Early quality nutrition impacts lifetime performance

The increase in litter size over the past years has resulted in more variable litters and greater numbers of piglets with light birth weight. Slower throughput and inferior performance are among the more visible long-term consequences. The use of  supplemental feeding in the farrowing unit has therefore become increasingly popular as farmers start to recognize these challenges.

Providing supplemental creep feed does not necessarily lead to a higher weaning weight, especially at young weaning ages, but the main benefit comes from enhanced post-weaning feed intake and performance and a better development of the gastro-intestinal tract.

Maintaining an early and high feed intake post-weaning is an additional challenge as it is crucial to maintain health status and stimulate performance of the weanling pig. It is therefore important to encourage both farmers and farrowing room staff to explore the advantages of providing palatable and well-balanced diets pre-weaning, and using a diligent creep-feeding management.

Beyond performance

Fundamental evidence for the assumed benefits of creep feeding has been recently obtained from studies conducted at the Trouw Nutrition's Swine Research Centre (SRC) in the Netherlands. In a research trial where suckling piglets were supplemented with Milkiwean Yoghurt, greater body weights and a more homogeneous litter were achieved at weaning. The most interesting findings were, however, that piglets consuming the supplement had a heavier and longer small intestine than control piglets (no creep feed offered) and stimulated intestinal cell proliferation. Additionally, piglets consuming the supplemental feed showed greater concentrations of fermentation products in the large intestine, indicating an active microbial population. All of these positive observations combine to result in a piglet that is better prepared for a stressful postweaning period, because of its greater capacity for the uptake of nutrients, improved health and ability to come back to feed and grow faster right after weaning.

Early feed intake for better growth

A feed intake drop is characteristic of weaning stress. To contribute to post-weaning health and to stimulate performance of the weanling pig, early and high post-weaning feed intakes are therefore desirable. To explain the effects of early life nutrition strategies on subsequent pig performance and metabolism, a research trial was conducted at the SRC where piglets were fed from farrow to 42 days of age.

Two feeding programmes were tested in a set-up where pigs were weaned at 24 days of age (see Figure 1):

Diet 1
A control programme with no creep feed offered and a weaner diet formulated to deliver a similar nutrient load post-weaning as in diet 2 programme, but using different feed ingredients. The weaner diet was offered right after weaning up to day 18 post-weaning.

Diet 2 
A programme designed to deliver a high plane of nutrition using creep feed and a high quality weaner diet; In the high plane programme, Milkiwean Yoghurt was offered for 14 days starting on day 2 after birth, and two subsequent diets (Milkiwean Precoce and Granito) from day 15 of age up to 5 days post-weaning; the weaner diet (Milkiwean Spido) was offered from day 5 to day 18 post-weaning;

Creep feed consumption

Results showed that creep was consumed by approximately 85% of the pigs who had it offered. No differences from farrowing to weaning were observed for body weight and daily gain between pigs fed the two programmes, confirming previous research findings. However, the main benefits of creep feed and a high quality weaner diet surfaced at the nursery, where pigs on diet 2 programme showed a significantly greater feed intake (Figure 2) and feed efficiency during the first 18 days post-weaning.

A faster come back to feed and superior feed intake in creep fed pigs may result from acquired familiarity with dry feed, a high quality and palatable weaner diet, 

and a better development of the gastrointestinal tract pre-weaning, which helps withstand the stress of weaning challenge. 

Superior feed intake of pigs on diet 2 during the first 18 days post-weaning resulted in significantly greater body weights (Figure 3).

The average daily gain of pigs on diet 2 from weaning up to day 18 post-weaning was significantly greater than controls (285 g/d vs. 211 g/d, respectively), and the body weight of pigs in this group was therefore greater (12.0 kg vs. 10.1 kg). This observation will have important economic effects if the difference is also maintained through the end of the nursery and the grow-finish phase.

Follow-up research

Research is currently ongoing to study the effects of early feeding on performance in the nursery and grow-finish phase, and a more basic study of the biological mechanisms that may better drive the response of pigs fed the Milkiwean programme is in progress using advanced analytical technologies. In conclusion, higher feed intake within the first two weeks post-weaning resulted in a significantly higher body weight and daily gain, possibly leading to a consistent difference in the grow-finish phase (as shown in previous research). Better health and uniformity from wean-to-finish may also be expected from these pigs as creep feed stimulates the development of beneficial intestinal bacteria and reduces the time of feed intake drop post-weaning.