Considerations at Weaning Time

Gordon King, Animal Science, University of Guelph, Canada

Newborn piglets have very limited ability to digest feed. The sow compensates for this by producing milk, a readily digested diet supplying almost all the nutritional requirements of her offspring, and offering this frequently. Also, the immune system is immature at birth so piglets have no inherent resistance to disease and cannot generate any real protection for five or six weeks. Antibodies concentrated in sow colostrum compensate for this initial deficiency but protection is short and usually has disappeared by weaning time (ie. in 3 to 5 weeks). Weaning, particularly at younger ages, involves a sudden change of diet and environment, so is certainly one of the most potentially distressing stages in a piglets life.

The Weaning Process - removal of milk access

No one knows for certain what is the optimum age for weaning. The following points must be considered in making any decision on weaning time.

Piglet Immunity

Postweaning Fertility

Available Facilities

Labor Competence

Feed Costs

Advantages and Disadvantages of Very Early Weaning

i) Better disease control, removes piglets from sow and her potentially pathogenic micro-organisms while they still have good passive immunity from colostrum.
ii) Possibly better or more uniform piglet growth.
iii) In theory, better sow productivity. A shorter lactation period should allow more litters per sow per year, provided that an earlier weaned sows returns to estrus quickly and rebreds successfully with no reduction in her subsequent litter size.

i) Potential delayed fertility in sows. The already published literature suggests this would be a problem but preliminary data from some commercial entrepreneurs indicates it is not.

ii) Very early weaning requires very special facilities. These include:
- isolated, precisely controlled environments, different each few days at start and then adjusted weekly as pigs grow to 9 or 10 weeks of age; (a totally isolated unit, supplemental heat and ventilation are very important);
- diets are critical, must be matched with each age and changed gradually, (need specially supplemented and probably medicated feed at start);
- several water nipples at different heights/pen so piglets can always reach these without difficulty;
- no contact between staff responsible for the early weaning unit and other pig handlers;
- should be able to totally dismantle and clean pens between every group;
- exclude rodents and insects;
- may even need to autoclave feed if disease problems persist;

iii) Very early weaning relies on competent, dedicated attendants.

iv) It still experimental and not yet established widely on a commercial scale.

v) Very early weaning should be part of a three site production system. The breeding herd and farrowing unit is on one site, the piglets are transported to a second site at weaning, and then to a third site for the growing-finishing stage.

Basic Essentials for Satisfactory Weaning

Minimize Distress

Physical Environment


Monitoring Weaner Piglet Performance

Observing Behavior

Health and Survival

Feed Intake

Problem Pigs

Most people when looking at a pen of 20 pigs with 18 good and 2 poorer individuals in the group, concentrate attention on the poor ones. These two need a better environment but the remaining 18 (90%) are fine with what they have. Rather than change the system for all, it would be better to provide a special nursery area for the poorer individuals so they have a chance to catch-up.

Go to Reproductive Management.

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