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How to care for weaned pigs: Basics of nursery pig care

March 20, 2020

Daily nursery pig care should focus on four areas: feed, water, environment and animal care. Providing for the basic needs of young pigs can go a long way in promoting health, efficient growth and a successful nursery program.

Feed: Getting young pigs started right

Feed intake is crucial for a newly weaned pig. Weaning is a stressful time for the young pig due to a myriad of factors, including maternal separation, changes to their environment, transportation stress, establishment of a social hierarchy, abrupt diet changes, vaccinations and exposure to pathogens. Health is a huge factor at this stage of life, so providing weaned piglets with the proper nutrition to help them transition from milk to dry feed is critical. Below are some feeding strategies that can help improve the post-wean transition, increasing the likelihood that the pig will thrive.

Feed quality

Providing pigs with high-quality feeds requires taking many steps along the production chain. It starts with ingredients that have a high nutrient value and are free of contaminants. The processing, delivery and storage of the diet can also affect the quality and final composition of the feed. Understanding the factors that affect feed quality and implementing a quality-assurance program will help ensure that the best possible nutrition is delivered to the pigs.

Feeder adjustment

The proper adjustment of feeders is a labor- and time-intensive task. It is, however, essential in that it not only helps maximize feed intake but also helps reduce feed wastage, especially during the nursery period, when diets are expensive.

  • To maximize feed intake, young pigs must be able to easily access the feeder. The feeder must be open and easy to find so that pigs have unrestricted access to it. 
  • Based on practical experience, the generally recommended steps are, first, to close the feeder adjustment gate and fill the feeders with the first starter pellet, and then to adjust the gates to be the proper height while slightly shaking or tapping the feeder.
  • During the first week post-weaning, allowing 2/3 of the feeder pan to be covered with feed ensures that the pigs are attracted to the feed.
  • In the following weeks of the nursery period, target 1/2 of the feeder pan to be covered with feed will ensure minimal feed wastage.  

Mat feeding

The biggest opportunity to boost growth and support livability/health is by increasing intakes during the first 7 to 10 days post-weaning. What do you feed pigs after weaning? The transition from a sow’s 20–24 lactation events per day to an ad-lib environment sometimes challenges the young pig’s feed intake.  The goal of mat feeding is to stimulate the activity level of the pigs and act as a “dinner bell” signifying that it’s time to eat.

  • Walking pens and mat feeding four times per day will provide the best results.
  • Mat feed 1 pound of feed (0.5 kg) per 40 pigs per feeding, but no more than what they will clean up in 15 minutes. 
  •  A 1-pint scoop works better than a larger scoop in terms of providing the accurate amount and reducing wastage.                       

Gruel feeding

Similar to mat feeding, gruel feeding helps to boost growth and support the livability and health of small and sick/starve-out pigs, which struggle to make the switch to dry feed post-weaning, helping nursery pigs transition from sow milk to feed.

  • Gruel is a mixture of dry feed ingredients mixed with water or other liquid products, such as milk replacers, that is designed to increase intake.
  • In the case of small piglets or piglets with a slow growth, it is recommended to use pre-starters, a milk replacer or rolled oats; for normal piglets, pre-starter feed may be used.
  • The proportion of water to feed is slowly reduced so the piglets can adapt to the consumption of increasingly more solid feed.
  • To make gruel, mix one part dry feed with two parts water/liquid. The consistency of the gruel should be similar to that of oatmeal.
  • Keep in mind that, in the winter, it is better to use lukewarm water.
  • Remember that gruel pans should be placed away from the sleeping area to keep pigs dry.

Water: The forgotten nutrient

The quality of water and the amount consumed are extremely important aspects of pig production, but unfortunately, they are also often overlooked. Pigs that don’t drink enough water won’t consume enough feed. Daily water usage is a good indicator of pig health. When your pig’s water consumption drops for three continuous days or drops by more than 30% in one day, this may indicate that they are potentially experiencing a health challenge.

  • To encourage young pigs to drink, it is best to provide water in open cube drinkers, poultry drinkers or water bowls for the first 3 to 4 days after weaning.
  • If nipple drinkers are the only source of water, it may take young pigs up to 24 hours to drink an adequate amount, and if the drinkers are not functioning correctly, some pigs may never get enough.
  • The general recommendation is to limit water pressure to 20 psi in drinking supply lines.
  • Adding acidifiers, such as Acid-Pak 4-Way®, to drinking water optimizes pH levels and maintains water balance, helping promote water intake, especially when intake is low or variable.

Water drinking requirements

Outlined below are guidelines for the proper drinker height, flow rate and daily water consumption for wean-to-finish pigs.

Pig weight

<12 lbs.

12–30 lbs.

30–75 lbs.

75–150 lbs.


Nipple height (in)

4 to 6

6 to 12

12 to 18

18 to 24

24 to 30





12 to 15

12 to 15

Flow rate (cups/min)



1 ½



Daily intake (qt.)

0.2 to 0.5

2 to 4

(1–1 ½ gal)

5 to 10
 (1 1½ –2 ½ gal)

6 to 18
(1 ½ –4 1/2 gal)


Managing barn environment

Environmental controls in pig housing are important for animal growth and health. Modern farms have computer-controlled systems that are adjusted automatically to optimize the environment depending on the stage of growth or reproduction, based on ideal temperature curves established by research and models. For example, for growing pigs, the temperature needs to decrease by set amounts as the pigs increase in body weight. However, it is important to ensure that the correct growth curve is selected in any automated system to account for the breed, age and health of the animals.

