Feeding the Piglet During the Suckling and Immediate Post-Weaning Period

Offering the piglet a special creep feed during the suckling and immediate post-weaning period allows us to exploit a unique “window of opportunity” to get the growing pig off to a good start. Doing this correctly can pay dividends over the entire period from weaning to finishing.

There are a number of reasons why improving the growth of the young pig has long term effects throughout the life of the pig. Firstly, the absolute maximum growth potential is set by the genetics of the individual pig and at any stage of growth the daily live weight gain seen in the next immediate phase is determined by the weight already achieved. In other words if a young pig is well grown at the start then it will carry on being a fast growing pig later on in life (Varley and Cole, 2000). Weaning heavier more uniform pigs results in better growing-finishing performance. Pigs are not capable of compensatory lean gain and any improved growth rates seen after a period of growth restriction are likely to be in non-vital organs rather than lean tissue (Bikker , Verstegen, Kemp and Bosch, 1996).

Secondly, a young fast growing piglet will also tend to be a healthy piglet because its immune system is boosted by rapid growth (Varley and Cole, 2000). It stands to reason that if a pig is healthy, fast growing and converting feed efficiently then it is also likely to yield an optimal economic return. Good growth rates in nursing piglets and maximising weaning weights, as well as the expression of high growth rates following weaning is of paramount importance for growth through to slaughter.

It can be challenging to achieve high levels of productivity during the nursery period, however if we take note of the young pig during the suckling period and at weaning and their special needs, then solid performance is not so hard to achieve, in reasonably healthy pigs. In general terms the better the weaning weight of a piglet the better the performance in the immediate post-weaning period. Various workers have shown that by improving the weaning weight, the days to slaughter can be reduced. Varley and Cole (2000) have shown in data analysed from 1999 using over 6000 piglets that as weaning weight increased, the daily live weight gain in the post weaning period improved, from below 300 grams a day with the lightest pigs to in excess of 500 grams a day for the heaviest piglets (Figure 1), during the 25 days post-weaning.

Figure 1: The effect of weaning weight on daily live weight gain to day 25 post weaning (adapted from Varley and Cole, 2000).


The most efficient way of feeding the piglet to optimise weaning weight is to feed and water the sow correctly in order to maximise milk production. However, even when sows are milking well, milk intake and nutrient intake can vary from piglet-to-piglet. When milk production is low the quantity consumed by each piglet may be too low to support the maximum genetic potential for growth for the nursery litter (Perkins and Mahan, 2003). Thus variation in growth can be eliminated somewhat by the practice of creep feeding, which provides a supply of nutrients and acclimatises the piglet to solid food before weaning. This will help to optimise weaning weight and post-weaning performance.

From the data of 6000 piglets in 1999 analysed by Varley and Cole (2000), a positive correlation was found between the quantity of creep consumed and weaning weight (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The effect of creep feeding on weaning weight (adapted from Varley and Cole, 2000).

Piglets that consumed less than 400 grams of creep feed before weaning were weaned some 400 grams lighter at approximately 7.8 kg compared to piglets that had consumed 600 grams of creep feed that were weaned at about 8.3 kg. Further more, the data clearly showed that piglets, which received creep feed prior to weaning had a markedly better growth rate in the immediate post-weaning period (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The effect of creep intake on post-weaning daily gain (adapted from Varley and Cole, 2000).


Piglets that received creep feed prior to weaning, not only had increased weaning weights that directly led to better post-weaning performance, but also had enhanced post-weaning performance due to the enhanced development of their digestive system.

Piglets that have had experience of creep feed are not so challenged by the process of weaning. They are familiar with the smell and taste of the post-weaning diet and have better development of the enzymes needed to digest solid food (Varley and Cole, 2000).


It is said that once piglets are weaned at the maximum weight possible, their true potential can really be exploited. On the performance of 5000 pigs recorded in 1999 from birth through to slaughter by Varley and Cole (2000), the data illustrated that pigs that do not get off to a good start, never recover lost performance (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The effect of daily gain post-weaning on overall days to slaughter (adapted from Varley and Cole, 2000).

In order to maximise post-weaning gain, high quality prestarter and starter diets have to be used. These are never the cheapest feeds but in the lifetime of the pig they are the most cost effective (Varley and Cole, 2000). Palatability and digestibility of nutrients are the most important features of these high quality diets.

In conclusion, it can be said that the investment in a quality programme of prestarter and starter feeds for young piglets, coupled with good management and healthy piglets, is crucial to optimising a unit’s profitability. The benefits are evident in the growth achieved at the time the diets are used but additional benefits come from the long-term advantages of improved growth all the way through to slaughter (Varley and Cole, 2000).

Below are some more important points in consideration of using high quality, expensive creep diets taken from a recent article by Dr Phil Boyd in International Pig Topics (2003).

  • With large litters, total milk production is less than required to support maximum weight gain by all the piglets.
  • Success will be the achievement of a high intake of these feeds, which will occur through the provision of highly palatable, highly digestible diets and significant managerial and stockman input.
  • If these high quality feeds are supplied then all additional dry matter consumed should be converted to additional weaning weight.
  • The piglet’s digestive system will become increasingly adapted to the substrates, which will form the only source of nutrients once weaned from the sow.
  • Piglets consuming significant quantities of creep feed pre-weaning are more likely to move rapidly and smoothly onto the first stage post-weaning diet.
  • Having produced as large a piglet as possible at weaning, the roles of the nutritionist and the pig unit manager are then to develop and use a first stage starter diet in a manner that gives trouble free transition into weaning so that the animal exerts its true genetic potential from the point of weaning.

Date published: 2003-07-25

Gary Arnold