Identifying low-cost, high-quality piglet feeds

When feed ingredient prices shoot up, discussions on revising commercial piglet feeds flare up in meeting rooms at most nutrition suppliers’ headquarters. Even with rising ingredient costs, it still may be possible to reduce feed cost without resorting to low-quality raw materials.

Taking care of piglets does not need to be expensive, but it does require some thought.
Taking care of piglets does not need to be expensive, but it does require some thought.

When feed ingredient prices shoot up, discussions on revising commercial piglet feeds flare up in meeting rooms at most nutrition suppliers’ headquarters. For quite some time now, this has been an ongoing situation as it appears feed ingredient prices will not go down any time soon.

Now, when it comes to piglet feeds, there is always the temptation to opt for ingredients of lower quality (hence, lower cost) instead of revising existing formulas. Most of the time, this is because there is not enough understanding on how the formulas were designed – quite often decades ago!

However, as the majority of existing products contain generous safety margins (some ingredients were added for marketing purposes back when things were going well), it may now be possible to reduce cost without resorting to low-quality raw materials.

Below is but a brief list of points that could be considered towards this goal. They are based on my own experience in revising countless formulas since 2008; but please, consider them only as ideas to discuss with your nutritionist and veterinarian.


Piglets require lactose to thrive post-weaning due to their immature digestive system. They require about 20 percent lactose in the first feed post-weaning, but most commercial formulas contain only 15 percent.

When dairy products are too expensive, a portion of lactose can be replaced by other simple sugars such as molasses, dextrose and sucrose. Also, diets already containing high levels of immunoglobulins (plasma or egg antibodies) do not need such high levels of lactose to begin with.


Fiber is generally deemed undesirable in piglet diets because it reduces feed intake and digestibility of other nutrients. Most piglet diets contain 2 percent to 3 percent crude fiber. However, new evidence indicates that a well-balanced piglet feed can contain as much as 3 percent to 4 percent fiber if the extra fiber has some functional properties (prebiotics). Such sources of fiber include beet pulp, chicory pulp, apple pomace and carob meal. If increasing dietary fiber is done by switching to a cereal with more fiber (for example, from maize to barley), an appropriate enzyme should be added to take care of the undesirable glucans and arabinoxylans and reduce the incidence of scours.


In all piglet feeds, high quality lipids -- mostly of vegetable origin -- are used, with coconut fat being the prime source of lipids. As coconut fat is quite expensive, a portion of it can be replaced by good quality (degummed) soybean oil. Furthermore, in diets for piglets weaned at or after 28 days of age, a good quality animal fat (pork lard or chicken grease, but not beef tallow) can replace a good part of the soybean oil.


Piglet diets should contain as little crude protein as possible to avoid digestive upsets. Nonetheless, soybean products remain the least expensive source of protein, thus a balance between cost and protein levels is needed. In the case of protein, it is best to lower amino acid specifications by 0.1 percent (and reduce energy accordingly). This can be done with near impunity in overformulated products and in early diets, such as creep feeds and post-weaning diets; these products are not fed long enough to impact lean growth to any significant extent. Balancing diets on a conservative amino acid profile can also help reduce feed cost.


Plasma remains the most expensive ingredient, accounting for up to one-third of total feed cost. As plasma’s main function is as a source of immunoglobulins, it can be replaced with
immunoglobulins derived from eggs that have been laid by hens hyper-immunized against piglet-specific diseases. This strategy reduces feed cost by up to $100 to $150 per metric ton, while maintaining (if not increasing) feed quality. As a general rule of thumb, about 1 kg of egg immunoglobulins can replace about 2 percent of animal plasma (but this depends on which product is used).


It has long been advocated that piglets should be fed diets based on cooked cereals post-weaning. This is partially correct, as not all cereals require thermal processing. For example, cooking maize yields no benefits, especially if it is already finely ground or the diets are being pelleted. In addition, a high-quality diet, already rich in lactose and immunoglobulins, does not require 100 percent cooked cereals, even if the majority of cereals are wheat and barley. A blend of cooked and uncooked cereals can reduce feed cost while safeguarding feed intake (in good quality diets).

Adding an enzyme can certainly be of benefit when using uncooked cereals, especially when they are of unknown quality. Finally, alternative sources of starch, such as biscuit meal and cereal fines, can be used to reduce feed cost once such quality ingredients are secured.


Diets without any soybean product can benefit in terms of cost by the introduction of 5 percent soy protein concentrate or 10 percent extruded full-fat soybeans. This will not affect animal performance, but these ingredients need to be of superior quality. If they replace fish meal, then savings can be remarkable, but complete replacement of fish meal with soybean products alone is not recommended. In diets that already contain the above soybean products, adding up to 5 percent soybean meal (of the 48 percent protein variety) can reduce feed cost without affecting performance (again, if diets are already rich in lactose and immunoglobulins, and they contain some fish meal).

Fish meal

Fish meal was once considered as an ingredient that could not be replaced. It is true that when a piglet feed is designed using fish meal as the central ingredient driving feed intake (such as many diets in the United Kingdom), then it is not wise to reduce or replace it, even with fish meal of lower quality. But, most diets already contain many other ingredients that promote feed intake and provide high-quality protein. Thus, dropping 1 percent to 2 percent of fish meal from most piglet formulas is to be considered in times of high prices. Switching source of fish meal requires careful testing because fish meal of very low quality will markedly decrease product quality.

Vitamins and Minerals 
Cost of a vitamin and mineral premix can vary considerably from supplier to supplier. It is best to shop around for a premix of acceptable quality with a reasonable cost. It is also prudent to reconsider the use of high levels of such vitamins as E and C, and re-evaluate the need to add all B vitamins, especially in diets rich in products of animal origin.

Today, there are certainly a limited number of additives that provide a true benefit to piglets. Many commercial products have what could be best described as “conditional value” – serving marketing purposes or solving a specific problem. Which additive to use in which product is a huge concern as cost is enormous, especially if benefits are not easily recognizable at the farm level. There are successful piglet feeds that use only a handful of additives and other, not-so-successful piglet feeds that contain up to 40 additives. 

Numbers and names alone do not guarantee performance, no matter how interesting they may appear on the feed label.

Related story:

Getting piglets to eat more feed,

Page 1 of 63
Next Page