the next day.”

Of course, the execution of these strategies and management of the  pigs rely on people in the barn. There’s no shortage of advice on how to manage people, yet it will remain an ongoing challenge. Sievers and Strobel emphasize a few basic points. “Focus on clear, continuous communication. Be careful not to blame; instead, educate people,” they say. “Follow up with immediate feedback — the good and bad. And push them to always improve.”

Finally, give people the support and tools they need to do the job, and that involves open access to others, including the veterinarian and nutritionist. After all, keeping pigs growing, healthy and productive is a team effort.