These newly weaned pigs are not quite ready for solid food; they haven't found the water source in the nursery pen; they're becoming dehydrated.

Nursery managers know that if they could only get food and water into those piglets, they might save them. But the labor and equipment needed to tackle this challenge is often viewed as too expensive.

Industry and science have collaborated on the problem as part of the bigger challenge — easing the transitional stress experienced by all pigs at weaning.

Whether healthy or severely challenged, 17-20-day-old pigs often hit the same wall. As they learn to eat dry food, they consume less nutrients, drink less water, and growth goes on hold for a few days.

Economic Issues

A general shift toward early weaning throughout the industry has led researchers to look harder at the transition window from nursing the sow to the first nursery diets, says Jack Odle, professor at North Carolina State University.

The concept of delivering a liquid-based nursery diet has been studied, and even used successfully, for 30 years in research settings, says Odle. But there remains a lack of field application he adds.

Delivering liquid diets in a robust, yet uncomplicated way in a practical farm setting has been a huge hurdle.

Perceived cost has been a second hurdle.

Casein and whey, traditional milk-based proteins, are expensive, explains Odle. “You can pay $1.00 to $1.20 a pound for milk replacers based on cow milk protein. If you start feeding early weaned pigs in liquid form, they really have a high intake and that becomes cost prohibitive.”

So researchers have focused on better formulation. “The bottom line is this — if you offer the diet in liquid form, you've got a lot more freedom in the formulation than we used to think,” says Odle.

For instance, it was assumed the suckling pig needed lactose, the sugar in milk, to survive.

“We've done things like swapping short-chain glucose polymers for lactose — and the pigs do just fine,” he says.

“You'd think Mother Nature's milk-based protein would deliver what the animal needs, but that may not be the case when we're pushing them for maximum performance,” Odle explains, then adds: “A Texas A&M researcher, Guoyao Wu, recently added arginine to cow milk-based protein and saw very significant growth responses in young pigs.”

Then there's milk fat; most mammals have very high fat content in their milk. “You might imagine that would be important, but we've learned that's not the case. We can vary fat from 2% up to 30% and not change gain of the pig whatsoever,” he continues.

Researchers are learning that a 2-week-old piglet, or even younger, is really quite robust. When it comes to carbohydrates vs. fat in the diet, Odle says, it's not a big deal. “You can jockey that rate in least-cost formulations and you will see little difference in pig performance.”

Preweaning Supplement

North Carolina researchers have collaborated with the Hanor Company in developing a liquid-feeding program for their barns in North Carolina. Dean Boyd oversees the company's nutrition program. His ideas are applied through Mike Johnston, research implementation manager. In some barns, Hanor pigs now routinely have access to milk supplement.

“We're giving them the option to drink a little extra milk while they're on the sow,” says Johnston. “We've also seen about a 4.5% drop in pre-weaning mortality when they have supplemental milk available in the crate with the sow, so we're pretty pleased.”

In Hanor's system, baby pigs have only sow's milk for the first 24 hours — to ensure they get a good dose of colostrum. Milk supplement is offered from Days 2 through 12, then it's “cut off” until weaning at Day 18 or 19.

Johnston says, “We could easily put on a full pound at weaning by giving them supplemental milk right to the day they're weaned, but we get the biggest bang for our buck if we consistently get a 13- or 14-lb. pig into the nursery.”

Hanor has worked three years with milk supplements and replacers for very young pigs. They've studied fat content, number of days of supplement and long-term performance, and have even weaned “challenged” pigs at Day 10 onto a two-week, liquid replacement diet.

The 12-day supplement program gives the best long-term performance, says Johnston. “Lifetime livability is higher on pigs that receive milk vs. pigs that did not get any milk. The pigs live better in the farrowing house and are (weaned) heavier,” he adds.

“We've fine-tuned the milk formula, so that all the nutrients they need are there plus some vitamins and minerals that help jump start the immune system.”

In one trial, Hanor set up a “reclamation center” for low-end, challenged pigs that were weaned at 6 to 10 days of age. The facility can feed 1,000 pigs with a liquid replacement diet.

