The swine industry has juggled weaning age for decades. A Kansas swine veterinarian is a leading proponent of the growing movement to move weaning age back, sparked in part by the economic payoff.
It is much easier to make money on the pigs you have than it is to make more pigs,” declares swine veterinarian Steve Henry, Abilene, KS.
In his view, now is the time to return to later weaning and to get rewarded for doing so. Here are his two reasons:
The weight range for receiving full market value for pigs is escalating. It's now reached 270-280 lb. Weaning pigs older helps achieve those heavier target weights. Even if you are currently selling market hogs at the lower end of that range, weaning pigs older should help boost finishing weights by 10 lb. or so while still avoiding price discounts, according to Henry.
Before the advent of modern genetics, producers were penalized for taking pigs to heavier weights in the form of reduced feed efficiencies, he says. “But that is not the case now. Pigs are so lean that their feed efficiency is still below 3 lb., even at those heavier weights,” he remarks.
The industry's production focus used to be keyed on pigs/sow/year (p/s/y). A prime goal was 20 p/s/y. At that level of production, if a producer marketed hogs at 250 lb., he would sell 5,000 lb./sow/year.
Today, a fairly efficient farm can produce 18 p/s/y. If they can make their facilities work, and feed them out to 280 lb., then they can achieve the same results (18 × 280 = 5,040 lb.), Henry adds.
“Whatever you've got for facilities, you should be trying to maximize the amount of pounds of pork out the door,” he declares.
“The point is, if you can put those incremental pounds of pork on in today's market with the premiums and the lack of discounts on heavyweight pigs, and if you have the right genetics so they are lean, you can't make money any faster than that,” he notes.
Henry says most of the producers in his practice area have either switched to or are making plans to switch to later weaning. His goal is 21-22 days of age with a mandatory floor of 17 days of age to close up the age gap.
Henry uses a 3 lb./day rule, based on Kansas State University research, which says for each day of age you increase weaning age on a fixed-time schedule, you increase the (nursery) out weight potential by 2-3 lb./day. So, if you wait six days longer to wean, that's 18 lb. more out the other end, using the 3-lb. rule. “That's big,” Henry emphasizes.
There can also be a significant savings in the cost of nursery diets by weaning older. At a week older, specialized, high-dollar diets can be eliminated, he points out. The pig gut is much more mature and pigs will learn to eat a regular corn-soy diet on their own.
Henry warns that the reproductive benefits he's seen so far have yet to be scientifically documented. He's seen a slight increase in the subsequent litter size of sows by going to older weanings. Expression of estrus is improved.
There is a downside to older weaning, he admits. Obviously, weaning older produces heavier nursery closeout weights. “We've designed these nurseries to move pigs through in 7-7.5 weeks, with the intent that we were going to come out with a 48-51-lb. pig. Now, with later weaning, these pigs are coming out of the nursery at 64-65 lb. Things are a little tight, and this is causing crowding and biting problems because nurseries weren't designed for this kind of load,” says Henry.
He says this presents a bit of a production challenge for these larger pigs moving through the system. Producers may need to adjust ventilation to run barns colder, find a way to pull some pigs forward or develop other means to adjust their facilities.
Henry says by supporting later weaning he isn't denying the value of various early weaning schemes. At the time, they were invaluable in helping the swine industry work its way past various bacterial disease problems. Early weaning protocols were instrumental in helping the industry rid itself of two major threats: atrophic rhinitis and swine dysentery.
Advances in production technology, swine medications and vaccines, and management have all contributed to the robustness of today's swine herds.
And with vastly healthier herds, the health “penalty” that the industry paid by weaning older pigs has virtually been eradicated, Henry observes.
Pork producer partners Terry Hauder and Eric Martin have been weaning pigs at an average of 19 days for six years in their 1,200-sow, farrow-to-finish operation.
Hauder says with the production they are achieving at their Milford, NE, multi-site operation, he won't wean younger.
For 2003, they hit 25 pigs/sow/year, average weaning weights reached 13 lb. and mortality was a paltry 3% from nursery through finish.
Plus, wean-to-service interval averaged 4.5-5 days before a severe bout of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus struck the operation last July. For the year, the service interval ended up at eight days.
The partners' biggest concern over weaning younger is that sows wouldn't rebreed properly and that there would be an increase in small, non-viable pigs.
The PRRS bout, which has since subsided, makes annual performance that much more amazing, attests Hauder.
The pair believes some credit for success goes to weaning at the right age. They farrow and wean 56 sows/week, weaning pigs at 19-21 days, although they admit some fall to 15-16 days.
Based on nursery production, the weaning age formula seems to be working. “We have been out-producing what the nursery can handle, averaging 570 pigs/week. Our main nursery production capacity is 530 pigs/week, so we hold back the 40 smallest pigs and take them to an off-site facility,” explains Hauder. The main nursery, which is also on a different location from the breeding/farrowing farm, holds 4,000 head with eight rooms of 500 head.
There are two other off-site nursery units at Martin's home farm, each holding 400 head. Some nursery pigs are fed out by staff at various sites, while other groups are custom-fed. The smaller off-site nursery pigs are sold as feeder pigs.
Martin comments that nursery feeding also plays a key role in pig survival. Newly weaned nursery pigs are handled carefully, hand fed on mats to start, and fed a little at a time to encourage group-feeding behavior. They use special diets sparingly to keep down costs and avoid full-feeding them to reduce feed spoilage.
“We slowly increase their feed until they are all on a full-feeding system, eating as a group,” Martin stresses. There are about a dozen phase-feeding diets fed during the nursery and finishing periods.
The current plan is to feed sows three times a day in lactation, says Hauder. “We try to get as much feed into them as we can. We check to make sure everyone is getting the amount of feed they need individually, and give them as much as they will eat.”
For the first two feedings, they make sure sows clean up the feed before they add more, he says. But for the third feeding, at the end of the day, it's critical to top it off because it will be about 12 hours before staff is back in the barn to feed them again, he says.
“One of the biggest concerns of mine with later weaning is that sows will get out of condition. If you get much past 21 days, these lean sows could end up losing quite a bit of backfat. I guess that is why I feel that 19 days is kind of a sweet spot for us,” Hauder concludes.
— Joe Vansickle