Wherever improved genetics have been introduced to make production more efficient and to produce a leaner pig, the nutrition applied on the unit needs to be reviewed to ensure that the maximum efficiencies are achieved and target carcase requirements are met.

It is a lesson being learned, for example, in Eastern Europe, where significant recent changes in the pig sector have necessitated a new focus to find the most appropriate feed programmes.

Flexible programming is key in the region at present because it has a mixture of modern and traditional genetics, with their differing requirements. As everywhere, however, correct feeding of pigs that have the most genetic potential for improved lifetime performance starts with the use of prestarter/starter diets.

Early feed intake

We want the pig to start eating immediately after it is weaned and go on to achieve a high post-weaning feed intake in order to maintain good gut health integrity. Maximum feed intake after weaning depends on using highly digestible diets based on quality raw materials. These diets should remain as fixed formulations to ensure that each time the feed is fed to the piglets the product consistently performs. Any changes to the formula should only occur after research has shown that performance improvements can be achieved.

What is more, the product must be manufactured correctly so the heat-sensitive milk proteins it contains are not damaged. The extra care required in manufacturing explains why many piglet feeds are made in a dedicated mill where, although only low tonnages per hour are produced, the conditions ensure that product quality is maintained.

A study reported in 2008 has shown again the importance that raw material quality can have on post-weaning performance. It compared mixtures containing seven sources of whey with a standard maize/soybean meal control. The whey was included at 10% and the diets fed for 14 days, from five days after weaning. The results (Table 1) showed the variation in performance of the different whey sources. Although on average the whey-based feeds were 10% better than the control, two sources (numbers 1 and 5) gave an 18% improvement whereas with another two sources (2 and 4) the results were improved only by 4%.

High-quality whey ingredients

This difference in performance between the whey sources translated into 570 grams of extra weight for pigs in the top group at the end of the 14-day period. It underlines the importance of identifying a high-quality whey and gives a good reason for choosing food-grade whey as an ingredient for diets fed in those early post-weaning stages. It is this focus on quality on not just milk proteins but all raw material utilised in pre-starter and starter feed that ensures the newly weaned piglet has the opportunity to avoid the traditional post-wean growth lag.

The impact of raw material quality after weaning, along with dedicated manufacture, may explain why in many Eastern European countries, prestarter and starter feeds are often imported rather than produced locally. It makes sense to buy these feed types from places where quality raw materials are easier to source and where they can be obtained from recognised suppliers.

All prestarter/starter feeds need to be highly digestible. Basing them on cooked cereals, high-quality fishmeal and milk proteins goes further to ensure they improve production efficiency by improving subsequent lifetime performance. Their use can be relied on to reduce the number of piglets that have to be placed in a hospital pen or removed from the flow as well as cutting back on the variation in weight between pigs at the end of the nursery phase.

Figure 1 demonstrates a hidden benefit of prestarter/starter usage, in the form of an aspect that is rarely measured and yet often draws comments from producers. Pigs that would normally be assigned to a sick pen or would die are sometimes now referred to as nursery fall-outs. The graph shows a clear link to feed digestibility. In this particular commercial trial, the more digestible feed meant a 94% reduction in fall-out pigs.

Figure 2 shows how a second trial showed us that the use of a highly digestible feed not only improved the average weight of pigs leaving the nursery by 2.8kg, but also reduced the spread of weights within the group so that the variation from pig to pig was much less. Weight variation is an important aspect when pigs move to a finisher building. The less the pigs vary on entry, the easier it becomes to feed them the correct diet for their weight. We can also expect the reduced variation to be maintained through to slaughter, so there will be economies from having a greater percentage of the population available to market at the same time.

Figure 3 charts the benefit to subsequent nursery performance that was measured in another trial, from feeding a highly digestible feed for just 11 days after weaning. After these 11 days, the pigs fed the more digestible feed weighed 410 grams more on average than those given a conventional diet. All pigs afterwards received a standard feed until the end of their stay in the nursery. The final results showed that the use of a prestarter/starter feed of higher digestibility improved the pigs' weight at the end of the nursery period by 2.25 kg. Apparently an emphasis on quality and digestibility in the diets fed immediately after weaning not only meets the early needs of the pig without compromising its digestive or immune systems, but the benefits are also carried forward through the nursery.

Management still key

But the positives won from feed quality can still be lost without the right management of feeding. For example, many producers in Eastern Europe quite often say they do not want to use multiple diets through the nursery. They would rather feed one or two feeds from before weaning through to the end of the nursery period. They fail to realise that this superficially simple programme will end up costing more by compromising weaner performance. The nutrient and raw material requirements of pigs change with age. Utilising multiple feed types in the nursery is the only practicable way of responding to those changes.

So the message must be that using quality prestarter/starter feeds provides the foundation for good lifetime performance — 'a better start a better finish' —provided that they are used in conjunction with good management and feeding programmes.