Separating piglets from the sow and switching them from milk to solid food is a critical stage in the growing cycle of commercial pigs. Dr. John Pluske, Australian-American Fulbright Commission Distinguished Chair in Agriculture and Life Sciences at Kansas State University and professor at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, described weaning as a critical production step that impacts gastro-intestinal tract health. He told the audience at the webinar, Establishing optimum gut health in young pigs – Key challenges and considerations, that the aim of post-weaning management and nutritional programs is to reduce the negative impact weaning has on production, disease, morbidity and mortality.

Improve post-weaning growth rate

Pluske said that in order to reduce or prevent the post-weaning “growth check,” producers need to reduce sub-optimal post-weaning feed intake. A post-weaning period of temporary starvation compromises gut barrier function. He explained that low feed intake increases numbers of lymphocytes and infiltrated cells in epithelium, causes a transient inflammatory response, and decreases epithelial tissue resistance (more “leaky” intestines).

Pigs that eat more after weaning have higher villi in the small intestine. Pluske also shared research data which demonstrates that improved growth rate immediately after weaning impacts lifetime performance of the pig. Pigs that gain more weight immediately after weaning maintain this weight difference all the way to market age and can be marketed at lower ages with better feed conversion rates.


Increasing feed intake

The rate of growth of weanling pigs is limited by the amount the pig is able to eat. Dr. Gary Partridge, global development and technical director, Danisco Animal Nutrition, said that the water-holding capacity of the feedstuffs in the diet has a direct impact on feed intake. The greater the water holding capacity of a feedstuff the lower the amount of feed and the more water a pig will consume. Fibers found in vegetable feedstuffs, such as wheat, barley, DDGS, and to a lesser extent corn and soybean meal, increase water holding capacity of the ration. 

Inclusion of enzymes, like xylanase, in the pig’s diet can help break down certain fiber molecules freeing up energy, but also reducing the water-holding capacity of the ration, which allows the young pig to eat more and grow faster. Partridge also discussed the roles that the natural substance betaine, probiotics and prebiotics can play in improving and maintaining gut health and pig performance.