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Modern weaner housing and management to maximise production

By Dr Pieter Vervoort, Charles Street Veterinary Consultancy
What’s old/What’s new?
Every once in a while a pig producer needs to look at what systems and technologies are being adopted by the industry. Looking at weaners we have seen considerable changes to the housing and management in the last decade or so. If we take a quick look at what is now considered old technology we come up with the following:Old

  • Microclimates — kennels etc.
  • No climate control — pigs are subjected to large fluctuation of the environment.
  • Simple diets — mainly consisting of milled maize, fishmeal and soya.
  • Little control — pigs were housed, fed and watered and expected to perform.
  • Hand feeding — simple feed hoppers, filled by hand, were used.
  • Litter groups — pigs were housed in litter groups to limit stress.
  • Four to five week weaning
  • 24 day weaning — continuous-flow systems allowed for 23 to 26 day weaning but with large variations in age.
  • Multi age/continuous flow — pigs in weaner houses were housed in pens per age but often different ages were housed in one air-space.
  • Antibiotic medication — antibiotics were the norm and were mixed in the feed to prevent “problems” — mainly E. coli related diseases.

Newer technologies were adopted by farmers seeking improved performance of their weaned pigs; more cost efficient production and performance with less variation. The newer technologies adopted were:

  • Climate control — environment controlled buildings are adopted where temperature and ventilation control is computer driven.
  • Automated feeding — this form of feeding minimises waste and is usually used in combination with sophisticated feed dispensing systems.
  • Complex diets — a range of more complex ingredients are used to achieve:
  • Low Feed Conversion Rate
  • High Average Daily Gain

Ingredients include milk or milk-derived products, more refined soya products as well as flavourants, probiotics and organic acids.

  • Big groups — are used to facilitate ease of management and lower cost of housing.
  • Wean/finish housing — adopted mainly in the USA to decrease costs of moving and cleaning, but also improved productivity due to lowered stress of eliminating relocation of pigs to new buildings.
  • (Two) three or four week weaning — strict weaning at 14; 21 or 28 days comes about with strict All-In-All-Out (AIAO) systems.
  • AIAO — of the farrowing rooms and weaner housing makes management easier, improves health, but also makes it possible to feed correct diets to each age and weight of pig. It facilitates accurate recording of feed consumed, gain of pigs and more importantly cost of gain.
  • Low antibiotic usage — improved conditions lead to lower antibiotic requirements to maintain performance of pigs.

These points have led to great improvements in performance of pigs in the post-weaning period. Heavier, healthier pigs give improved performance in the grower phase following on from this weaner phase.
It is imperative that we look at what to expect in the near future so that we may determine the systems we should adopt to remain relevant for the foreseeable future.

  • Less expensive diets — as milk products and high quality protein products become less available and more expensive, the move will be to feed pigs with products and byproducts that do not compete with humans as a source of food. This will necessitate not only revised strategies of feed formulation and feeding but also ways to adapt the pig to make use of these less concentrated feed ingredients.
  • “Slower” (initial) growth — maximum growth with low feed conversion strategies will have to change to cost-efficient strategies with a possible deterioration of ADG and FCR. Some trials are now showing that this initial slightly poorer performance has little effect on final marketing weights but positive effects on cost of production.
  • Smaller groups — there seems to be a new move to housing pigs in smaller groups of ten to 20 piglets with solid partitioning between pens. This is driven mostly by the possible increase in disease transmission between pigs in larger groups. This trend may continue if diseases affecting pigs are not adequately controlled, or if new diseases develop. Total elimination of disease-causing organisms from a population or good control of these pathogens by vaccination or other means would reverse the trend to larger more easily managed groups.
  • Less age (weight) variation — variation is one of the biggest problems facing modern pig farming. This makes it difficult to correctly feed each piglet and increases competition between penmates. Marketing of uniform pigs and achieving maximum profitability of each pig sold becomes very difficult and so decreases the profitability of the entire system.
  • Less energy dependent systems — energy is set to remain a scarce (and therefore expensive) resource for modern pig farms. Waste of heating, electrical and feed energy will have to be addressed at each level of the enterprise, this is especially so in the high temperature demand weaning phase. Waste energy will also need to be recovered from the system by means of heat exchange, energy utilisation in waste material or other means.
  • Four week weaning — the return to four week weaning (from three week weaning systems or 14 day weaning) may become a trend as feed ingredients for early weaned pigs become less available. Three week weaning will probably be viable where sows can produce adequate milk to wean piglets heavy enough to utilise less nutritious weaning diets.
  • AIAO  per site — AIAO will become even more important to control diseases but farms will have to produce large enough numbers of pigs with little variation to fill  entire buildings at one time. The trend of the poultry industry to populate entire sites (or farms) on an AIAO basis will be a challenge some in the pig industry will take up. The advantages are self explanatory, but new production systems (batch farrowing) or very large sow farms will be required to supply these systems.
  • Enzymes/acids etc — the trend to add enzymes, acids, bacterial or yeast cultures or byproducts will continue as a means of reducing the reliance on antibiotics and chemical substances. Pre-digestion of many feedstuffs will become a reality as less biologically available feed ingredients are used in diets to feed pigs.

Maximising production
The question still remains, and will become more pertinent, if we need to maximise production or if we would like to maximise profit. The answer given by most would be to maximise profit; why then the tendency to maximise production?  The answer is fairly simple in that to maximise profit we need to know more about the actual financial implications of any decision. It is far easier to measure physical characteristics like weight gain than to try different strategies and ascertain which is the most profitable. This is only possible where all inputs of an entire system are compare to another system and many repetitions are taken into account. AIAO systems are a prerequisite for this.
Would the difference in 70 day mass and the cost difference be adequately compensated for at market weight?
What are our goals (targets) then for a modern weaner facility?

  • FCR
  • 1.55 – 1.70
  • ADG
  • 500g+ per day
  • Cost per kg
  • Cheaper than grower phase

The above three goals would adequately cover the current situation, but could be outdated in the next few years.
The goal should be far simpler (but far more complex to achieve); that the weaner phase should perform at a level where it’s contribution to the total cost of production is the smallest contribution possible to the total cost of production of the marketable carcass, without adversely affecting any other phase of the entire system.

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