Our sow gave birth to her second-ever litter of piglets about two weeks ago. The piglets are starting to get more curious, nosing over food bowls, poking around the barn… they have even found a weak spot in our dirt-floor barn and are now working together to tunnel out! Crafty piglets.
Once our piglets start to become more precocious, we begin thinking about when it’s time to wean them. Although many commercial hog farmers begin weaning piglets this early, it’s not the right choice for our pigs and we know that they still have a few weeks to go.
If you’re new to weaning piglets, there are a few tips and tricks you will want to follow to ensure your success.
Why You Need to Wean Piglets
Weaning piglets is a natural part of raising pigs. If you plan on re-breeding your sow, you are going to need to pull her piglets from her eventually. Plus, they will need to learn how to eat regular food so that they can eventually be raised to market weight (if that’s your plan) or to become breeders themselves.
It’s easier said than done, though. You need to have a good idea of the proper timeline and weaning process in order to successfully wean piglets.
After about five weeks, a sow’s milk production will begin to decline. Not only is weaning necessary to get the ball rolling on the farm but also you won’t see a lot of benefits keeping piglets on the teat for too long. They will stop getting the nutrients they need the longer you leave them on.
Once piglets are older, their digestive system will be able to handle complex carbohydrates from the feed. They will also have a better heat regulatory system in place so they won’t be as reliant on their mother to stay warm. Their immune systems will be better developed at this time, too.
When to Wean Piglets
In the past, commercial hog farmers used to believe that the best age to wean piglets was between 7 to 10 days of age. They gradually moved that up to 21 days of age, but now, the general recommendation is to avoid weaning pigs until much later.
There are a few reasons for waiting. Not only will you see a better return on your investment – the body of a tiny piglet is better at converting milk to energy at this young age than it is other types of food – but it’s much less stressful for the piglet and its mother, too.
What’s more important other than piglet age at weaning time is piglet weight. According to the Purina Animal Nutrition Center, piglets should weigh between 18-21-pounds when they are weaned. Usually, this is around four to eight weeks of age, but this can depend on the breed and health of the pigs.
They’ll grow much faster and to heavier weights than those that were weaned sooner, but you won’t see a lot of benefits from weaning them later than this. Although you shouldn’t stress if you have a 23-pound piglet that hasn’t been weaned yet, either.
How to Wean Piglets
Weaning piglets is something you need to do slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully. You can’t just pull the piglet away from its mother and proclaim, “Ok! Weaned!” You need to put some thought into how you wean your piglets to prevent stress for both the piglet and its mother.
There are a few steps to follow to ensure success at weaning time.
1. The Weaning Process
First, start by introducing dry feed pre-weaning. Do this while piglets are still with their mothers. This will help them get used to the new feed and prevent changes from happening too abruptly. If you don’t utilize a farrowing crate, chances are, your piglets are already being exposed to dry feed because they’re around their mother’s food.
If you are using a farrowing crate, though, you will want to start putting dry feed in with the piglets at a rate of 2lbs of feed per litter (you can put in a little less for small litters and a little bit more for bigger litters – use your judgment).
Don’t use any old feed, though. Even if your piglets have some exposure to their mother’s food, it’s important that you give them creep feed. This will contain digestible ingredients that taste and smell just like their mother’s milk. Creep feeds are formulated specifically for piglets and have the complex nutritional profiles these young pigs need. This will encourage them to eat.
During the weaning period, you will want to keep feeds similar. Gradually switch to a starter feed that looks and smells like the creep feed. This will encourage them to eat more and to go to the feeder instead of the teat when they feel hungry.
2. Group Feeding
Another tip is to make sure your feeder is accessible to multiple piglets at once – not just one piglet at a time.
Piglets like to eat in groups. This is a behavior you probably already noticed when they all flock to the sow’s teats at feeding time. Make sure your piglets know where the food and water are, and allow them to feed in groups.
Water is important. 80% of a newborn pig’s body weight consists of water. They’ll get thirsty quickly once they stop getting their water from milk.
Make sure you have multiple drinkers in the pen and that they are set low to the ground so the piglets can get to them. You can use nipple waterers if you like but observe your piglets carefully to make sure they know how to use them.
Challenges To Overcome When Weaning Piglets
One of the biggest pitfalls that people run into when they are weaning piglets is that they don’t start the process with healthy pigs. Healthy piglets will begin to eat sooner, while those that are sick or injured will suffer. Suckling from a teat is instinct early in a piglet’s life, but eating creep feed is not.
Make sure your piglets are healthy early on, and that they are housed in a comfortable setting. It can be more difficult to wean piglets during the winter months. This is especially true if your piglets are housed in a damp or drafty barn.
They’ll be more inclined to nurse than to eat creep feed. After all, they are cold and want to benefit from some of their mother’s heat! You may have to wait to wean piglets longer if you’re weaning in winter. This will allow your piglets to develop more body fat to keep them warm.
Another mistake is trying to separate piglets from one litter – or worse, mixing them with piglets from separate litters. Keep piglets of the same litter together to minimize stress. Don’t mix, because this can increase the likelihood of diseases.
Even at weaning time, piglets still don’t have a fully developed immune system. Mixing them with new piglets can increase disease transfer. Plus, they might fight when introduced to new piglets, which can cause additional stress.
If your sow is prone to developing mastitis, you may want to try weaning your piglets more gradually. Some producers also remove a few piglets at a time to help the sow gradually “dry up.” This isn’t usually necessary, though. That’s especially true if you are weaning past five weeks. She will begin to “dry up” on her own.
Finally, you should never overlook hygiene when it comes to feeding and watering your piglets. This is especially true at weaning time. Make sure you keep drinkers and feeders clean to help protect piglets from potential pathogens.
Weaning Piglets the Stress-free Way
Weaning a piglet isn’t unlike weaning any other type of mammal. If you have children of your own, think of it this way. You wouldn’t stop breastfeeding your baby one day and start feeding him chicken and mashed potatoes the very next day, right?
Right. You would transition him slowly. You would gradually give him solid foods in a palatable, recognizable form (like carrots mashed up with breastmilk or formula) before switching him over to a full-time diet of “grown-up” food. This would be done slowly, both to minimize stress for your child and for yourself.
The same rules apply when weaning piglets. Wean your piglets gradually, and be observant of any changes in their health or behavior. With a bit of luck and a whole lot of practice, this step in raising pigs will become second nature!