When Do Piglets Start Eating Solid Foods? This is one of the most asked questions on pig forums online. We decided to cover everything about weaning your piglets in this article.
Weaning is known as the stage after lactation, during which the piglets are separated from their mother and generally proceed to feed on only solid food (compound food) and water. It usually lasts 7 to 8 weeks and during this phase, the piglets can reach around 20 to 25 kg.
Weaning can be a traumatic event for piglets. Changes in nutrition from a predominantly milk-based diet to a pelleted ration can affect the local gut immune status and gut microflora.
Additionally, changing accommodation and mixing piglets can have effects on the physiological, nutritional, immunological, and behavioral status of the piglet. Adapting to new feed can be a complicated process for weaning piglets as necessary measures should be taken to ensure a smooth transition of lactating piglets to weaning.
Shortly we’ll be looking into natural weaning, commercial weaning practices, how weaning age affects the behavior of pigs, tips for better weaning, etc.
Natural Weaning in Pigs
Natural weaning in pigs is a steady process that cannot be necessarily defined as a specific period but is instead a shift from relying on the sow’s milk to other feed. For sows in semi-natural environments, this transition from milk to other sources of food is observed when pigs are between 12 and 17 weeks old.
Sows raised outside eventually begin to spend more and more time away from their piglets. This indicates that sows find piglets an increasing challenge as they get older. So even though the weaning process can be stressful for piglets, it reduces stress for sows in many ways.
Commercial Weaning Practices
Prolonged lactation reduces the number of litters produced per year, as the sows cannot come into heat when they have a nursing litter. In most places, the weaning age on commercial pig farms has steadily decreased, with some piglets now being weaned between 21 and 34 days, and others as young as 17 to 20 days are sometimes also selected.
Over the past decade segregated and medicated early weaning practices (SEW and MEW [7–14 days, respectively]) have been used by pig producers to optimize the health of their piglets, improve feed efficiency and growth rate, and therefore improve economic value.
The main economic advantage of early weaning is directed towards the sow herd. Sow herds can produce more pigs per year with an average weaning window of 17 days compared to 28 days of weaning. The purpose of using a separate facility is to potentially limit the spread of pathogens from the sow to the piglet.
However, the reported disadvantages of early weaning management practices include inconsistent growth performance during the finishing phase, declined post-weaning gains, and abnormal feed consumption.
In one study, piglets were weaned at 2, 3, or 4 weeks of age. The average daily gain (1.2 lb. per day) of piglets weaned at 4 weeks of age was better than those weaned at 2 weeks of age (0.79 lbs. per day).
However, 6 weeks after weaning, the bodyweight of piglets was similar in all groups. Physiological differences were also observed in piglets weaned at different ages.
For example, piglets weaned at 3 weeks had higher cortisol, a stress-relieving hormone, than those weaned at 8 weeks of age. Additionally, the immune systems of these little pigs were not as responsive to disease challenges.
Behavioral Challenges and the Age a Pig is Weaned
Weaning age can also affect the behavior of piglets after being separated from their mother. For example, when piglets were weaned at 6 days of age compared to 28 days of age, the younger piglets showed more walking, vocalization, belly nosing, and a growth check of 15 compared to 18 pounds (7 vs. 8 kg) after weaning.
In another study, piglets were weaned at 3, 4, and 5 weeks. The younger piglets were more vocal at weaning (an average of 3.6 calls/min), but the frequency for all groups decreased by the fourth day (1.6 calls/min) post-weaning.
Piglets may also experience an increase in undesirable behavior. These behaviors may include tail chewing, ear sucking, escape actions, nose and belly sniffing, and persistent thrusting of the nose.
Recent work has highlighted an association with post-nursing rather than pre-nursing behaviors. Belly-nosing has always been considered a sign of compromised welfare for the performer but can certainly have health and welfare repercussions (umbilical cord damage) for the recipient pigs.
