For a Kansas pork producer, switching back to a later weaning schedule just made sense for his production flow and to generate more dollars for his farm.

Sixty-five-year-old pork producer Dale Keesecker of Washington, KS, has tried all the production technologies designed to pinpoint the best time to wean pigs.

He says that most older weaning ages worked to varying degrees, until genetics, housing and nutrition advances were made; then changes to earlier weaning followed.

However, his latest shift back to later weaning, to an average of 21 days, may be the best move of all. That's because animal health and swine genetics have advanced to the point where early weaning is no longer necessary in some herds. And the move to a three-week weaning schedule may give some producers a rare opportunity — the chance to improve performance and cut production costs, he says.

He says this management shift has brought the swine industry almost full circle and has reinforced the value of “relearning old technology.”

Weaning History

In 1958, when Keesecker began producing hogs, and much of his production was raised outdoors, weaning pigs at 8 weeks of age made sense to reach adequate litter weights.

During the 1960s, as genetics started to improve, he was one of the early adopters of weaning pigs at 6 weeks of age. Weaning pigs at 4 weeks of age followed in the 1970s. With the '80s came a push to maximize production and elevate animal health through a variety of early weaning programs, he says. He tried all the early weaning schemes from 10 to 16 days of age.

But those early weaning programs dealt producers like Keesecker almost as many problems as solutions in trying to limit feeding of expensive diets to young pigs and in getting sows to breed back.

So when Kansas State University issued its 2002 report on the advantages of 21-day weaning, and on the advice of his consulting veterinarian Steve Henry, the shift looked like a “no brainer.” Keesecker made the switch to later weaning about a year ago.

Research Benefits Prove True

“The Kansas State data said if you delayed the weaning age from 15 to 21 days, nursery weights would improve by about 2-3 lb./pig coming out of the nursery and then also improve finishing weights,” says Keesecker. And he has found that to be pretty much true. It also improves exit weight from the finisher by about 12-14 lb./market hog.

“That means we are selling the same age hogs at market as when we were weaning at 15 days of age, but they are 12-14 lb. heavier,” he relates. Hogs are being sold at about 6 months of age at 280-290 lb.

The veteran Kansas producer stresses one of the keys to his survival in the swine industry has been that changes must reflect positively on the economics of his several-thousand-sow, farrow-to-finish operation.

Keesecker says producers have more control over their input costs than they do over the price they receive for their pigs.

“If we can apply technology like this, it makes the bottom line better, and it is about the only method we have right now to decrease the cost of production,” emphasizes Keesecker. He figures later weaning knocks 10 days off his normal 180 days to market and reduces cost of production by 6% (180 days × 6% = 10.8 days).

Better Nursery Pigs

“The thing I notice most of all from this is how much hardier the pigs are coming into the nursery,” he states. “They are just so much more aggressive, so much easier to start on feed and there are fewer stragglers to deal with.” Pigs are 14-16 lb. instead of 8-10 lb. and are much more durable, he adds.

Older weaned pigs express fewer vices such as navel suckling, says farm manager Rick Richard.

Environment plays a role, too. Keesecker admits that switching to an older weaning age fits better with his conventional nursery and finishing pig flows. He never made the leap to wean-to-finish production.

Pig flow has stayed healthy, a combination of being negative for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) and tighter pig groupings. Mortality in the nursery is running at less than 1%, he says.

Pig uniformity from weaning at 21 days old carries on through to finishing, reducing the need to seek out specialty markets for lightweight finishing pigs, adds Richard. “It simplifies the flow and basically allows us to turn more finishing spaces,” he notes.

More than anything, producers need to make sure they keep pumping feed into sows, and always feed to their individual needs, says Richard.

Making the Switch

Producers normally have two options for extending weaning age in their operation: either adding farrowing space or reducing sow herd size. For Keesecker, with his eye on the bottom line, neither approach was financially attractive.

So he plotted a different course. He explains, “The way we were able to farrow the same number of sows per week as before (when weaning early), while increasing the weaning age by six days, is that we tightened up the downtime. Instead of having maybe three to four days downtime to wean and clean up, we have cut that down to about 12 hours.”

Granted, that makes labor and scheduling much more challenging.

“The difference is now we don't have the luxury of putting our sows in the crates three days or more before they are due to farrow. Also, where we used to wean today and clean the farrowing barn tomorrow, now we wean, clean the barn tonight and load it the next morning,” explains Keesecker.

Cautions

Of all the reasons to stay with early weaning, the biggest may be animal health. For Keesecker, that was not an issue. He has fought the E. colis and rotavirus.

But the biggest culprit he faced for several years, PRRS, has become a thing of the past. His operation has been PRRS-negative going on two years, and most of the secondary diarrhea, influenza and strep problems that flare up with PRRS have disappeared along with the pesky virus.