June30 , 2022

Piglet Management – Birth to Weaning

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Piglet Management – Birth to Weaning

Good care and management in the farrowing quarters has a major influence on the number of liveborn piglets that are weaned and on how well they perform in later stages of production. According to a 1995 survey of swine management practices in the United States, the average number of preweaning piglet deaths per litter on farms was .88 or 9.4% of those born alive. The two leading causes of preweaning deaths were laid on (48.7%) and starvation (20.5%). Other surveys have shown that over 50% of the deaths occur in the first two to three days of life.

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A successful caretaker understands that newborn piglets have certain physical characteristics which make them very reliant on proper management and care. Piglets are born without any antibody protection, their bodies contain fat energy for about one day of life, and they cannot regulate internal body temperature well until they are a few days old. Thus, anything that may lead to a reduction in milk production or consumption, such as chilling or exposure to disease organisms, compromises the health and well-being of newborn piglets.

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Piglets born alive fall into two broad categories—normal and disadvantaged. It is important to recognize the difference between normal and disadvantaged piglets so appropriate assistance can be provided. Normal piglets will be born quickly, get on their feet within a minute or two and be suckling in about 15 minutes. They move from teat to teat, taking a disproportionately large share of the most concentrated, immunoglobulin-rich colostrum. If the sow is a good mother and the farrowing environment is adequate, normal piglets thrive without much help from the caretaker.

Disadvantaged piglets are ones weakened by the rigors of the birth process, are lightweight, have a congenital defect(s), are slow reaching the udder, or are chilled. Piglets weakened during the birth process include those that were oxygendeprived but not killed, “apparent” stillbirths that were revived, and piglets experiencing excessive physical trauma. The longer a sow takes to farrow the greater the chance these problems will appear. Lightweight piglets, especially those weighing less than 2.75lb at birth, are much less likely to survive to weaning than heavier piglets. Splayleg is a common congenital defect observed in disadvantaged piglets. Disadvantaged piglets are also slow in getting on their feet and to the udder. Their weakened state compromises their ability to compete with stronger, normal litter mates for access to teats during the first hours after birth. This reduces their intake of colostrum. Chilled piglets often experience a lower core body temperature which makes them susceptible to death. Often these piglets are seen shivering and huddled with litter mates, because their thermal requirements have not been met. This fact sheet describes management practices that should increase the number of piglets weaned as well as their ability to perform well in subsequent stages of production. Some of these practices are meant for all piglets in the litter, whereas others are mainly for disadvantaged piglets. There is a general time frame in which it is most desirable to perform many of these techniques.

Read more: Biosecurity of pigs and farm security

Attended Farrowings

Research indicates that attending and assisting at farrowing can increase piglet survival and the number of pigs weaned. By being present at farrowing, one can quickly identify disadvantaged piglets and begin to assist them. However, each producer should weigh carefully the costs and benefits of supervised farrowings. Having many litters to supervise at one time (through batch farrowing or continuous farrowing in a multiple farrowing room complex) makes more efficient use of labor.

Prevent Chilling

The farrowing quarters need to provide two different microclimates: a cool one for the sow (60-65°F) and a hot one for the newborn piglets (85-95°F the first few days, then decreased to the 70-80°F range). To achieve this goal, maintain a room temperature at approximately 65-70°F and provide zone heating for the litter.

Closely monitor the sow and litter’s responses to the zone heating to ensure their thermal needs are met. If the amount of heat provided by the zone heaters is excessive, piglets will move away from the heat source. This not only wastes power but can cause the sow to become too warm and increase piglet mortality. The thermal needs of piglets are met if they are lying in a prone position gently touching each other. If they are piled, attention should be given to providing more heat.

Provide zone heating in the farrowing quarters beginning 24 hours before expected farrowing. Heat lamps, heat pads, radiant heat devices, and hovers are common ways to provide zone heating in farrowing houses. Many times, however, the zone heating is placed only to the side of the sow in the creep area. Research indicates that having an additional heat lamp placed at the rear of the sow during farrowing reduces piglet mortality. The extra heat source assures the piglet of immediate warmth following birth. The key is to have the supplemental heat directed behind the sow before farrowing and until farrowing is completed. If there is no extra heat present behind the sow during farrowing, position disadvantaged piglets in a heated area immediately after birth.