The extent of belly-nosing is related to the age of weaning, which is more common in piglets weaned at 1–2 weeks of age than in piglets that were weaned at 3 weeks of age or older. However, when looking into later weaned piglets, more nosing is observed in piglets at 3 weeks of age than in piglets at 4 and 6 weeks of age.
Belly nosing behavior can be lessened by weaning into enriched pens and providing enrichment devices specifically designed to satisfy or attract nosing behavior. Examples of such could be the introduction of straw, wood chips, or some other form of bedding in the environment or providing piglets bowl drinkers instead of nipple drinkers.
Several theories have been proposed as to why the nosing develops. It may be due to udder seeking, or rooting behaviors, it may represent a coping mechanism as the piglets have been removed from a familiar environment with their dam to an unfamiliar pen, filled with foreign piglets.
Other behaviors that may be affected by weaning age include feeding time. In a study, pigs were weaned at 7, 14, and 28 days. At 7 days piglets spend less than 1% of their time at the feeder in the first 2 days after weaning, compared to 3% for piglets at 14 days and 5% for others weaned at 28 days.
Tips for better weaning
Start with Healthy Piglets
This appears quite obvious, but it is very vital to have an easy weaning process. Healthy piglets will start eating early and this is necessary to prevent the weaning dip.
People always focus on solving problems that the piglet may encounter after weaning, but it is important to not forget to look into the farrowing rooms. Problems may be due to reduced milk production, lack of uniformity of piglets at birth, a problem with E. coli, etc. Problems that start very early in a piglet’s life are difficult to fix later.
Comfortable and clean accommodation
Piglets loathe draughts and need warmth; rooms should be around 25°C. When taken to the nursery, the rooms should be cleaned and disinfected. It is important to dry the piece after cleaning.
This can sometimes be a problem when there is little time between cleaning and moving the pigs. Especially in cold climates where it is too expensive to heat rooms properly, it can be tempting to save on heating costs and keep piglets in a room that is still too humid and too cold.
This is a major risk for health problems. Piglets need to expend a lot of energy to keep their body temperature high enough.
Keep piglets from the same litter together
Research has shown that mixing piglets from different litters is a major risk factor for diseases such as Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia (APP) and Streptococcus suis.
Especially around weaning when they do not have a fully developed immune system and maternal antibody protection is reduced. When piglets are moved into the nursery, try to minimize mixing as this can spread disease to the rooms.
Train pigs to eat
One of the biggest challenges after weaning is feeding the piglets. They should be trained before weaning. Tasty and fresh food can be given in small portions from the second week of life.
The aim is to introduce the piglets to bowl feeding so that they can easily find their new source of food after weaning. It is advised not to change this nursery food during the first days after weaning.
A spontaneous transition will reduce the number of piglets that will not eat on the first day. These hunger strikes are more likely to develop problems in the coming weeks. If the system allows, try to use a feeding system where all the piglets can eat at the same time.
Provide clean water and fresh food
Piglets are vulnerable to infection after weaning. All necessary measures should be taken to reduce the risk of exposure to pathogens.
Reducing the number of pathogens in water and food is a way place to start. But there are other ways for pigs to become infected orally, such as through contact with contaminated feces, other pigs, etc.
If you want to reduce the risk of oral infections, the best advice is to use solutions of organic acids in feed and water. The organic acids kill not only the pathogens in the feed and water but also those in the piglet’s stomach. This is a very common and cost-effective method to improve the performance of piglets after weaning.
The biggest problem with addressing the issue of age and welfare is the results when comparing two or more weaning ages.
Some undesirable symptoms have been noted in early-weaned pigs, such as inconsistent growth rates, abnormal feed intake, decreased cellular immune responses, and undesirable behavior.
Weaning pigs at about 21 days has become standard practice in most places. However, farm economics and productivity, sow and piglet welfare, and available facilities will determine the best weaning age on a given farm.