Insights Livestock

Starting pigs: The race to market begins with a successful start


Three meals a day, a clean room, and fresh, folded laundry. You have your parents to thank for that. When college hits, then it’s Ramen, Febreze, and awkward roommates. This concept, relatable to many of us, can be extrapolated to today’s modern pig production.

The transition period after weaning is the most challenging time in hog production, and the first seven days sets the stage for the next 23 weeks of grow/finish performance. In an ideal production system, pigs would be 21 days of age at weaning, average 15 pounds of bodyweight, be disease free, and come from a single sow source. The reality of modern production is that many groups come from multiple sources and are weaned younger than that, and farmers have to pay close attention to their weight and any shortcomings in the health of the animals. How we handle this critical stage of production is what puts us ahead in the race to market.

Setting the stage

The important work begins even before pigs arrive. Once pigs from the previous turn are removed, all organic material needs to be removed from all surfaces. Heat mats and feeders should be removed to maximize areas for soaking. To ensure no organic residue is left behind, flush water lines and drain drinkers. The room is power-washed using hot water and a degreasing soap, a foaming disinfectant is applied, and the room can dry for two to three days before the next group arrives.

Creating a comfort zone

Once properly cleaned, disinfected, and dried, the room now needs to be warm and inviting for the new recruits. The comfort zone is the temperature at which an animal can maintain its body temperature by regulating the skin, changing the heart and respiratory rate, or adjusting body position to change exposed surface area. This comfort zone is dependent upon floor type, air speed, and temperature and insulation of the building. Some of these factors are continually changing and need to be adjusted during the nursery period to ensure comfort. Barns should be preheated for 12 hours prior to pig arrival. Mats should be placed so that pigs have 0.4 square feet per head of space and brooders set to provide a comfort zone of 95 degrees. Inlets need to be set according to pig placement, and ventilation minimum and maximums need to be established based on the style of barn.

Placement plan

Knowing how you are going to stock your barn, how you are going to deal with fall-behind pigs, and where your sick pen is going to be located requires some planning. Fifteen percent to 20 percent of the smallest pigs will need extra attention, consistent gruel feeding, extra water, and a warmer temperature to ensure their success. A graduation pen needs to be established where recovered sick pigs can finish out their stay. Knowing which pens can best support a producer executing on the above can make a great difference.

Water, water and more water

Over 80 percent of the body of a newborn pig consists of water making it a critical component and the first thing pigs look for in the barn. Be sure that each pig has sufficient access to watering points. Ideally, drinkers should be positioned within three to six feet from the feeders. There should be more than one drinker per pen to ensure a backup in case of break down or blockage. Bowl drinkers should be set at 40 percent of shoulder height, and swinging nipple drinkers should be set sufficiently high to allow pigs to be able to walk underneath. Water pressure needs to be verified and should be between 15 and 20 PSI. It’s also advised to add a secondary source of clean drinking water when using wet-dry feeders.

Using water dispersible products during the first few days entering the nursery can stimulate feed and water intake, bridging the gap from sow’s milk to starter feed. It can provide vital nutrients and health-supporting compounds to improve gut development, water intake, and stool consistency.

Finally, it’s time to EAT

Before weaning, piglets don’t need as much thought because the sow nurses them at frequent intervals. Once weaned, pigs must decide when and how much to feed themselves. Sows milk also provides both the water and nutrient components that a piglet requires, but after weaning they need to distinguish between thirst and hunger and how they are going to satisfy both.

Gruel feeding gives piglets a few days to settle into their new environment and the opportunity to figure out feeders and waterers without sacrificing those first critical days of nutrition. It also gives extra nutritional support to those fall-behind or sick pigs. Mix three parts water and one part feed to create an oatmeal-like consistency and provide fresh gruel a minimum of four times per day. Only mix enough for pigs to eat in 30 minutes. All pigs should be able to eat simultaneously. Gruel feed for the first two to three days when entering the nursery, using less water each day. By day five to seven they should be on dry feed. A dry feed that is highly palatable and designed to stimulate intestinal tract development and transition lightweight or fall-behind pigs to dry feed is crucial to baby pig success.

When the hard work PAYS off

Who knew there were so many similarities between leaving our parent’s home for bigger and better things (even if it was that many years ago) and getting baby pigs off to a successful start post weaning. Problems arising in the finishing stage of a pig’s life, can often be traced back to the nursery stage of a young pig. Let’s make it a priority as pig producers to ensure we are giving our pigs a successful start as we race to market.


Edan Bomgaars and Anitra Balchan are nutrition and production specialists for Form-A-Feed, offers branded-name, specialty, private-label, and custom-formulated products designed to enhance livestock performance and health and to improve food safety.

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The views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those of AGDAILY.