Read more: How to make your own pig feed

Colostrum Intake

The first milk, colostrum, is rich in disease-preventing immunogloblins; the very first colostrum is the richest and best, because the quality of colostrum declines over time. Getting a good dose of colostrum, especially from the piglet’s dam, is probably the single most important factor related to a piglet’s survival and long-term health. Strong, early-born piglets get to the udder hours before their later-born litter mates and go from teat to teat taking the best colostrum. Thus, disadvantaged piglets often need assistance to obtain enough colostrum. Below are some methods to ensure piglets obtain an adequate dose of colostrum.

Prevent chilling so piglets stay warm and active.

Split suckle. This involves removing part of the litter for one to two hour periods the first 12 hours after farrowing. For best results, remove the largest, strongest piglets for a one to two hour period during the morning and again in the afternoon, leaving the small piglets on the sow to nurse. Give the sow 20-30 U.S.P. units of oxytocin (1 to 1.5ml) each time the largest piglets are removed. Be sure to hold the large piglets in a box fitted with supplemental heat to prevent chilling. Use this technique to ensure high colostrum intake before crossfostering.

Collect colostrum from the sow or obtain cow colostrum and give it to piglets via a stomach tube or a syringe. To milk a sow, remover all her piglets for one hour. Then give her 20-30 U.S.P. units or 1 to 1.5ml of oxytocin, wait one or two minutes, then strip her teats (front teats are better be cause they produce more milk) to obtain colostrum. Cow colostrum also can be used and may more easily obtained. Either type of colostrum can be frozen in ice cube trays for future use. How ever, do not thaw the cubes in a microwave oven, because rapid thawing reduces the immunological value of the colostrum. Stomach tubes can be made from model airplane fuel tubing or by using a urinary catheter (size 14 French) available from medical supply stores. Attach the tube to a syringe and lubricate the tube with vegetable oil or KY jelly before inserting it 6-7 inches into the piglet’s stomach. Give the piglet 10-15ml of colostrum once or twice during the first 24 hours of life.

Crossfostering

The lowest piglet mortality is observed in high birthweight litters with low within-litter piglet weight variation. Crossfostering is the most effective way to reduce within-litter piglet weight variation. The primary purposes of crossfostering is to reduce the weight variation within the litter and to more evenly match the number of piglets with the sow’s ability to raise them (determined by the number of functional teats).

Crossfostering should be practiced carefully to achieve best results. A good crossfostering program makes milk supplies more available to all piglets and does not compromise the health status of the piglets in segregated early weaning (SEW) programs. Below are important tips to ensure good results from crossfostering.

Ensure piglets that will be crossfostered consume colostrum from their dam. Allow piglets to remain with their dam for at least four to six hours following birth before they are crossfostered. Otherwise, it is likely the fostered piglets will not consume an adequate amount of colostrum, especially if they are fostered to a sow which farrowed one to two days previously.

Crossfoster piglets before they are 24 to 48 hours old. Piglets establish teat fidelity (preference for a teat) within the first days after birth and will almost always suckle at the same teat or pair of teats until weaning. It is an advantage for piglets to establish teat fidelity, because it reduces competition and fighting at the udder. When teat fidelity is not established, piglets fight more throughout lactation and have poorer weight gains. Crossfostering after teat fidelity is established is disruptive and induces fighting between resident and fostered piglets. An exception to this rule is the fostering of one of a pair of piglets continuing to dispute a single teat location.

In SEW programs where maximum weaning age is important or in PRRS-positive herds, crossfostering piglets after they are 24-48 hours old places them at risk of coming into contact with a nurse sow shedding pathogens against which the piglets received no colostral immunity. Therefore, disease may pass from the nurse sow to the piglets.

