Sector Swine

A good start pays off

Written by Robert Hoste – Senior pig production economist at Wageningen University

At birth, it isn’t always a given that every piglet will make it. But which practices will actually be most economically beneficial and ensure every piglet will make it through weaning? Birth weight, colostrum, supplemental feeding, and appropriate management are four key aspects to pay attention to.

Farms differ around the globe in how they behave, their management, and their performance levels. Internationally, there is a strong difference in the national average of pig production costs from farrow to finish; the costs from 17 European and non-European countries are shown in Figure 1. European countries like Italy, Great Britain, or Sweden have higher production costs than Brazil or the United States; where the cost of production is about € 1.15 to 1.30. Approximately 60–70% of the total costs come from feed, which is similar across all the countries. There are various reasons for the cost difference.

Feed costs make up the lion’s share of that difference. For instance, when focusing in on feed costs for a 30 kg piglet in those 17 countries, it can be seen that costs vary from €13 to just over €18—a big difference. Even within countries, prices can vary. For example, the price of feed in Santa Catarina state and Mata Grosso state is different; prices are much lower in Mata Grosso than Santa Catarina, which could partially explain why the total costs vary so much between the two. Feed efficiency also plays a large part in the total picture. Between countries, there is also a difference in the daily weight gain (DWG) and feed conversion ratio (FCR) of piglets between 8–30 kg, all adding to the cost difference. What goes into the feed (energy, protein levels) also varies from country to country.

Figure 1: International pig production costs (Source: InterPIG/Wageningen Economic Research, 2021)

Where farmers can make a difference

There are various feed-related aspects to keep in mind around weaning, which can make a huge difference in terms of the cost of production.

The influence of birth weight

Piglets’ birth weight can affect survival and growth rate. The survival rate of piglets born under 900 g is less than 40%, this number improves if they are born above 1 kg. The lighter piglets also take 18 days longer to reach the correct slaughter weight. That has a knock-on economic effect. When it comes to survival rate, take into account every piglet lost, depending on price levels, costs about €35–50 in net margin loss.

colostrum impacts survival rate

Sufficient colostrum intake is important for small piglets’ survival and life growth. The larger the litter, the less colostrum is available per piglet. Those piglets that receive less than
100 g have a mortality rate of over 60%. Not only is the amount of colostrum consumed important but also the timing of when the colostrum is given has an impact, as the amount of antibodies decreases. The antibodies are at the highest directly after the first piglet is born, after six hours that decreases by 50%.

Supplemental feed for piglets

Should piglets be given supplemental milk and creep feed? While creep feeding is common, the question arises of supplemental milk – should that be given? This supplemental milk is necessary, especially if producers have a larger litter, as there is insufficient milk from the sow. They need to give additional milk or use foster sows. Piglets given creep feed ten days post-weaning show higher feed intake and ADG (Figure 2). Creep feed and supplemental milk have advantages as they encourage higher weaning weights which lead to higher slaughter weight, litter uniformity, and pre-weaning mortality is lower.

Supplemental feed for suckling piglets

Figure 2: Feed intake post weaning, with or without feed 10 days prior to weaning (Muns and Magowan, 2018)

Supplying supplemental milk, however, could ‘mask’ management issues. That is why it is always good to look into the individual needs of the farm whether or not an investment in supplemental feed or milk is a good option. From an economic point of view, an investment of € 1 per piglet for supplemental milk and creep feed will be beneficial in case one of the following consequences would be the case:

  • 0.5 more weaned piglets/per litter
  • +25 g/day ADG in the grower/finisher phase
  • -0.025 FCR in the grower/finisher phase
  • A combination of all

Appropriate management and education

However, the most important aspect is appropriate management and education. If a piglet doesn’t receive the right care from the farmer or the employees then it’s not possible to get them to the end in an efficient way. The reason why piglets don’t receive the right care is often down to labor availability and labor quality; if workers are underpaid, this will reflect in the number of employees a farm has and this in turn can affect the quality of care the pigs receive.

In addition, the quality of stockmanship is slipping. Therefore more attention needs to be paid to this through education, whether through education entities or farmers themselves. All in all, the effects of a good start will last all the way up to the slaughterhouse: a high birth weight will definitely be helpful; so will plenty of colostrum, presented early; supplemental feed requirements which can differ per farm and should be economically evaluated; and finally, it all should be supported by appropriate management, being an absolute prerequisite.

This article is a summary of a presentation held during a webinar on Young Animal Care, held by All About Feed together with the Royal Agrifirm Group, in December 2020. It was organized to launch the company’s new young animal nutrition brand ‘Earlyfeed’. The webinar can still be viewed on demand. Calculations have been updated to reflect actual market circumstances in April 2023.

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Christine Kentane
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