Feed companies have been selling sow milk replacers for many years and all breeding units have a bag tucked away in case a sow goes down with agalactia and is unable to suckle her pigs. Over the years, equipment companies have designed and sold artificial sow/milk machines, some of which have done the job well, some of which have not.

It is a well known fact that pigs that are heavier at weaning can handle the stress of weaning much better than lighter offspring and, importantly, get to slaughter more quickly. Any way of getting milk into a piglet – whether it comes from the sow or out of a bag – has to be good.

The size of litters has been gradually increasing, such that the Danes are now talking about 40 pigs/sow/year. However, one disadvantage of sows farrowing larger litters is that the average birth weight drops - and smaller piglets tend to be less viable.

 Tackling difficulties 

Giving milk by hand using a small trough is acceptable for the odd litter or two, but very time consuming, and, additionally, the stockman moving from pen to pen increases the possibility of the possible transfer of scoured dung from one litter to another.

In light of the above, several companies have developed equipment to supply milk to piglets automatically. The concept is based around a milk tank and pump, pipeline and milk cups placed in the farrowing pen, with the cups being fitted with a piglet- activated valve/nipple.

 More than simple provision 

Kari Farming GmbH is a German equipment company that produces its version of the pipeline system. This has a tank to hold the milk, which is distributed through a narrow gauge pipe to cups that are positioned in the farrowing pen, near the creep area. The Kari system differs from others in that the cups are connected with stainless steel piping. As far as milk delivery is concerned, piglets push down with their snouts on a button shaped spring loaded valve, thereby allowing the milk to flow into the cup.

Provimi’s system goes by the name of RescueCup. Cleanliness of these systems is vital. Provimi state that its system only needs cleaning once a week, not daily. RescueMilk, Provimi’s piglet milk, is fed from two days to 14 days, along with HeavyPig prestarter diet. Commercial data is shown below in Table 1, showing the obvious benefits of this system.
Provimi has data showing use of its RescueCup resulted in heavier weaning weights, a higher number of weaned piglets per litter, an overall higher litter weight, and lower mortality rates.

Provimi also markets the RescueDeck, which is an incubator to raise weak or excess piglets. Each RescueDeck houses 12 piglets from day 3 up to weaning and is fitted with two rescue cups, one of which supplies Rescuemilk (until 4 days before weaning) and one which provides water.

The Deck is best positioned directly over the sow’s crate to ensure that vocalisation by the sow stimulates milk intake by the piglets, and that the climatic conditions are suited to the requirements of the piglets.

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Boerries GmbH, based in Lindern, Germany, markets its milk line system in association with Supp-Le-Milk of Iowa and UK based creep feed manufacturer Primary Diets.

This system has been on the market since 1989, and up to 80 litters can be catered for with one system. Plastic tubing is used to connect the cups together, with a single cup being fixed to the slats, near to the creep. Piglets push a valve to release the milk. The milk tanks come in two sizes, 56 litres and 122 litres, and a small pump circulates the warmed milk round the line. The pump works “on demand” so saving electricity, and individual cups can be switched off. This is important as, if it did not occur, stale milk could build up in a cup, and freshness naturally is the key to good milk intake.

Cleanliness is vital as with all milk line systems, and the system has to be rinsed daily, automatically of course, with sanitizer. After weaning/between batches the system is programmed to undergo a thorough 15 minute chlorinated wash.

Piglets on the system are given Primary Piglet Choice creep from 8/9 days through to weaning. With the milk, creep intake is increased by 20%, leading to better weaning weights and naturally stronger piglets at weaning. In addition, piglet mortality rates are reduced.

Boerries stresses that the system allows piglets to remain on the sow and so they do not have to be fostered on to nurse sows, which is time consuming and needs extra crates in each farrowing room – not a cheap option.

When carrying out trials it is vital that large numbers of pigs are involved, to achieve accurate meaningful results.

Boerries has data on over 4,500 pigs, used in a trial to show the significant benefits of Supp–Le- Milk. The milk group grew faster than the control pigs, which received no supplemental milk (634gms vs 587gms) and hence achieved slaughter weight 17 days earlier (181 days vs 198 days). This means that pigs can be slaughtered at heavier weights resulting in more meat, or more pigs can be put through the same buildings due to the faster growth rate, reducing the building charges per pig finished.

 Various advantages 

With all these milk line systems, it is vital that the milk is formulated to prevent digestive upsets in piglets. Consequently, these artificial milk products often contain acidifiers which help to keep the pH of the gut of the young animals low.

The sows of today are piglet producing machines, and with these hyper-prolific lines producing massive litters, anything that can be done to help has to be a bonus. Milk lines have a place in modern pig husbandry by boosting weaning weights, liveability and growth rates in later life.