Some producers have successfully transferred older, small piglets to nurse sows following early weaning of the nurse sow’s litter. In these instances, be sure the weaning age of the fostered piglets does not exceed the maximum weaning age set for the farm.

Choose small, docile sows with small, slender nipples of medium length to raise below- average-weight piglets.

Observe for the presence of disease problems in the farrowing quarters before crossfostering. This is important to reduce the spread of disease. Avoid moving a healthy piglet to a diseased litter or vise-versa.

Transfer males rather than females when replacement animals are retained from within the herd. Otherwise, accuracy of female selection may be reduced and gilts reared by foster dams have poorer reproductive performance.

Read more: Common stress factors for pigs

Processing Piglets

Processing piglets includes clipping teeth, clipping and treating the umbilical cord, iron administration, tail docking, identification, treating splaylegged piglets, providing supplemental nutrients, and castration. These skills can be performed in different ways and in the sequence of personal preference. Some producers elect not to perform all these procedures, or they prefer to delay some of them for three to four days to reduce stress on the very fragile one-day-old piglet. Those who operate pasture farrowing systems tend to do all their processing of piglets during the first day after farrowing, because the piglets are easier to catch. Producers recording mortality rates from birth to weaning in excess of 15% may consider delaying teeth clipping, tail docking, and castration of smaller piglets for a few days.

Equipment

Have all the equipment you need to process piglets arranged in a hand-held carrier which can be attached to a pig cart preferably on wheels. Supplies and equipment needed to process piglets as described in this fact sheet are: disinfectant, such as chlorhexadine (Nolvasan®) or quaternary ammonium compounds; antiseptic, such as tamed iodine (U.S.P. 1 to 2.5% solution), usually in a spray bottle; side cutters; supplemental iron; syringe with 18 to 20 gauge, 1/2 to 5/8 inch needles and a 14-16 gauge 1 to 1 1/2 inch needle (optional); cord or plastic clips for tying off umbilical cords; V-ear notcher or small animal tattoo pliers; adhesive, elastic or duct tape cut in 1/2 to 3/4 inch strips; castration knife or scalpel; shallow container for disinfectant in which to put the cutting edge of instruments between uses.

Disease Transfer

While processing piglets, take steps to minimize transfer of disease. This can be done by processing sick litters last, cleaning and disinfecting the box or cart you use to transport piglets when you finish for the day or before you move to another room to process, and dipping instruments into a disinfectant after you have processed each piglet. Be sure to change the disinfectant daily or after processing every tenth litter, whichever comes first.

Be careful when removing piglets from the farrowing quarters. Sows often try to bite or grab you to protect their litter. Always have the farrowing crate or another sturdy partition between you and the sow before you attempt to pick up a piglet.

Holding the Piglet

Hold the piglet so you can cut the teeth, tail, and umbilical cord and administer iron in very rapid succession without changing your grip. For a right-handed person: place your left thumb into the crease be-hind the piglet’s right ear about midway from top to bottom. Maneuver your left index finger across the front of the piglet’s face and into the corner of the left side of its mouth, behind the needle teeth. Your left thumb will end up either behind the piglet’s ears or in front of them depending upon the length of your fingers (Figure Beware not to choke the piglet by pressing the remainder of your fingers into its throat. Use the fingers under the jaw to support some of the piglet’s weight. Dangle the piglet in front of you, and it will struggle less than if you pull it against you. You can also sit and support its weight on your knees if necessary.

Umbilical Cord Care

The umbilical cord, which enables the fetus to obtain nutrients from the dam and expel wastes during pregnancy, usually does not require much attention. While it is possible that bacteria and viruses can travel up the cord after the piglet is born and cause infection or that piglets can bleed excessively from it, these situations are rare.

If excess bleeding occurs from the umbilical cord, tie it off immediately with string using a square or surgeon’s knot (Figure 2) or clamp it with a commercially available plastic clip. Seldom do newborn piglets need to have their umbilical cords tied or clamped. Sometimes newborn piglets bleed excessively immediately after the umbilical cord breaks, especially if it breaks shorter than four to five inches. The loss of blood may cause the piglet to perform poorly or die. The cause of the excess bleeding could be due to a failure of the piglet’s clotting mechanism.

