Creep feeding to improve piglet performance
Learn how creep feeding strategies can improve piglet performance. This technical information is for commercial swine producers in Ontario.
ISSN 1198-712X, Published January 2018
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Weaning is considered to be one of the most stressful events in a pig's life. They undergo social, environmental and nutritional stressors at a time when their immune system is not fully developed. These stressors work together to generate an immune response that contributes to the post-weaning growth lag (PWGL). The PWGL is characterized by:
- piglets going off feed
- reduced or negative growth rates (Figure 1)
- increased susceptibility to pathogens in the first 24 to 48 hours post-weaning
Many different strategies can be adopted to get piglets off to a better start, both pre-weaning (in the farrowing room) and post-weaning (in the nursery).
Pre-weaning strategies aim to give piglets a stronger start before they encounter major stressors. Post-weaning strategies may not help reduce the PWGL but will aid piglet recovery post-weaning. This fact sheet discusses creep feeding, a strategy used to increase piglets' nutrient intake and familiarize them with solid food prior to weaning.
One strategy, known as creep feeding, can help reduce the PWGL by offering feed to animals while they are still nursing. Creep feed is typically composed of highly digestible ingredients and is thought to benefit piglets in several ways, including:
- introducing piglets to solid feed prior to weaning
- helping the piglets' gut adapt to nutrients not found in milk
- providing supplemental nutrition
The results of research looking at the impact of creep feeding on piglet performance can be highly variable. On many occasions, creep feed has been shown to increase the weaning weights of piglets when they are weaned at 4 weeks of age or older. When piglets are weaned at an earlier age, creep feed generally does not improve weaning weight but can have significant impacts on the piglet post-weaning.
Creep-feed intake can also be highly variable within a litter, making it difficult to determine the exact impact it may be having on farm. For example, when individual piglets are tracked, some studies show that less than 40% of a litter will consume creep feed when it is offered
It is important for producers to find ways to increase creep-feed consumption (amount per piglet and number of piglets consuming creep feed) in the farrowing rooms. This will help get piglets off to a better start at the time of weaning.
Strategies to improve creep feed intake
To maximize creep feed intake on farm:
- offer specifically formulated creep feed made of high-quality, highly-digestible ingredients
- keep creep feeders clean and free from manure
- start creep feeding as early as 1 week post-farrowing
- feed small amounts frequently (minimum 3 times per day)
- offer feed when the sow is eating and the piglets are awake
- encourage social feeding and exploration (using tray feeders and/or changing pellet size)
- provide gruel or a liquid creep feed to higher-risk piglets (mix creep feed with milk replacer)
Creep feed composition
Creep feed should be composed of highly digestible ingredients that can help encourage intake. During the first few weeks of life, the digestive enzymes required to digest starch, sugar and non-milk proteins are present at low levels. The enzymes that are present are for the digestion of milk proteins (casein), milk sugar (lactose), glucose and certain fats (Figure 3).
Ingredients such as milk products (whey, skim milk, etc.) and plasma products are not only easier for the young piglet to digest relative to plant-based ingredients, but also encourage increased intake. Small amounts of non-milk ingredients such as rolled oats or flaked corn can stimulate the development of the other digestive enzymes, priming the piglet for its transition to solid food post-weaning. Work closely with your feed company and/or nutritionist to develop a creep-feeding ration that will help optimize performance in your barn. Creep feed can be mash, crumbles, small pellets or even large pellets (Figure 4 and the section Feed Type). Research has shown that pelleting creep feed significantly reduces wastage and can improve intakes.
Keeping feeders clean
Wash and disinfect feeders prior to being used, and keep them within the same farrowing crate, once added, to avoid potential contamination between litters.
If possible, place feeders away from the back end of the sow to help reduce fecal and/or urinary contamination. If the feeder becomes contaminated with feces or urine (from the sow or piglets) or spoiled feed, wash and dry the feeder before adding more creep feed. Raising the feeder off the ground by a few centimetres can also decrease the chance of contamination and help reduce wastage.
Offer creep feed a minimum of 1 week prior to piglets weaning. Offering creep feed earlier can improve intake and piglet performance. Starting creep feeding as early as 1 week post-farrowing can lead to higher intakes and more piglets consuming creep feed prior to weaning.
Creep feed should be offered in small amounts and frequently (minimum of 3 times per day). This ensures the feed is fresh and more palatable for the piglets. It will also help reduce wastage and spoilage of the feed.
