There are some phases of the production cycle that are so important that it’s basically mandatory that you get it right. When you get these phases right, everything else becomes easier and if you get them wrong, it becomes almost impossible to achieve overall performance targets. I call these “inflection points”. In mathematics, an inflection point is a point of a curve at which a change in the direction of curvature occurs. In business, it’s often defined as a time of significant change; a turning point. In pork production, it’s a phase of production or an activity that can have dramatic positive influence on overall production if managed effectively. I’ll be discussing more of these inflection points in the near future but in this article, I will focus on one aspect of one of these inflection points…the first 7 days after weaning.
The first 7 days after weaning is a critical time in the life of the growing pig and it’s absolutely essential that managers are laser focused on helping pigs navigate this transition period. The primary goal of the nursery manager is to transition pigs from milk to dry feed. One of the primary components of a successful transition strategy is to maximize feed intake during the first 7 days post weaning. Recent research has highlighted the importance of maximizing feed intake during the nursery phase and several studies have shown that high feed intake during the first 7 days is highly correlated with body weight at the end of week four and later in the nursery and finishing phases.
We have several tools and management strategies at our disposal to help improve feed intake after weaning but one of the most powerful is gruel feeding. Gruel feeding can be extremely helpful in meeting the short-term energy needs of recently-weaned pigs. If it’s managed correctly, it can be a bridge to dry feed and high intake throughout the nursery period. If it’s poorly managed, however, it can actually become an obstacle to success. So here’s four key points to ensure that you’re successful with your gruel-feeding program.
Feed the Right Amount:
The goal of gruel feeding is to meet the pig’s short-term nutrition needs while at the same time transitioning the pig to eating dry feed from the feeder. The correct amount of gruel feed is a critical component of a successful gruel feeding strategy. If we feed too little, the pigs don’t get the required energy to keep them going. If we feed too much, we run the risk of feed going sour which can have the opposite of the intended effect. Another risk of feeding too much is that we allow the pigs to become full and meet all their needs from gruel feed and essentially train them to eat gruel feed instead of helping them transition to eating dry feed from the feeder.
The goal is to feed an amount of feed that can be consumed by the pigs in about 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, the feeders should be removed from the pen and cleaned. One of the most common mistakes I see in gruel feeding is leaving feed in the feeders too long. The nursery environment is almost ideal for feed to spoil, especially if gruel is made with milk replacer. The amount of feed should be adjusted as necessary to avoid wastage while feeding enough to make sure pigs have feed available to them for at least 10-15 minutes. Standard gruel feeders should be sufficient for 10 pigs so if you have more than 10 pigs in a pen, you’ll need multiple feeders.
Feed the Right Consistency:
Another important factor in effective gruel feeding is making sure you get the right mix of feed to water. Again, the goal is to transition the pig from gruel feed to dry feed so I recommend starting out the first few days with a very soupy mixture (more water and less feed). This makes the feed more palatable and has the added benefit of helping with hydration which is a common problem in the first 48 hours. As the pig gets a little older we can gradually increase the amount of feed and reduce the amount of water until the pig is eating mostly feed with a little water for the last few days.
If you have the ability to mix gruel feed with warm water, that can be very beneficial. Mixing up gruel feed with milk replacer or a milk substitute can be useful as well and there are also a few liquid supplements on the market that can be added as well to improve gut health, energy levels and hydration.
Feed the Right Frequency:
One more time, our goal is to get the pig to transition to dry feed. For many of the same reasons we don’t want to feed too much gruel feed, we want to make sure we don’t gruel feed too often. I recommend a maximum of 3 times per day, morning, noon and evening. This ensures that the pigs are getting enough feed to serve the intended purpose without taking away the motivation to find dry feed in the feeder.
Feed the Right Number of Days:
I recommend gruel feeding no more than 7 days and no fewer than three. If properly managed, almost all pigs should be on feed by the end of day seven. If you follow these recommendations and they are not eating by day 7, they most likely will never transition. On a well-managed farm, that should be a rare occurrence. Many times I’ve had clients complain that they couldn’t get pigs weaned off gruel feed and every time, when we’ve made the adjustments I’ve recommended here, the problem has been solved.
Feed the Right Pigs:
If you have the time or labor to gruel feed all incoming pigs, it probably makes sense to do it. If this is not feasible on your farm, I suggest you mat feed all pigs and only gruel feed the lightest 20% of the pigs you place along with all pigs in the hospital/fallback pen for the first 3-7 days. Be aware that sometimes really big, healthy-looking pigs have a lot of trouble making the transition to dry feed. They have obviously been thriving on the sow and getting plenty of milk but surprisingly it’s not unusual for these pigs to struggle in the first few days after weaning. That’s why it’s critical to watch pigs very closely in the first few days to make sure that you identify pigs that aren’t eating so you can pursue interventions like force-feeding gruel feel, providing electrolytes and perhaps moving them temporarily to a fall back pen for closer observation.
Gruel feeding can be a powerful tool in a nursery manager’s tool box. Whether applied in a traditional nursery or a wean-finish barn, gruel feeding can help increase lactation feed intake and increase the percentage of pigs that consume feed in the first 24 hours which are both keys to a good transition. Even in the most ideal situations, most pigs are going to be at an energy deficit in the first 3-4 days post weaning. It is therefore essential that we do everything we can to minimize the negative impacts of the energy deficit. Gruel feeding, along with several other important management strategies forms the foundation needed to get pigs off to a good start and as every nursery manager knows, a good start is the key to a good finish.
About the Author: Todd Thurman is the founder of SwineTex Consulting Services, a US-based provider of training and consulting services to the global swine industry. To learn more about Mr. Thurman or SwineTex, visit us at www.swinetex.com or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org