It may seem strange to many American producers that the European Union (EU) is proposing delaying the legal piglet weaning age from the current 21 days of age to 28 days. Why is this?

After the trauma of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), various European pig production methods have experienced intense scrutiny from our European media, the public and politicians.

This concern, now being applied to weaning age, seems to be based on extremely thin evidence that there is an increased level of stress and stereotypic behavior among pigs weaned at 3 weeks of age compared to 4 or 5 weeks of age.

The subject is under discussion, but it looks rather likely that the change to 28-day weaning will be made. However, some are suggesting that producers with up-to-date nurseries may be allowed to continue with the present 21-day edict — although how this can be “policed” is dubious, surely.

The British, ever the pragmatists, and the Swedes, leaders in acceding to welfare “improvements,” have already done some trial work on what this rise in weaning age may mean.

Results Favorable

Plenty of performance evidence shows that another kilogram of weight per pig (2.2 lb.) at 24-day weaning reduces age to slaughter by 15 days (9% in our case).

The feed firm SCA tested delaying weaning age from 21 to 28 days in carefully controlled trials (Varley 2002). This included costings on both regimes as, of course, pushing back weaning age by a week necessitates more farrowing crates per pig produced, higher creep feed costs and a reduced farrowing index.

The first finding was that the target weaning age should be 30 days in order to abide by the 28-day legal minimum in any one weaning week. Of course, weaning weight increased due to the 7-9 day delay — from 15 lb. to 19.1 lb.

Impact Productivity, Profitability

As borne out by earlier work where 24-day-old weaners were 2.2 lb. heavier than their contemporaries, overall performance in the SCA trial favored the litters weaned later (Table 1).

“Ah,” you say, “But what about reduced turnover which reduces income/sow/year? And what about increased breeding unit costs? Does the improved productivity to slaughter/ sow outweigh the penalty costs?”

The SCA trials shown in Table 2 suggest that later weaning provides piglets with a better immune status, especially cell-mediated immunity. They also will have a better thermoregulatory system should the farrowing or nursery environment be sub-standard.

In addition, that extra 3½ lb. at weaning favorably affects gut development, which is critical to post-weaning nutrition. It also makes feeding those pigs so much easier.

A Few Precautions

  • Good creep feeds and feeding practices are essential; otherwise, the more heavily milked sow will be shattered.

  • Very good sow nutrition, environment and management are equally essential to defend the sow against the depredations of 25% heavier piglets in their final, ferocious week of suckling.

    In addition to the possible economic benefits, why are Europeans even considering later weaning?

  • By 2006 we will not be able to use any antibiotic growth promoters.

  • Copper sulfate is to be banned in the EU at over 30 ppm from its present 175 ppm level due to soil residues. And, zinc oxide at 3,000 ppm in weaner feeds will be banned. Both are useful and cheap gut conditioners.

  • Milk and milk byproducts are becoming more and more expensive.

  • A week's longer gut enzyme system changeover, to accommodate more normal feed ingredients, makes postweaning nutrition easier and cheaper.

Perhaps the European move to later weaning is not so daft after all.

Table 1. Performance of 23-day vs. 30-day Weaning

23 days 30 days
Litter size (born alive) 11.3 11.6
Pigs produced/sow year 26.8 26.5
Days to slaughter 172.95 157.88 (8.7% better)
Source: SCA (2002)

Table 2. Economics of 23-day vs. 30-day Weaning

23 days 30 days
Gross margin/sow (indexed) 100 116 16% better
Return on breeding farm capital (indexed) 100 110 10% better
Feed costs ($/finished pig) 41.44 36.18 10.6% lower (ie better)
Fixed costs ($/finished pig) 81.33 74.24 8.7% lower (ie better)
Total costs ($/finished pig) 121.79 110.40 9.35% lower (ie better)
Source: SCA (2002)