If the cord is not dried up but fresh at the time of processing, cut it off with disinfected side cutters. If the umbilical cord has been tied, you can leave about one inch. Leave three or four inches if the umbilical cord has not been tied; check for bleeding. Apply iodine antiseptic by swabbing, spraying, or dipping. The dip method requires placing the umbilical cord inside the antiseptic bottle and shaking gently. Any of these methods is satisfactory, but be sure to get good coverage of the umbilical cord. Use disinfected side cutters and a fresh iodine solution (changed daily if dipping or swabbing, since iodine solutions break down in the presence of organic matter). A contaminated iodine solution might actually cause an infection.

If the cord is dry and shriveled, it is not necessary to treat. Just cut it off, leaving one to three inches of cord.

Read more: 10 facts about pig farming business

Needle Teeth Clipping

The newborn piglet has eight needle teeth, sometimes referred to as wolf teeth, located on the sides of the upper and lower jaws. Many producers clip these within 24 hours after birth to reduce the chance piglets will lacerate each other and/or the sow’s udder. Some producers have stopped teeth clipping entirely while others do it as needed and they have not observed any serious problems. It seems less necessary to clip teeth of piglets nursing well-milking sows. However, in cases when sows are not milking well, or if greasy pig disease is a problem, teeth clipping appears necessary for optimum results.

Use sharp cutters without nicks in the blades. Otherwise, teeth will be crushed, which could lead to infection. Also, replace side cutters that have jaws that do not meet squarely. Avoid ordinary wire cutters as they often are not made with the quality of steel necessary to cut teeth adequately.

Cut away one-half of the tooth. Do not remove the entire tooth and avoid crushing or breaking it. Otherwise, an infection is possible or the piglet may not nurse well. Avoid cutting the piglet’s gum or tongue. This will likely make it difficult for the piglet to nurse.

Cut the teeth off flat and not at an angle. Piglets are not as apt to cause skin injuries when they fight if the teeth are cut off flat. Wear glasses or goggles to protect your eyes from flying pieces of teeth.

Hold the piglet as described previously, and place sterilized side cutters over both the lower needle teeth on one side of the mouth with the flat side of the cutter to the gum line. Place the side cutters parallel to the gum, and cut off one-half of the two lower teeth at once (Figure 4). Turn the side cutters over and cut the two upper teeth (Figure 5). Repeat on the other side of the mouth.

Tail Docking

The undocked tail is a very convenient target for tail biting or cannibalism. This leads to injury and possibly infection. To reduce tail biting, dock (or cut off) the tail of newborn piglets within about 24 hours after birth. Tail docking is usually required by purchasers of early weaned or feeder pigs. It should be done within about 24 hours after birth because it is least stressful on the piglet for these reasons: the piglets are small and easy to hold; at this age, littermates are less likely to investigate and nip or bite a newly docked tail; the piglet and farrowing quarters are still clean; and the piglet is well protected with antibodies from the colostrum of the sow. However, some producers delay docking the tails of male piglets in the litter until castration. The males are easier to find in a litter if their tails have not been docked.

Dock the tail about one inch (or width of your thumb) from the place where the tail joins the body of the piglet. Cutting the tail too short could interfere with muscle activity around the anus later in the piglet’s life and could be an aggravating factor in rectal prolapse or rear leg paralysis. If too much tail is left, tail biting might still occur. Occasionally, a tail will bleed excessively. If this occurs, tie it off using the same method as for umbilical cords.

Use sterilized side cutters (most commonly used), a chicken debeaker, or a special heated cutter to cauterize the cut tail. Do not use a very sharp instrument, such as a scalpel, because excess bleeding may occur. To cauterize properly, cut the tail slowly so the hot blade has time to cauterize the tail as you cut. Cauterizing leaves a cleaner wound that bleeds less than when side cutters are used. Apply an antiseptic to the wound. The tail should be completely healed within 7-10 days.

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