It is easier to start piglets' creep feeding on a flat surface than in a designated feeder, but once piglets are consuming the feed, a feeder can be used effectively. Initially, feed no more than 50 g per litter per day, and increase the amount as piglets increase consumption. Offer creep feed when the piglets are awake, as they are curious and will inspect the feed if they see it added to the crate. A good time to offer creep feed is while the sow is up and eating; usually piglets are awake at this time and are often hungry as they wait for the sow to nurse them.
To obtain maximal creep-feed intake, ensure piglets have access to a water source in addition to their mother's milk. This will also help the piglet adapt to the use of a nipple drinker prior to weaning, which helps decrease weaning-induced stress responses.
In several research trials, social feeding has been shown to encourage exploration of the feed and increase creep feed intake in piglets pre-weaning. This translates into improved piglet growth in the nursery. Two ways to encourage social feeding in the farrowing crate are to change the feeder and/or the feed type.
Feeder styles, such as round or flat tray feeders, can affect creep-feed intake.
Piglets fed using a flat tray feeder visit the feeder more and show more social exploration compared to those fed with a standard round feeder
Piglets raised outside seldom experience the post-weaning growth lag. Some researchers believe this is because of the ample opportunity to explore and ingest soil and plant material (such as acorns, corn and other large items), making them more familiar with the process of consuming material prior to weaning
In a series of experiments conducted in the Netherlands, piglets were offered creep feed with larger pellet size (10 or 12 mm) compared to a standard pellet (2 to 3 mm), starting within the first week post-farrowing.7 When given the choice of the small or large pellet, piglets preferred the larger diameter pellet. Researchers found a higher intake of large pellets compared to small pellets of 350 grams per litter per day
In 2016, OMAFRA conducted a demonstration trial to determine if large creep pellets would show similar benefits (Figure 6). Thirty-four litters in each of two commercial barns in Ontario were tracked pre- and post-weaning.
Piglet performance was different in each of the two barns, but in both cases, feed intake was significantly higher when piglets were offered large pellets (12 mm diameter) compared to a mini pellet (3 mm diameter).
No PWGL was observed (Figure 7), and on one farm, piglets offered large pellets were, on average, 1.4 kg heavier at 28 days post-weaning.
In this trial, piglets also spent time exploring and playing with the large pellets in the farrowing crates. As a form of enrichment, the large pellets allowed piglets to learn to consume feed in a social setting. Because the piglets like to pick up the pellets and play with them before eating them, it is important to make sure that the slat size of the farrowing crate floor will not let the pellets fall through.
Maintaining the same feed immediately post-weaning is important for helping piglets cope with the stress of weaning. If using large pellet creep feed, it may be a better option to switch to a mini-sized pellet or mash (of the same feed formulation) at weaning to help prevent feed loss through the slats, as piglets will remove large pellets from the feeder to play with them.
Before making any changes to your creep-feeding protocols on farm, benchmark your current creep-feed intakes. This will allow you to gauge whether the implemented changes encourage more creep intake or hinder consumption. For benchmarking to work, decide what to measure and how to measure it.
The best strategy is to measure creep consumption and determine the proportion of piglets consuming creep within a litter.
Measuring creep consumption
Measuring creep consumption on a litter basis is relatively easy. Figure 8 shows a sample tracking sheet. Values are for example purposes only and would have to be recorded each time feed is added or removed (not just once per day).
Weigh the amount of creep feed placed in a farrowing crate (using a weigh scale or calibrated feed scoop). Then measure the remaining feed after a given time period. The difference is the total intake (disappearance) for that litter during that time period. Dividing total intake by the number of piglets and the number of days provides the average daily creep feed intake per piglet. Perform these measurements and calculations for several crates to get a representative average value for your barn.
Creep feed intake tracking sheet
Number of pigs nursing (during creep feeding period): 12
Date creep added:
|Date||Amount of creep added||Amount of creep removed|
|day 1||100 g||75 g|
|day 2||100 g||25 g|
|day 3||200 g||50 g|
|day 4||250 g||50 g|
|day 5||250 g||25 g|
|day 6||300 g||25 g|
|day 7||350 g||15 g|
|Totals:||1,550 g||265 g|
Creep intake per litter (total added - total removed)
= 1,550 g - 265 g
= 1,285 g/litter
Average creep intake per piglet (intake per litter/number of piglets) = 1,285/12
= 107 g per piglet
Average daily intake per piglet (avg. intake per piglet/days) = 107/7
= 15 g per piglet per day
Determining the proportion of piglets consuming creep feed within a litter
Determining the proportion of piglets consuming creep feed in a litter is more difficult. However, it will provide valuable information and allow you to understand exactly what proportion of your piglets actually consume creep feed pre-weaning. This method does not determine the amount each individual piglet consumes; it simply classifies a piglet as an "eater" or a "non-eater."
