Weaning piglets at older age may pay off in longer term

Studies have found that for every day increase in weaning age, the nursery exit weights increased 802 grams over a six-week period and the finisher farm shipped an additional 1.38 kilograms, while mortality dropped 0.77 percent. | File photo

In these times of extremely high input costs (feed contributes approximately 70 percent of the cost of production), pig farms continue to push for production and health improvements.

Many times, we need only look at management strategies to achieve significant production and health improvements that will have a significant positive financial impact on the farm.

This article will review the impact that weaning older pigs from sow farms has on production and health.

A sow will naturally wean her litter around 10 weeks old. This is not what happens in modern swine units.

Around 30 years ago, management strategies were adopted to reduce or eliminate some pig diseases that involved weaning as young as seven to 10 days of age, gradually having the swine sector facilities designed to accommodate groups of weaned pigs at 16 to 20 days of age. This has been a common strategy to optimize facility throughput.

Over the past five years, there has been research focused on understanding the benefits to older weaned pigs.

A recent Journal of Animal Science study completed by Kansas State University looked at the production and health benefits of increasing wean age from 19 to 28 days old. Obviously, this is a far cry from 10 weeks that would naturally happen, but also a strategy that could be adopted easily by our current modern farm facilities.

The study measured post-weaning average daily gain (ADG) and wean-finish mortality, finding that for each additional day of age we add to the wean age, the growth and survival improves.

For every day increase in weaning age, the nursery exit weights increased 802 grams over a six-week period and the finisher farm shipped an additional 1.38 kilograms, while mortality dropped 0.77 percent.

The study also observed an impact on the number of pigs within the first week of weaning that lost weight. There were 35 percent of 19-day-old weaners that lost weight in the first week after weaning, where only nine percent of 28-day-old weaners lost weight.

In other words, a farm could expect to have more pigs having a better nursery start, ship heavier pigs out of the nursery and out of the finisher, resulting in more kilograms of pork sold.

If a farm could add five days of age to its weaned pig flow (shift from a 19-day average to 24 days) the net benefit would be four kg additional nursery exit weight, seven kg additional weight shipped per pig sold, and a potential reduction in mortality of 3.9 percent.

The reduction in mortality could have a farm realize an additional 11 kg sold per pig weaned. Another way to look at this improvement is to consider the reduction in days to market.

If a finisher pig is gaining more than 1,000 grams per day in the last weeks of production, we can potentially ship pigs 11 days earlier.

Applying today’s economics (base price $1.86 per kg) the financial impact to these production achievements results in a potential increase of $17.06 per pig sold.

Obviously, there are some details beyond the scope of this article that need consideration, such as additional lactation, creep feed costs and a potential reduction in the need for antibiotic intervention with healthier pigs in the pipeline.

One of the physiologic mechanisms that explains these production improvements involves the improved robustness of the intestinal lining in weaned pigs with older weaning age. The intestinal lining becomes less permeable to pathogens and therefore the pig has enhanced gut immune function compared to younger weaned pigs.

Farmers have many options to help shift their operations to older weaning and will get creative with strategies that could include weaning a group of sows over multiple days through the week, or even shifting the wean day, such as weaning next Tuesday rather than this Thursday, which adds five days of age to the lactation.

We often say the most expensive real-estate on the farmyard is the farrowing crate where the sow gives birth and nurses its litter. We are more efficient with facility use if we reduce the time a sow is parked in these high-value spaces just gestating. Moving the sow into the crate within one to two days of it giving birth will often gain a few days of lactation length and weaning age.

Other strategies could include a reduction in sow inventory or the addition of farrowing crate capacity.

We will continue to see weaning age shift to older weaning as farms continue to look for opportunities to improve productivity, health, welfare and financial success of their pig operations.

Blaine Tully is a veterinarian and owner of Swine Health Professionals Ltd. in Steinbach, Man. 

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