Piglet Management and Feeding Strategies to Protect Post-Weaning Health and Improve Performance

Part 2 - Optimizing housing and management conditions in the nursery to protect the pigs’ welfare and potential for lifetime performance after weaning

Improving pig performance immediately postweaning is critical in determining the lifetime performance of pigs. Reducing post-weaning nutrient disruption can be accomplished through the implementation of pre-weaning management and housing strategies. Improving housing and management conditions in the nursery can protect pigs’ welfare, enhance nursery performance, and minimize lifetime production costs. In this article, we will discuss first-step recommendations related to management and housing conditions that enable maximized initial feed intake in the nursery.

A clean environment is a key factor for improving animal performance. To avoid infections, the room and the entryway of the nursery must be cleaned with a high-pressure washer using hot water and detergent before the arrival of newly weaned pigs. All areas, including those which are commonly overlooked and missed, such as gate feet, fan inlets, and hand tools, must be properly cleaned and sanitized. The room should be dry, warm, and at the correct temperature before the pigs arrive (Baker, 2004). Begin with the average receiving temperature at 86ºF and pay attention to the piglets’ behavior — which will reveal if the room is too cold or too warm. The temperature can be reduced by 1 degree every Monday and Thursday until approximately 81ºF is reached at 21 days postweaning (Baker, 2004; Patience, et al., 2004). The areas that could cause unintended drafts need to be sealed up to improve minimum ventilation air flow through the intended air inlets. In a comfortable temperature zone, pigs have optimal feed intake, better feed conversion efficiency and immune defense (Baker, 2004).

Make sure that feeders are clean and correctly adjusted so they provide an adequate amount of feed. The feeder space needs to be adjusted to maximize feed intake and average daily gain, since pigs are accustomed to eating together or simultaneously. Decreasing the number of pigs per feeder hole in the nursery (from 7.50 to 3.75 pigs) may result in faster onset of feed intake, improve growth performance, and improve animal welfare since they reduce the incidence of ear and tail lesions (Laskoski et al., 2019). In another study, Laskoski et al. (2021) observed optimal responses for average daily gain, mean body weight at 42 days, and final pen weight with floor space ranging from 0.25 to 0.35 m2/pig and feeder space from 4.0 to 4.4 cm/pig. In addition, the feeder gate should also be adjusted so that 50% of the feeding pan should be visible in the first few days after weaning, to minimize waste and encourage feed intake (Goodband et al., 2006).

There is little research concerning the benefits of liquid milk supplementation during the first days in the nursery following weaning. The ad libitum administration of liquid milk replacer for the first 3 days post-weaning to 150 of the lightest piglets (initially 4.0kg) of a group diagnosed PRRS positive, and for 180 light piglets (initially 4.2kg) in another experiment immediately post weaning, has been found to reduce mortality in the nursery by 50% (Bergstrom and McKilligan, 2006). Take care to prepare milk replacer daily so that it is always supplied fresh in an appropriate feeder design. Younger and lighter pigs fed ad libitum visit the feeder more frequently for longer meals, which results in a greater time budget for feeding than older and larger pigs (Hyun et al., 1997). Adequate feeding spaces are needed, and the Rotecna Maxipan with a matching 7-gallon liquid container has been used to minimize feeding competition and provide ad libitum access to enough milk replacer for up to 30 pen mates (Bergstrom and McKilligan, 2006). Although some people may find it expensive, improvements in survivability can offset these costs.

   Check each animal daily to facilitate the identification of fall-behind and dead pigs as soon as possible. These pigs can become more susceptible to diseases or become chronic carriers, which are extremely difficult and expensive to try and recover if they are not identified early. Therefore, timely identification, isolation, and appropriate treatment of fall behind pigs might be more successful and cost-effective. Poor-doing pigs should be pulled into a fresh, mostly warm, and draft-free pen to provide additional nutrition, including gruel feeding and mat feeding.

Gruel feeding (50:50 of feed and water, or a liquid milk co-product) or mat feeding are offered to assist the transition from a milk-based diet to a solid meal. Gruel-feeding is usually offered 4 times a day during the first 2-3 days to each weaned pig, and for 7 days within intensive-care pens (Mavromichalis, 1999). On the other hand,  in research with 4,075 light and fallback nursery pigs, gruel feeding two versus four times a day for 14 days did not affect pigs’ removal (14.1% vs 15.6%) or mortality rate (3.8% vs 4.3%), indicating that producers may not need to perform gruel feeding more than two times a day (DeRouchey et al., 2022). Mat feeding should take place for at least 7 days post-weaning to stimulate the activity level of the pigs and act as a signal to eat. Although commonly used, limited research data is available to validate current protocols and mat feeding benefits (DeRouchey et al., 2022).

Water is an essential nutrient for almost all animal functions, and functions as a means of delivering medication and other substances. For newly weaned pigs, water intake may be a limiting factor of animal performance since it is closely associated with low feed intake immediately after weaning (Fraser et al., 1990; Dybkjær et al., 2006). Increasing the flow rate of nipple drinkers from 175 to 700 cm3/min resulted in increased water and feed intake, and an enhanced growth rate of 21-day weaned pigs over a 3-week period following weaning (Barber et al., 1989). However, the water pressure and flow must be properly adjusted to avoid waste, low consumption, or excessive humidity in the environment. The flow rate should be 500 mL per minute for nursery pigs, enough to fill a paint can lid in 12 seconds (recommended by PIC).

