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Solid success: Supporting piglet health at weaning - Ernie Hansen

August 17, 2018

The most efficient and cost-effective growth a pig will experience occurs during the weaning process.

Weaning piglets effectively is critical for farmers to ensure they are healthy and productive. Pigs that do not transition well from milk to a solid diet have their gut health compromised and become susceptible to disease challenges. Ernie Hansen, manager of swine nutrition and technical services at Hubbard Feeds, sits down with Tom Martin to explain the strategies producers can implement to support a successful transition and improve long-term pig production. 

The following is an edited transcript of Tom Martin's interview with Ernie Hansen, manager of swine nutrition and technical services at Hubbard Feeds. Click below to hear the full audio:


Tom:              This is Tom Martin, and I'm here with Ernie Hansen, manager of swine nutrition and technical services at Hubbard Feeds. He joins us to talk about transitioning piglets at weaning from milk to solid food. Thanks for being with us, Ernie.


Ernie:             All right, thank you.


Tom:              What are some of the problems that producers face when they begin weaning piglets from milk and moving them to a solid diet?


Ernie:             Well, helping pigs make a smooth transition at weaning has always been a high priority for pig farmers. Today's high-producing genetics have been selected to wean 30-plus pigs per sow per year and to produce pigs that will reach a market weight at or in excess of 300 pounds, and to do this quickly and efficiently. This performance level and, even more importantly, the way these pigs start on feed is drastically different than pigs from ten years ago.


                        Couple these factors with the known stressors of weaning — weaning age, the physical separation from the mother sow, commingling, transportation, the environment difference, and the traditional milk-to-solid-food transition — and that's a stark reminder that there is no substitute for good animal husbandry for the first week post-weaning. The old adage is certainly as true now as it ever was: "A pig never gets over a good or bad start."


Tom:              What are some of the outcomes seen in a piglet that does not transition well post-wean?


Ernie:             Health is a big factor at this stage of life for the piglet. If pigs aren't eating well, gut health is compromised, and this can affect their overall health and make them susceptible to disease challenges. This requires farm workers to spend more time treating pigs, and depending on how severe the challenge is, there may be an increase in mortality and morbidity as well.


                        We use the term "all-value pigs." This is a reference to the pigs that reached the targeted market weight on time with minimal health challenges. These all-value pigs represent the highest returns for farmers and the greatest opportunity for increased profitability.


Tom:              So, what is the importance of feed intake? What does the producer need to be thinking about as piglets are making this transition?


Ernie:             To make it very simple, intake is everything at this stage of the pig's life. Healthy pigs are very efficient. That means every extra bite of feed is extra weight gain. It's the most efficient and cost-effective growth the pig will experience.


Tom:              Why is gut health critical at this particular phase in a pig's life?


Ernie:             You may not realize it, but the gut is the first line of defense for the young pig and is actually a large part of the immune system. It's a barrier that keeps out bacteria, and if it’s not functioning properly, those bacteria get into the pig's bloodstream and can spread, causing disease challenges for the pig. As more research is done on gut health and gut function, we're discovering that pigs don't always fully recover from the initial attacks on their system. While it may look like they recover and have good performance, research is showing they won't have gains as good as those pigs that didn’t experience the health challenges early in life.


Tom:              So, what steps or management techniques should producers and farmers take to make sure that pigs transition well post-wean?


Ernie:             We work closely with our customers in a couple of different areas to help pigs get started on feed. Frequency of feeding for the first week in the nursery is critical. The more times we can be in the barn feeding the pigs, the better they will start. In some cases, just walking through the barn and getting the pigs up will stimulate them to eat.


                        Secondly, identifying fallback pigs as early as possible — early intervention — helps transition those pigs to get them back on track. Use of a gruel or a highly fortified feed is essential to get the right nutrients into these young pigs.


Tom:              Some pigs are naturally inclined to not eat as well while they're transitioning from a liquid to solid diet, so it's important for producers to do what they can to motivate those pigs to eat more. How does Viligen® play a role in this key part of their transition from milk to solids?


Ernie:             Viligen is an intake stimulant. It's combined with certain nutrients and palatability factors that not only encourage them to eat — to eat more, to take that first bite of feed — but it also has gut health components that help support the gut in overcoming challenges that the environment brings to that pig. So, it causes them to eat more and then supports their health. A healthy pig that eats is going to grow faster and more efficiently throughout its entire life.


Tom:              Tell us about the feeding trials using Viligen that were conducted by Hubbard Feeds.


Ernie:             So, we started Viligen trials about nine months ago (Oct. 2017) after an Innovation Group meeting at Alltech. We did some simple trials and the pigs performed well above expectations. We had improvements in gains that were really quite remarkable. We redid the trial and we duplicated those improvements in gains.


                        In the second trial, we had a significantly higher degree of overall health challenges, and we're able to see that we had not only improvements in intake and gains, but that led to improvements in overall health. We treated fewer pigs for health issues, we pulled fewer pigs out of the pens that weren't starting and we had fewer pigs die in the trial.


Tom:              How big of a role does formulation of feed play at this stage when the piglet is transitioning from milk to solids?


Ernie:             Diet formulation plays a critical role for these young pigs as they transition from the sow’s milk to dry starters. Diets are more complex to supply the nutrients that will promote good gut health, which is important for nutrient absorption and utilization. High-quality ingredients are key to the digestibility of the young pig and also reduce the chance of adverse interactions with other ingredients.


                        Finally, ingredients that promote intake are an important technology to include in the nursery diet. People often think of flavors in milk products to encourage intake, but we're excited about Viligen, which our research has shown to improve intake and health in these young pigs. Viligen — which is a blend of fatty acids, prebiotic components and mineral nutrients — helps condition the gut mucosa, which helps get ready for rapid growth because of the improved feed intake.


Tom:              Ernie Hansen, manager of swine nutrition and technical services at Hubbard Feeds, joining us from Mankato, Minnesota. Thank you for being with us, Ernie.


Ernie:             Thank you much.      




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