The Art to a Good Start

Starting nursery pigs is the single most important job in the wean to finish world, and while it’s not rocket science, it can be relatively complicated to get to work the way you want it to work. Raising pigs is a moving target. There is always something new to learn, new technology to try, and we are constantly one surprise away from having the wheels come off the bus (scours, respiratory issues, you name it). While the following suggestions are not a comprehensive list of everything to do when starting weaned pigs, they should help you target some areas for improvement. Granted, some of the issues you might see in your wean pigs may very well be out of your control, i.e. vaccination or lack of vaccination at the sow farm or general sow farm health and management. We are going to focus on the things that you CAN control.

Do you have a biosecurity plan in place? If the answer is no, why not? I understand it’s most definitely ‘easier’ to just pop in and out of your barns as needed, but we all know easier is not always better. The working theory on porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) is that a thimble full of PED infected manure could infect all of Iowa’s pigs (or all of the world’s pigs, depends on what source you are reading). Imagine that you walked into a convenience store, stepped on some invisible manure, then walked directly into your barn. What are the odds you just infected your pigs with something?

If we move into the barns themselves, let me ask you a series of questions.

1) How well did you wash and dis-infect the barns prior to receiving pigs?
2) Did you allow enough time for the disinfectant to dry completely?
3) When was the last time you cleaned out your water lines (i.e. sanitized them with bleach or something stronger?) E.coli and other bacteria thrives in water lines that haven’t been cleaned.

Stocking density of pens
Stock your pens evenly. Whether your ideal density is 3 square feet per nursery pig or not, you know what works best in your situation. In poorly performing groups, especially groups that struggle in the first week or so, you may not feel like overstocking some pens and understocking others is a concern. Yet, in groups that are thriving and growing like weeds, you will soon notice the fallout from improper access to feed and water.

Easily the most complicated part of raising pigs is mastering the appropriate amount of ventilation. This is also a subject I discuss on EVERY farm visit without fail. The number one concern I hear regarding ventilation in nursery barns is “I don’t want to chill pigs.” If you read my ventilation article at all, you will recognize the chart included here. Even though it’s dated 2004, it’s a personal favorite of mine because it proves the important point that it is hard to chill pigs, even weans. A 15-pound pig has a comfort zone that ranges from 70 to 80 degrees. A 25-pound pig has a comfort zone that ranges from 67 to 77 degrees F. If you have functioning heaters and/or brooder heaters and mats, haven’t run out of propane, and your pigs are not piled heavily, then chances are they are doing just fine.

Without a doubt, one of the worst things you can do for your nursery pigs is under ventilate them. Lack of airflow from the beginning will create all sorts of problems. What may have been a small respiratory problem expands into an extremely significant one, and what may have been a healthy group of pigs may suddenly show signs of scours and wet pens.

When you walk into your barns, ask yourselves this series of questions:

1) How does the barn feel when you walk inside?
2) Do your eyes water from the ammonia?
3) Do you feel a cool breeze fluffing your hair?
4) Is the ceiling dripping on you?
5) Are the water lines dripping like crazy?

If the answer to all but the cool breeze question is yes, then you need to move more air.

If you are concerned about how comfortable your pigs are, what are they telling you? Are they always piled deep? This is not to be confused with the piling you see after transporting weans from the sow farm to your facility, especially if they had a long, cold trip and they are dumped onto less than warm concrete slats. Are they spread out as far away from each other as they can get? Are they lying around panting? Even in the dead of winter, I don’t like to see pigs started above 83 degrees. It’s always better to push as much air and deal with any cold stress than to keep the environment too warm. As long as the pigs agree, a gradual 2 degree drop in temperature each week in the nursery can be successful, with an ultimate temperature goal of 60-65 degrees in the late finishing stage. Remember, you don’t want your barn to be reaching and exceeding the set point all of the time, as the set point just gives your barn an idea of how to operate including when to turn fans on, etc. One last point to make is that I often see people running their heaters too tight with their fans. The offsets for heaters should be 1.5-2 degrees under setpoint, and the heater should turn on (offset+differential) 2.5-3 degrees below the setpoint.

Zone heating
Heat lamps/brooder heaters and/or mats are a great tool to have in your toolbox. They are a warm spot in the first week and can be used for several weeks if necessary. These can also serve as a place to offer feed as an enticement to get babies up and eating. The height of brooder placement determines the area of coverage allowed. It doesn’t hurt to run a temperature probe below at least 1 brooder to check heat placement, as 85-90 degrees should be more than warm enough on the mat.

Feed management
There are several key things to remember when considering feed management. You should ask yourself how overstocked are your pens with regards to feed spaces? Are pigs lined up 5 deep at the feeder waiting their turn? What do your feed pans look like? If you stock your pens too heavily, you will eventually see fallout from pigs unable to eat their allotment quickly enough before their pen mates push them out. Feed pan management is a touchy subject as well. My philosophy is to keep the feeders relatively open for the first week while the pigs are settling in. After that, close the feeders while always maintaining at least 50% feed pan coverage. In overstocked groups, keep the feeders as open as you can as long as the feed doesn’t end up in the pit.

Starter feeds
Having a quality starter feed appropriate to the size of the weans is import-ant. If the first or second ingredient in your starter pellet is Processed Grain By-Products, please come talk to us as we’ve got what you need. The better you feed them in the beginning, the better the pigs will do throughout lives.

Mat feeding
In an ideal world, all nursery pigs would be given mats (and possibly brooder heaters) for at least the 1st week of life. Both mats and heaters can be used longer if weather commands that sort of use, but the first week is the most critical. The mats give the pigs a warm place to lie, and also serve as a great way to train pigs to get up and eat them-selves. Mom is no longer running the show, which means you will need to take her place and get those babies up and moving at least 3-4 times a day. If you can sprinkle a little feed on the mats, all the better! If you like to leave mats in for extended periods of time, make sure to pull them out when they start becoming a toilet as then they become a breeding ground for bacteria.

Gruel feeding
A gruel/mash of starter pellets and water should mainly be used in sick pen management to help pigs re-hydrate as well as receive the nutrition they were missing in general population. Gruel feeding the general population is not necessary unless there is significant fallout from a health challenge.

Sick pen management
A pull pen for fallout is a must for nursery barns. The pigs in the pull pen require specialized attention, so don’t pull them and forget them. Gruel feed and proper medical treatment are essential in giving them the best chance at recovery. Don’t wait until pigs are on death’s doorstep to pull them from the general population.

Treating pigs
Needlework may not be your favorite thing (and I don’t mean the sewing kind) but is a necessary evil of raising livestock. Water meds are a great tool, yet getting medicine directly into the pig is the only way to ensure they receive an antibiotic dose. The sickest pigs are not eating and drinking as much as they should be and therefore generally do not receive the dose from the water/feed meds that they need to make a complete recovery. Water meds are a great tool to treat a large number of pigs, but generally only the healthy pigs are at the proper dose, and please remember that timely and appropriate application is necessary as well. Do not delay treating pigs as the faster you recognize a problem, the better chance at recovery that pig will have.

As mentioned in the beginning, it’s difficult to sufficiently address how to start pigs in the limited pages of a magazine article. Hopefully this list has given you some things to consider. And if you have more questions, feel free to contact myself or one of the team and we will help you however we can.