How learning to eat and drink together avoids the weaning dip

8 January 2021Time: 5 minutes
 

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The weaning dip in piglets is a well-known challenge among pig farmers and represents a far-reaching change for piglets. Not only are they separated from their mothers; the piglets also suddenly have to switch from a milk diet to one of solids and water. Between 10 and 65 percent of piglets will not have learned how to eat solids after four weeks. However, it’s a little-known fact that nearly all piglets would explore eating solid foods very early on in nature and would be able to do so after just 14 days.

In collaboration with Vereijken, Trouw Nutrition and 12 pig farmers, the Pig Innovation Center of Wageningen University & Research is exploring how piglets can be taught to eat solids and drink water in the farrowing pen. Taking inspiration from how food intake develops in nature, they are designing a practical farrowing system for modern pig farming that will help to avoid the weaning dip and raise healthier piglets in the process. What have they discovered so far?

In nature there’s a gradual transition for piglets
 

At least 30 percent of weaning piglets eat nothing during the first 20 hours after weaning begins. This period of undernourishment is often followed by overeating, which can lead to piglets developing intestinal problems and losing even more weight. 
Anita Hoofs, project leader of the innovation project, “Family feeding”, thinks nature can provide a solution. “In nature, sows and piglets leave the nest early together to learn how to eat solids and drink water. Young piglets simply follow their mother’s example and imitate her behavior. Because the sow will have already released many odors and flavors through her placenta and milk, the piglets recognize the potential foodstuffs they encounter. So when they see their mother eat it, the piglets assume it is safe for them to do so too.”

Putting science into practice

Along with 12 pig farmers and a veterinarian, the parties involved are investigating how they can apply the same principle in the farrowing pen. “Piglets who can eat solids independently before weaning can put on up to 50 grams a day more,” continues Anita. “This underscores the importance of this project, for both the welfare of the piglets and the profitability of pig farming.”
The resulting farrowing system from the design sessions with all stakeholders involved, is now entering the validation phase, where it will be compared with conventional systems. But how exactly is this new farrowing pen different?

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A farrowing pen that makes it possible to eat together

“Pigs are social animals, preferring to eat, play and sleep together. Playing actually teaches piglets how to chew,” Anita explains. “This is why we have hung jute sacks and rope near where the sow’s head is, so piglets learn how to eat in a playful manner as they mimic their mother’s behavior.” 

To ensure that sufficient space is created, Anouk van Spronsen and Quirijn Dees of Vereijken looked at the crates of both conventional and free-range farrowing systems. 

“At Vereijken, we believe that the basis for healthy piglets starts in the farrowing period,” says Anouk. “Now that we know that piglets learn how to eat by copying their mother, we’ve adapted the crates to facilitate this as much as possible. The crate is wider by the sow’s head to allow more freedom of movement and play. Moreover, we’ve opted for a feeding plate rather than a trough. The latter is typically about 30 centimeters (12 inches) from the ground, which is far too high for piglets. A feeding plate allows the sow and her piglets to eat together on the ground, just like they would in nature. Instead of a teat to drink from, we’ve provided a water bowl, to represent a stream.”

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Safe family food for both sow and piglets 

Hubèrt van Hees of Trouw Nutrition looked at how providing nutrition in the farrowing pen can help avoid the weaning dip during the next phase.

“In the context of this project, 70 percent of the food is the same and 30 percent is new,” says Hubèrt. “Under normal circumstances, pig-feed experts make a distinction between piglet feed and sow feed. Here, the piglets and sow eat the same food, together. Because the sow passes on odors and flavors to the piglets in the placenta and via her milk, she is given feed with the same odors and flavorings a week before farrowing begins and during the lactation period. This enables the piglets to recognize the food they then receive in the farrowing pen. Furthermore, we’ve also made sure that the feed we give them is suitable for the digestive systems of young piglets. The raw materials in the feed actually stimulates the development of the stomach and intestines, to improve nourishment during the weaning phase.”

Even the physical structure of the feed has been adapted, so the piglets can develop better motoric skills in their jaws. “Eating solids calls for completely different motoric skills than drinking milk, so training these skills in piglets in the farrowing pen will aid a gradual transition towards weaning,” explains Hubèrt.

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Looking for a joint win-win-win

“The fascinating thing about this collaboration is that we are putting science into practice,” concludes Anita. “Together we are looking for ways of making one and one add up to three: improved welfare for piglets, higher return for pig farmers and more job satisfaction too. Together with our project partners, we are certainly well on our way to realizing these goals.” 

The validation phase will conclude in January 2021, with the results of the research being expected sometime during the spring. If you are curious about the status of the research, Quirijn is more than happy to tell you more about it. Email him at: quirijn@vereijkenhooijer.nl.

 
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