When water is easily seen in either an open bowl or cup, as compared to a nipple or push-lever dispenser, discovery time is significantly reduced (Phillips and Fraser, 1991). Nipple drinkers also waste more water than cup drinkers in the nursery (Vande Pol et al., 2022). Drinker position is also related to consumption, water waste, and animal welfare. Nipples with a 90º angle should be set at shoulder height of the smallest pig in the pen, while nipples with a 60º angle should be set 2-3 inches above the shoulder height of the smallest pig. The lip of bowl waterers should be placed near feeders and adjusted at 40% of the height of the smallest pig. Drinkers should be placed with ample space to allow pigs to feel comfortable accessing them. Water lines must be cleaned twice a year to remove biofilm (recommended by PIC).

Providing the proper environment for newly weaned pigs improves their health, lessens the stress of weaning, and improves performance. As we can see, there are management strategies in the nursery that are necessary first steps to enable maximal initial feed intake. Since post-weaning intake of feed is also dependent on feed intake prior to weaning, which is often low, these strategies can help to minimize post-weaning problems and additional losses.


Barber, J. P. H. Brooks, and J. L. Carpenter. 1989. The effects of water delivery rate on the voluntary food intake, water use and performance of early-weaned pigs from 3 to 6 weeks of age. In: J. M. Forbes, M. A. Varley, T. L. J. Lawrence, H. Davies, and M. C. Pitkethy, editors, The voluntary feed intake of pigs. British Society of Animal Production, Edinburgh, UK. p. 103–104.

Baker, J. E. 2004. Effective environmental temperature. Journal of Swine Health and Production; 12(3):140-143.

Bergstrom, J. R., McKilligan, D. 2006. An evaluation of liquid feeding immediately post-weaning to improve performance of the lightest pigs within a nursery group. Allen D. Leman Swine Conference.

DeRouchey, J., Wenlsey, M., Tokach, M., Woodworth, J., Goodband, B., Gehbardt, J. Do mat and gruel feeding impact pig survivability. Available at <https://www.porkbusiness.com/news/hog-production/do-mat-and-gruel-feeding-impact-pig-survivability> Accessed in: 01/31/23.

Dybkjær, L., A. P. Jacobsen, F. A. Tøgersen, and H. D. Poulsen. 2006. Eating and drinking activity of newly-weaned piglets: effects of individual characteristics, social mixing, and addition of extra zinc in the feed. Journal of Animal Science. 84:702–711.

Fraser, D., Patience, J. F., Phillips, P. A., McLeese, J. M. 1990. Water for piglets and lactating sows: quantity, quality and quandaries. In: W. Haresign and D. J. A. Cole, editors, Recent advances in animal nutrition. Butterworth-Heinemann, London, UK. p. 137–160.

Goodband, B., DeRouchey, J., Tokach, M., Dritz, S., Nelssen, J. 2006. Strategies for feeding weaned pigs. London Swine Conference – Thinking Globally, Acting Locally, p. 75-92.

Hyun, Y., M. Ellis, F. K. McKeith, and E. R. Wilson. 1997. Feed intake pattern of group-housed growing-finishing pigs monitored using a computerized feed intake recording system. Journal of Animal Science, 75:1443-1451.

Laskoski F, Faccin JEG, Vier CM, Gonçalves, M. A. D., Orlando, U. A. D., Kummer, F., Mellagi, A. P. G., Bernardi, M. L., Wentz, I., Bortolozzo, F. P. 2019. Effects of pigs per feeder hole and group size on feed intake onset, growth performance, and ear and tail lesions in nursery pigs with consistent space allowance. Journal of Swine Health and Production; 27(1):12–18.

Laskoski, F., FACCIN, J.E.G., Bernardi, M.L., Mellagi, A.P.G., Ulguim, R.R., Lima, G.F.R., Gonçalves, M.A.D., Orlando, U.A.D., Kummer, R., Wentz, I., Bortolozzo, F.P. 2021. Effects of different feeder and floor space allowances on growth performance and welfare aspects in nursery pigs. Livestock Science. 249:1-10.

Patience, J.F., Beaulieu, A.D., Levesque, C., Bench, C. 2004. Nursery management and performance. Prairie Swine Centre.

Phillips, P.A., Fraser, D. 1991. Discovery of selected water dispensers by newborn pigs. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 71, 233–236.

PIC. Managing water to maximize performance. Available at: <https://www.pic.com/resources/managing-water-to-maximize-performance>. Access in 01/25/23.

Vande Pol, K.D., Grohmann, N.S., Weber, T.E., Ritter, M.J., Ellis, M. 2022. Effect of drinker type on water disappearance of nursery pigs. Translational Animal Science. 6(1).

Published on

20 February 2023


  • Swine


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