As a nutritionist, I am often asked to provide insight on almost all commercial brands of piglet feeds. I refuse to do so because I happen to know that even within a brand, quality can vary from product to product, and even from year to year. Now that I am manufacturing and distributing my own piglet feeds, I have developed a list that I provide my customers to check my products and those of competitors. It is a list I always keep in mind when I formulate piglet feeds.
1. How are cereals treated?
Ideally, cereals should be thermally processed, at least for the first feed post-weaning; but quite often this is not necessary (corn), or even advisable (scouring pigs). In general, thermal processing (cooking) makes cereals more digestible and palatable. Also, cereals should be finely ground to enhance digestibility and thus, growth. You can tell if cereals are overcooked or coarsely ground by the presence of dark specs (burnt) or large particles (coarse grind) in the feed, respectively.
2. What is the lactose level?
Most manufacturers will refuse to release this information as lactose can be expensive, and we all know, feed intake depends on lactose levels. When it comes to lactose, the more the better, but too much may cause pigs to be loose, as lactose is a laxative. A qualified technical services manager can evaluate a production system and suggest the appropriate level of lactose to maximize feed intake without the risk of loose stool appearance. One lactose level does not suit all farms, as I found out the very hard way, and this is especially correct when it comes to antibiotic-free nutrition programs.
3. How hard are the pellets?
If you use pellets (I recommend using pellets in healthy piglets and only after the first feed post-weaning), keep in mind that research has verified that piglets don’t really care for small or large pellets. They don’t care either for pellets with too many fines (again, we’re talking about the first feed post-weaning and not about later diets) — as research done to prove the opposite was conducted with older pigs. In fact, piglets love a mix of different textures (mash and pellets, mash and oat flakes, etc). What really matters in the case of pellets is hardness as, put simply, piglets cannot chew hard pellets, and as such they refuse to eat them. So, soft pellets are the ones to prefer. A soft pellet breaks easily when squeezed hard between two fingers. There is even an inexpensive testing device that can be used at every farm to compare competitive products.
A high-quality feed demands premium price, and in turn you should be demanding when meeting with a new piglet feed representative.
4. How much soybean protein is in the diet?
Usually there is too much and of the wrong kind, and this is a primary reason why many piglet diets cause diarrheas. Ideally, soybean meal should be avoided completely, and only soy protein and extruded soybeans should be used in the first diet post-weaning, and again as part of the whole protein profile. Some soybean meal may be used if piglets are weaned after 21-days of age and had some access to creep feed before weaning.
5. What animal proteins are used?
Here we’re looking for fishmeal, mainly, but other ingredients are also acceptable. For fishmeal, inclusion rates up to 10 percent are desirable, but only from the so-called low-temperature fishmeal (meaning it was cooked slowly, hence it maintains its nutritive value better). Lower quality fishmeal can actually put pigs off feed. Finally, always be skeptical when fishmeal alternatives are used because there can be some "rotten fish" among them; soybean protein and fish oil is not an exact match to high quality fishmeal.
6. What immunoglobulins are in there?
First, you need to have them in there, either from plasma or egg immunoglobulins. The more the better, as they drive gut health up, which in turn allows maximal growth that translates to higher feed intake (the easily recognized response to immunoglobulin supplementation). These products are expensive, very expensive, so expect to pay a premium — but they do work wonders, especially in below-average pig farms.
7. What additives are included?
This can be the topic of a book, but it suffices to say here "the less the better." Otherwise, always in my experience, a plethora of additives may indicate lack of confidence in the raw materials used and lack of understanding how to design a successful piglet feed. Each additive should have a purpose, and not all additives are needed in each farm. For example, if you buy a piglet feed based solely on corn, you don’t want to see in there (and pay for) a cereal-type of enzyme. The opposite is true if the diet is based on a mix of barley and wheat.
8. What feed intake should I expect the first week post-weaning?
This is perhaps the most difficult question to ask any piglet feed manufacturer. The best of them will walk through your farm and suggest a piglet feed to maximize feed intake. But, to give a number is sort of gambling. Nevertheless, there should be a range: for example, my feeds have always exceeded 150 grams per day (first week post-weaning, 21-days of age weaning), and the best I have tops 300 grams per day (again first week post-weaning, 18-days of age weaning).
Selling piglet feeds is as hard as buying them. In my own experience, having worked in all segments of this business, I can attest that only the most proficient sales personnel are able to answer these questions. It does not have to be a technical services manager that answers these questions, but one is needed to educate the sales personnel. A high-quality feed demands premium price, and in turn you should be demanding when meeting with a new piglet feed representative. Now you know the hard questions to ask.