23 August 2002

Weaning rethink helps meet contract targets

By Wendy Short North-east correspondent

BATCH weaning pigs in litter groups, rather than according to size, is helping one North Yorks unit achieve a 91% success rate on grade and weight contract targets for finished pigs.

As on many other farms, a combination of foot-and-mouth and wasting disease has made it difficult for Mike and John Dale to fully evaluate the management changes made to their breeding and finishing system. Nevertheless, they are convinced weaning pigs into litter groups is the best method.

They believe the close genetic relationship within a litter makes it more likely animals will achieve similar finishing weights. Post-weaning growth checks are also minimised because pigs spend less time establishing a pecking order, according to the Dales.

At Careless House Farm, Harrogate, three full litters are kept together until they are 19 weeks old. "Weaning this way reduces disease carry-over, fighting and stress.

"Before autumn 2001, we selected groups based on size, believing that keeping litters intact would produce uneven sizes in finished pig batches. But that is not the case. Now, we always try to ensure litters are evenly matched," says Mike Dale.

He also challenges the theory that taking larger piglets out of a pen will allow smaller animals to thrive. "That causes a change in the pecking order and there is a noticeable growth check during the reshuffle period. It just means the biggest and most aggressive pigs in the new group will become bullies."

At its height, wasting disease in the 250-sow herd resulted in a 15% mortality rate. This has now dropped to 2.5%, partly thanks to a simple gadget invented by Mike to reduce tail-biting.

Tail-biting had always been a problem, but as wasting disease escalated, it was causing 5% of deaths. To keep pigs occupied, he took a 17cm (7in) diameter drainpipe measuring about 20-25cm (8-10in) long. After making four small holes in the plastic at right angles, he inserted two separate lengths of alkathene pipe and cross-threaded them through the larger drainpipe.

The result is four plastic tails, which he reckons are virtually indestructible. The pigs never get bored with the toy and suspending it from a rattling chain adds to its attraction. Often, two pigs will use it to play a tug of war game, which also increases its appeal.

Weaned pigs are also benefiting from a change in the heating system, where underfloor heating has replaced heatlamps, saving electricity. "We put in electric cable heating under the floor of the back one third of the pen. The temperature is about 23C, which most people would say is too cold. But unlike heat lamps, heat is in direct contact with the pigs body.

"But despite having thermostatic valve control, the system takes a long time to heat up and cool down. A water-based heating arrangement may have worked better."

A hospital system, which separates smaller piglets from the rest of the herd, has also produced surprising results.

Smaller animals are segregated and remain in separate buildings throughout their lives. Although they finish three to four weeks later than the rest, the extra care they are given in the early stages means they have a high survival rate, according to the Dales.

For normal sized pigs, a change to the feeding regime has resulted in a 5kg increase in finished weights, says Mr Dale. "For the past few months, the 95 pigs/week we finish have stayed on a grower ration until slaughter.

"We did this because we noticed they stopped eating for a couple of days after being moved to a new building and changing ration at the same time."

Eliminating this growth check has increased slaughter weights to about 75kg so the farm is now getting an extra £4/animal by spending £1.40/head more on feed. &#42

Keeping pigs in their litter groups avoids any changes in the pecking order, according to Mike Dale.

&#8226 Weaned into litter groups.

&#8226 Tail biting prevention.

&#8226 Under floor heating.


Pig rations % protein % oil

Creep feed in 22 13.5farrowing house

Second stage creep 21.5 6

Link 21.5 5.75

Weaner 20 5.30

Grower 16 4.50