Mix 'em, keep 'em warm and start 'em on gruel feed.

In a typical community nursery, several sources of pigs are placed in the same room or building, but usually each source is penned separately to keep the health of the groups intact.

That sounds like a good idea. But experience shows commingling several sources of nursery pigs in this manner, even early weaned pigs, has not worked very well. It has resulted in numerous disease outbreaks and caused many pork producers to quit the practice.

Swine veterinarian Allan Carlson suggests mixing multi-source pigs together immediately, regardless of source.

"If you have two or more farms weaning into that nursery, and you try to keep them separate, you will only make matters worse. Because no matter how hard you try to sort pigs by size and put them in an appropriate pen and keep them healthy, you are going to have sick pigs develop and pigs that fall behind. It really messes up the performance of the group on average," says Carlson, a veterinarian with the Swine Health Center, Morris, MN.

"We sort pigs by size and gender on arrival without regard to the source. If you are going to put them all in the same room, literally mix them up at that point," he says.

As you fill a multi-source nursery or finisher, leave at least three pens completely empty, says Carlson. Then, immediately go back through and sort out the unthrifty barrows and gilts and pen them separately in two of the empty pens.

"Now you've got all these poor-doers, separated by sex, together. They can compete better, you can feed them a little bit better, and you can pay more direct attention to them," he explains.

The third empty nursery pen serves as the hospital pen. Put all the pigs you are treating into that one pen. That makes their treatment more efficient and helps prevent further disease spread, points out Carlson.

When he first started using this empty pen approach, producers complained that building space was being wasted. He counters: "You aren't really. You are filling the same space. You are just filling it according to your needs and not just to fill the room."

Early weaned pigs are hardy, but they also need proper care. "We can't just throw them into an environment and expect them to do as good as a pig that is 21-25 days of age," Carlson says. Provide early weaned pigs with a draft-free environment. Use a combination heating system rather than just trying to heat the nursery with propane gas heaters or radiant heaters.

"Using comfort mats or boards with heat lamps and gas or radiant heat in a combination heating system makes it a lot easier to manage the nursery temperature and humidity," he says.

Using a dual heating system, keep the general room temperature at 70"degrees"-75 "degrees" F and ventilate at a higher rate to move more air and reduce humidity. Make sure that temperature is 85 "degrees" to 90 "degrees" F at pig level for the first full week. Then cut the temperature back 1 degrees every other day.

"Pigs can get used to that slow decrease in temperature and it minimizes stress. A lot of new controllers can be programmed to provide this kind of temperature control," Carlson says.

For these early weaning nursery facilities, there shouldn't be more than a 2 "degrees" temperature variation over a 24-hour period, he adds.

Use a ventilation system that preheats the air. Be meticulous about eliminating drafts from around curtains and doors.

Feed, Water It's almost routine now that nurseries receive some 5- to 6-lb. early weaned piglets, points out Carlson. Even with pigs this small, mortality can be kept under 2% using management practices like feeding gruel. Mix pellets with medicated water or milk replacer and work into a paste. "By feeding them a small amount often for the first couple of days, it seems to pick them right up," he says. Feed on a mat the first few days.

Use small feeders. Keep feed fresh. Feed only enough to last 8-12 hours. Pellets spoil quickly in nursery environments, Carlson reminds.

Adding electrolyte products to the water helps combat gastrointestinal problems common to these young pigs, aiding them in eating and drinking.

Don't assume that new nursery piglets know where their water source is. Use small pieces of balsa wood to wedge nipple drinkers open so they drip periodically. More and more producers are using cup or bowl drinkers because nursery pigs find the waterer sooner and consume more water.

Remember, if pigs don't perform up to their potential in the nursery, they won't perform well in the finisher. "If we don't take advantage of the performance potential in the nursery, we are going to lose out on that pig all the way through," he stresses.