Pigs in the reclamation center were on milk replacer for one week. The next week, milk replacer was limited and pigs were offered a pre-starter pellet. By week's end, pellets completely replaced the milk replacer.

The approach worked “quite well” for a period, but then another problem led to shutdown. “The pigs were doing great, but they were coming out at approximately 24 days of age and weren't fitting the way we were flowing the (other) pigs. We didn't have enough of them to create their own flow.”

Gravity-Flow Milk

A technology gap also occurred between developing an effective milk replacer and having an economical way to get it into the young pigs.

Odle and the Hanor staff have worked with Form-A-Feed, Stewart, MN, to address both the formula and delivery. The company manufactures complete feeds, from soluble dry powders to small pellets.

“We've had a project for a couple years where we're trying to rear pigs as early as two days of age,” says Denny McKilligan, Form-A-Feed researcher and company spokesman. The project led to commercial production of the Intensive Care Feeder and a companion formula product that was unveiled in November 2003.

The feeder and formula are tailored for newly weaned pigs, ages 16 to 20 days, in group pens. The feeder mixes dry formula with water at predetermined intervals. The liquid mixture is fed by gravity into a trough. A small model is designed to feed 40 to 50 pigs at a time, while a larger model serves about 80 pigs. The larger model costs $1,075 and is capable of feeding up to 4,000 pigs annually.

The liquid feeder is equipped with a 10-ft. hose and saddle valve that plugs into an existing PVC waterline. Installation takes about 15 minutes. The mixer operates on 110 volts.

“You put in the powder, install the trough and set the timer. Each day after that, you inspect the feed consumption and adjust the timer accordingly,” explains McKilligan.

In the early nursery phase, he estimates about 10-15% of pigs are challenged — those that are a little young, light or may have some disease. This is the targeted group; the pigs that have trouble transitioning to dry feed.

“Intensive Care Formula is between a milk replacer and a starter feed,” McKilligan points out. “It has a high level of milk protein, but it also has cereal protein and carbohydrates. It's attractive to the pigs.

“We target about one-third-pound-per-head-per-day and get good consumption because it's liquefied. In a couple of days, the pigs want more, but they can't have more liquid, so they go to the dry feeder.”

The formula is designed for gravity flow rather than a pipeline.

“For this machine, the materials don't have to be totally soluble. They need to be suspendable. You have a limit on how many pigs you can feed per unit, but this allows us to use some alternative ingredients so we can reduce the formula cost. Our retail formula price now is about 63¢ a pound,” McKilligan adds.

As they've watched young pigs respond to the feeding schedule, McKilligan says observers are often surprised that within 12 to 24 hours, most pigs know that when the mixer runs, they're going to get a liquid meal.

“They hear the noise of the motor, and it's like the sow calling them to dinner!” he says. “When it runs, there's this frenzy to go to the feeder. There's not enough space for all the pigs, so they go to the dry feed as well.”

Table 1. Liquid-feeding Systems for Piglets*
Feeder name/feeding regimen Company
KMR/Continuous Kane Manufacturing
Des Moines, IA 50317
www.kanemfg.com/creepfeeders.htm
Nursery-14/Continuous Intensive Care Nursery
Colfax, IL 61728
800-553-9951
Supp-Le-Mate/Continuous Soppe Systems
Manchester, IA 52057
www.supplemate.com
Hampshire system/Continuous Hampshire Feeding Systems
Hampshire, UK
Tel: (01425) 674482
Hydromix/Intermittent Big Dutchman International
Vechta, Germany
www.bigdutchman.de/eng/home/bigdutch.htm
Baby pig saver/Intermittent Gillis Agrisystems
Willmar, MN 56201
www.gillisag.com/hog_inv_flyer.htm
Porcimat/Intermittent Provimi B.V.
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
www.provimi.nl/WebSites/ProvimiBV/provimibv.nsf/FrameSet?ReadForm&language=en
Robomama/Intermittent Arato
Germany
Omaha, NE or Raleigh, NC
Intensive Care Feeder/Intermittent Form-A-Feed
Stewart, MN
800-422-3649; www.FormAFeed.com
Baby mix feeder/Intermittent Fancom B.V.
The Netherlands
www.fancom.com
*Not an all-inclusive list.