Iowa swine veterinarian's program targets 95% full-value pigs.

The path to top-notch postweaning pig growth performance begins in the breeding-gestation barn and winds through farrowing rooms and nurseries or wean-to-finish pens. Placing the right kind of pig into the right kind of environment makes the job much simpler, says Daryl Olsen, DVM, Audubon-Manning Veterinary Clinic (AMVC) at Audubon, IA.

But getting that scenario right requires that several factors be carefully addressed, he told Iowa State University Swine Disease Conference attendees in early November.

Follow these guidelines for starting pigs and the end result will be uniform, full-value pigs 95% of the time, Olsen predicts.

Start with the Sows

Stable health at the sow unit is the most important factor on the way to starting pigs successfully, Olsen says. The sow farm does not have to be negative for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), but it must be stable for the disease. If the sow herd is PRRS-stable, there are enough tools available to quickly get those sows to produce PRRS-negative piglets, he says.

“We can control a lot of other diseases, but if we don't have PRRS-negative piglets at weaning, there will be a train wreck,” he explains.

Additionally, it is paramount to set proper breeding targets based on current conception rates to ensure that a consistently uniform number of piglets are weaned each week to fill a nursery or wean-to-finish barn.

Ideally, fill time is one week but should be no more than two weeks. Pigs should be single-sourced and not overstocked. Feeder and water space and labor availability are seldom adequate to handle overstocked pens of pigs, and that leads to more problems in the long run, Olsen says.

Piglet Birth Weight

Birth weight clearly affects subsequent performance of pigs after weaning. “We know that pigs weighing less than 2 lb. at birth have decreased preweaning and postweaning survival rates. We know that pigs weighing less than 2 lb. have slower growth rates and less carcass lean,” Olsen says. Even aggressive crossfostering does not counter the effects of low-birth-weight pigs.

The pork industry continues to produce larger litter sizes, and with it more pigs weighing less than 2 lb. at birth. Feeding sows correctly through gestation and reducing the number of older parity sows in the herd have proven to be beneficial, he says.

But another solution may be to humanely euthanize those piglets that are less than 2 lb. “I know it is a difficult decision, but if your sow farm has less than 12% preweaning mortality and you are doing things right and not putting out a lot of small piglets that can't make it through finishing, I question the value of saving those lightweight pigs,” Olsen relates.

Wean Age/Frequency/Weight

The value of increased weaning age to 21 days and older has been well documented in studies at Kansas State University. Olsen says later weaning is one of the most important things pork producers can adopt in order to compete long term in the pork industry.

The goal of the sow farm should be to wean a consistent number of pigs greater than 15 lb. with a stable health status, he emphasizes.

“In our system, the best way to accomplish this is to have four full weeks of farrowing crates, reduce the number of piglets weighing less than 2 lb. at birth, and wean once a week with piglets averaging 23 to 24 days of age. This process has improved piglet health and allowed us to consistently wean piglets that are greater than 15 lb.,” Olsen points out.

Don't transfer pigs between litters more than necessary, and absolutely don't hold pigs back, he stresses.

Weaning Environment

Wean pigs into an environment that replicates that of the farrowing house. “If that pig is used to eating on a mat in a room set at 68° F with zone heat, put them in an environment that mimics that,” Olsen says.

Zone heating for weaned pigs must include brooder-type heaters and not just heat lamps, and mats that provide a means of feeding as well as comfort for the 15-lb. pigs.

Providing the pig's basic needs is the simplest way to get pigs started. But Olsen says for weaned pigs transported long distances to Iowa, AMVC supplies waterers in wean-to-finish barns that are constructed of PVC pipes mounted with multiple nipples, which allows several pigs to drink at one time.

“The pigs really hit these nipple waterers when they arrive. It is an inexpensive way to provide extra water for the first week or two that has worked very well at getting these pigs hydrated,” he explains.

Olsen suggests starting pigs on about a pound and a half of a starter ration, then switching them to a grind-and-mix ration.

Sorting Pigs

Sort the smallest 2-10% of the pigs at placement, depending on the percentage of smaller pigs in the inventory. Place them together in a separate pen for up to three weeks to receive special care.

Sort off fall-back pigs. These pigs often are not sick and usually aren't even the smallest pigs in the pen. They just can't compete for feed and need a chance to eat. Gruel feed seems to work the best. Once they have started to eat, often they can be returned to their home pen, Olsen says.

Don't wait until this fall-back pig appears gaunt and shows signs of diarrhea, because it may be too late to save him.

Never overcrowd a fall-back/sick pen. “Why would we want competition in a pen of pigs that is already struggling?” he asks.

“The thing that people forget about with pigs in the sick pen or fall-back pen is that those pigs have to graduate,” Olsen says. Once a pig is back on feed, usually it is best to move him back to the normal pig population.

Ultimately, producing 15-lb., PRRS-negative weaned pigs is the crucial first step to starting pigs correctly. “The rest of the process just becomes somewhat elementary,” he states.