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Supplementation milk for piglets

Louise Clarke, Teagasc Pig Development Officer, discusses the uses, benefits and best practice of milk supplementation for piglets.

In 2020 the average number of piglets born alive per litter reached 14.26. The born alive has increased by 3 piglets in the last 15 years. However, with larger litter sizes and increased competition for sow milk, it is difficult for even the most prolific milk producing sow to care for more piglets than she has functional teats. Hence, management interventions such as the use of nurse sows, rescue desks or the provision of supplementary milk have been applied routinely in herds with hyper-prolific sows.

When we talk about milk supply, the most important element is the sow’s milk, as this is the safest, most nutritious and efficient feed for young piglets. Piglets are born with very naïve immune systems and rely on the sow’s colostrum for passive immunity. Supplementary milk provided through milk powder is a good solution to supply piglets with extra nutrients and energy that they may require. However as the name suggest it should be supplied along with the sows natural milk rather than replacing it. 

Milk supplementation to piglets can be supplied manually or through an automated system. If you are supplying milk to the piglets manually it is recommended than you fill the bowls 2-3 times a day and work from the ‘little and often’ rule rather than oversupplying the milk to the piglets. There are specific feeders available for supplying supplementary milk however what is the most common practice is the use of turkey or creep trays. The positioning of the feeders is also an important factor and feeders should be positioned away from corners or dunging areas and beyond the reach of sows. With the automated systems each individual farrowing pen will be fitted with a drinking cup and a small amount of fresh milk will be distributed to this cup when required by the piglets.

Regardless of what system you have on your unit one of the most important pathways to success of the system is the hygiene. Automated systems have built in flushing cycles which should be operated as per manufacturer instructions. For manual feeding, hygiene starts with the mixing of milk and it is essential that all tools used at this point, such as buckets, tanks, whisks, jugs, scoops and scales are kept clean and free from build-up. Feeders or trays used in the farrowing house should be thoroughly cleaned daily, cleaned between feeds if soiled and disinfected regularly. If residual milk is present in the tray at the point of the next feed, this should be discarded and not topped up. Milk can rapidly sour in the warm farrowing house and can contaminate fresh feeds if not removed.

Some Dos and Don’ts of milk supplementation:

  • Milk replacer should be fed in smaller amounts initially before being gradually increased in line with piglet demand.
  • Creep feed should be introduced as normal at 14-16 days and milk allowance thereafter gradually lowered to encourage creep feed intake.
  • Good quality fresh water should only be used to mix the milk replacer and for the cleaning of the system or equipment
  • Milk replacer should never be mixed with hot water as this will cause nutrient degradation
  • Different milk replacers can have contrasting instructions where mixing is concerned and the guidelines set out by the manufacturer should be precisely adhered to.
  • Milk replacer should be covered and stored securely in a dry area when not in use.

Benefits of milk supplementation may include:

  • increased weaning weight,
  • greater uniformity within the litter,
  • reduced preweaning mortality,
  • reduced handling and the need for extra space for nurse sows
  • allows for easier transition to solid food
  • reduce the risk of disease spread and disturbance associated with the movement and crossfostering of piglets.

While advantageous, the provision of supplementary milk is an additional cost to the system and if used incorrectly can increase costs due to the high quality and expensive products use along with requiring a significant labour input if mis-managed.

For more information on milk supplementation, watch back a webinar from Virtual Pig Week on the subject here

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