New nursery ups rearing averages

A bespoke piglet nursery designed and built by Quality Equipment is saving piglets and increasing profits at one of Rattlerow Farms’ commercial herds

Better pigs and lower mortality. That’s how the manager of a large commercial herd in Suffolk sums up the benefits of a new purpose-built piglet nursery unit.

“I reckon, on average, we save the life of half a pig per litter – that’s equivalent to nearly 700 pigs a year – and the system allows the rest of the piglets to do much better,” says James Staples, who manages a 600-sow commercial herd at Hill House Farm, Stradbroke, for breeding company Rattlerow Farms.

The successful breeding programme means that Whiteland sows are highly productive, with many more pigs being born. James’ figures show an average of 14.58 total born per litter in the past 12 months, with 13.47, 13.68 and 13.63 being born alive in the past 12, six and three months respectively.

“While the large numbers are welcome, we had difficulty rearing them all,” he confesses. “When all the sows in a batch are producing high numbers, cross-fostering isn’t possible because there’s nowhere to foster them to!”

Rattlerow management had seen a nursery kitted out by Quality Equipment (QE) for Robin Brice of Countess Wells Farms, near Framlingham. Although it was a converted air-conditioning unit, they were impressed enough to approach the company to make a brand-new bespoke unit specifically for them.

QE designer and director Mark Harding had been working on this idea and produced a portable container-style unit at the company’s Woolpit headquarters. It was delivered in May and the first pigs were put in on June 4. Measuring 2.7m x 10m, the shell of the nursery is made from highly insulated exterior panels and internally is divided into three rooms each containing two pens holding about 25 piglets apiece, depending on their size. Each room provides about eight square metres of floor area

A key feature is that each room has its own door and no inter-connecting passages, avoiding any possible cross-contamination and allowing independent cleaning and disinfection.

Each pen is comprehensively kitted out. It has an independent ventilation system, separate slurry tank and a plastic slatted floor equipped with thermostatically controlled solid heat pads. Two bowl-type drinkers are provided in each pen, and the most vital piece of equipment of all is a warm-water Transition Feeder. Developed by QE, this provides freshly mixed gruel on a little-and-often basis, similar to the sow’s own milking pattern. A specialist young piglet diet of crumbs is used for this. In addition, a dry feed hopper is provided in each pen.

Mr Staples batch farrows 80 sows every three weeks. Under the advice of the farm’s vet, after eight to nine days the best four litters are removed from the farrowing house to the nursery – about 26 piglets are put in each pen. The smallest piglets are then taken from the other sows in the farrowing house and fostered onto the four who’ve had their piglets removed; this can be done in stages. Mr Staples says the small pigs benefit from the lack of competition on the sows.

“This gives us great flexibility,” he adds. “There have been no problems with rejection and the small, fostered pigs do well on their

new mums, while those transferred to the nursery thrive. They’ve been given creep crumbs from four-days old and so are used to the taste and texture of feed that’s not sow’s milk.”

Mr Staples makes the point that the system aids the welfare of the sow and the piglets by reducing her milking requirement and reducing the number of piglets that fail to compete for teats.

The piglets remain in the nursery until the normal weaning time, so their removal is synchronised with the 27-day weaning of the naturally reared litters. They’re taken in their batches to straw-based grower pens where they remain for a further eight weeks. At that stage they’re as good as – and sometimes bigger than – their contemporaries, and Mr Staples expects their total finishing performance to be at least as good as the others.

Previously, QE’s Transition Feeders had been used in empty farrowing pens and even passageways.

“We knew that they worked, but we realised that the piglets needed a more controlled environment,” Mr Staples says.

Since the new nursery was installed the total number of piglets weaned has averaged between 12.4 and 12.5 pigs per sow. The nursery cost £34,000, and Mr Staples has calculated that, depending on the value placed upon weaners saved – and ignoring the returns on the extra finishing pigs – the financial benefits amount to more than £17,000 annually.

“Even ignoring any additional costs, during a 10-year period it’s a complete no-brainer,” he says.

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