It takes several days for newly weaned pigs to adjust to their new surroundings and the new supply of water and feed, and feed intake may drop during this crucial time. Weaned pigs require a warm environment, between 85–89°F, depending on the weight or health of the pigs.

Seeing pigs laid out next to each other is a sign that they are comfortable, neither too cold nor too hot. If pigs are spread out, it could be a sign that they are too hot. If they’re piling up on each other too deeply, then it could it be a sign that they are too cold. Although computer-controlled systems are very useful, management by barn workers, who can make suitable adjustments regarding changes in temperature regulation, is still key to ensuring the growth and health of the pigs.


Days weaned

Average barn weight lbs. (kg)

Desired room temp. °F(°C)

Winter setpoint °F(°C)

Summer setpoint °F(°C)

1 without brooder or mats

12 (5.4)

85 (29.4)

87 (30.6)


1 with brooder and mats

12 (5.4)

74 (23.3)

76 (24.4)


14 without brooder or mats

18 (8.2)

81 (27.2)

82 (27.8)


14 with brooder and mats

18 (8.2)

70 (21.1)

71 (21.7)



32 (14.5)

75 (23.9)

73 (22.8)



53 (24)

70 (21.1)

70 (21.1)



75 (34)

67 (19.4)

66 (18.9)



102 (46)

64 (17.8)

63 (17.2)



129 (58)

62 (16.7)

61 (16.1)



158 (72)

61 (16.1)

60 (15.6)



188 (85)

59 (15.0)




217 (98)

58 (14.4)




245 (111)

58 (14.4)

58 (14.4)



274 (124)

58 (14.4)

58 (14.4)



299 (135)

58 (14.4)

58 (14.4)



324 (147)

58 (14.4)

58 (14.4)



The critical components of ventilation include:

  • Desired room temperatures
    • Health-challenged pigs require a 2–5-degree warmer barn.
  • Humidity control
    • It is critical that the humidity remains below 65%.
  • Warm and dry mats

PIC generally recommends 2 CFM/pig at placement; however, in the case of PRRS-positive pigs, it may be necessary to remove air at a higher exhaustion rate to achieve less than 65% humidity.

  • Brooders should produce temperatures around 95°F directly beneath themselves. Pigs should remain warm, dry and comfortable. To accomplish this, use properly functioning brooders and ample mat space (0.4 sq. ft/pig).
    • If mats become wet or caked with feed or manure, flip the mats over to regain a dry, black surface that effectively absorbs heat.
    • Mat temperatures may need to extend beyond 95°F to keep pigs comfortable.
    • Brooders should be in place and functional for 14–21 days, depending on pig comfort and the severity of the disease.
    • Brooders should be in place within intensive-care pens throughout the grueling period.

Animal care

Pen walking

Conducting daily walk-throughs is an important task that all barn workers should make a part of their routine. Pig nursery pens should be walked daily to:

  • Look in each feeder to ensure that the feeder has the proper amount of feed and is clean.
  • Look in the trough of each feeder to ensure that the feeder is adjusted correctly and that there is the correct amount of pan coverage.
  • Inspect the floor of the pens for excessive wetness, accumulation of manure and signs of diarrhea.
  • Inspect each pen for damaged or bent rods that could injure pigs by sticking out into the pen.
  • View every pig from snout to tail, head to toe; the rule of thumb is to spend 2 seconds per pig.
    • Identify and pull fall-behinds.
    • Identify, pull and treat sick pigs.
  • Check water flow rates.
  • Mat feed.

Individual animal care

Starting weaned pigs is the most critical task in a nursery barn. Unless they are presented with significant health challenges, pigs that start well tend to experience rapid growth and improved feed conversion. Unfortunately, the opposite is true in pigs that start tough, who tend to be a challenge all the way to marketing. One of the most common challenges in hard-starting weaned pigs is identifying sick pigs vs. starve-out pigs. Medications are beneficial for sick pigs but do not provide calories to starve-out pigs. Correctly identifying the root cause will allow for proper management.

When walking through the barn, it is critical to keep an eye out for symptoms that could be signs of diseases or nutrition issues.

  • Look at hair coat and/or color; a young pig’s hair coat gets coarse and dirtier when the pig is not feeling well.
  • If a pig looks gaunt or redder in color, it could mean that it hasn’t been eating or drinking.
  • Check for signs of respiratory diseases, which include coughing, breathing heavily (thumping), open-mouthed breathing and depression.
  • Keep an eye out for pigs with red butts or diarrhea/scours, which is commonly seen in thin pigs.
  • Sick and/or starve-out pigs should be placed into a fallback pen, as this is a lower-stress environment and will allow them to be treated accordingly.
  • Watch for signs of lost body condition score, such as a visible spine, hip bones or ribs.
  • Check for gut fill and identify pigs that have sunken-in flanks.
  • Hold the pig upside down by its back legs, placing your thumb over the pig’s back and your fingers over the pig’s abdomen, squeezing your fingers toward your thumb to evaluate gut fill.
    • If your fingers easily depress the abdomen, the pig is off feed.
    • If abdomen is full, with plenty of resistance, feed intake is adequate.

A pig never gets over a good — or bad — start, so it’s on us, as animal caretakers, to provide the proper environment and nutrition for our young piglets to get off to the right start, setting the stage for their success.


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