The first step in this method is to make simple biscuits containing an indigestible dye such as ferric oxide (red) or brilliant blue (blue). The dyes can be purchased from a laboratory supply store. Both of these dyes can be fed to food-producing animals without concern. When the dyed biscuits are consumed, the feces will turn the respective colour.
Dye biscuit recipe
- Preheat oven to 120°C.
- Break 2 eggs into a bowl and mix.
- Mix in 40 g dye and 60 mL (0.25 cups) milk.
- Gradually stir in 475 mL (2 cups) of flour.
- If needed, add additional milk in small amounts.
- Spread dough 1.2 cm (approximately 0.5 in. thick) onto a cookie sheet.
- Bake 1 to 1.5 hr, let cool until hard.
- Break large biscuit into small or medium-sized pieces and blend using pulse mode to make pellet-sized crumbles.
- Store in an air-tight container.
Mix the biscuits with the creep feed at a 5% inclusion level (50 g biscuits per 1 kg creep feed). As piglets consume the creep feed, they will also consume the dye biscuits, and the dye colour will appear on their noses (Figure 9).
It will take approximately 24 hr after consumption for the dye colour to appear in feces. Cotton swabs can be used to swab the piglet's anus and get a clear reading for individual piglets. If the swab is the colour of the dye, the piglet is classed as a creep eater. If no dye is present in the feces, the piglet is classed as a non-eater.
You will then know the proportion of creep feed eaters and non-eaters within a litter and can obtain an average for the farrowing group. For example, if there are 12 piglets nursing a given sow and 3 piglets have dyed feces, 3/12 = 0.25 or 25% of the litter consumed creep feed.
Implementing new creep-feeding practices
Once you know how much creep feed is consumed per piglet (or litter) and/or the proportion of piglets within a litter that consume creep feed, you are ready to make creep-feeding protocol changes in your barn. Over time, you will be able to re-evaluate the creep consumption and/or number of piglets consuming creep feed. This will enable you to determine if the new feeding strategy has improved creep feed intake on your farm.
Although you may not see a difference in piglet weaning weights, creep feeding in the farrowing room will improve piglet performance in the nursery if the piglets actually consume it. Creep-feed eaters become familiar with solid feed prior to weaning, and thus have a reduced post-weaning growth lag response when moved to the nursery.
Identifying effective ways to encourage creep-feed intake in piglets can have significant impacts on piglet performance and health, as well as overall profitability. Strategies to increase creep-feed intake often revolve around the form of the creep feed (for example, pellet, mash or liquid) or the type of feeder used (for example, round or tray).
Piglets that cope with weaning stresses and do not experience the post-weaning growth lag are less susceptible to disease and have a reduced incidence of morbidity and mortality in the nursery. This is especially important with the push towards removing antibiotics from piglet diets, as it will help improve piglet health and robustness.
Reducing the PWGL not only improves animal health and production in the nursery, it also translates to improved growth performance in later life stages. A difference of 100 g/day feed intake during the first week post-weaning can mean an additional 1 kg of body weight by day 42 of age, and could result in a 1-week reduction in the time it takes to reach market weight.
This fact sheet was written by Laura Eastwood, Swine Specialist, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Stratford.
Accessible image descriptions
Figure 1. Bar graph displaying piglets' average daily weight gain (in kilograms) pre- and post-weaning. Day 26 is where weaning occurs. Between days 21 to 26 piglets gained an average of 0.265 kg per day. Between days 26 to 29, average daily gain was 0.155 kg. Between days 30 to 32 average daily gain was 0.145 kg. Between days 33 to 39 average daily gain was 0.35 kg. Finally, between days 40 to 52, average daily gain was 0.64 kg.
Figure 2. Bar graph displaying piglets' average daily weight gain (in kilograms) between creep eaters and creep non-eaters both pre- and post-weaning. Day 26 is where weaning occurs. Creep eaters gain the greatest average daily weight. Between days 21 to 26, creep eaters gained 0.26 kg daily and creep non-eaters 0.25 kg. Between days 26 to 29, creep eaters gained 0.18 kg daily and creep non-eaters 0.13 kg. Between days 30 to 32, creep eaters gained 0.16 kg daily and creep non-eaters 0.13 kg. Between days 33 to 39, creep eaters gained 0.37 kg daily and creep non-eaters 0.33 kg. Between days 40 to 52, creep eaters gained 0.66 kg daily and creep non-eaters 0.62 kg. Therefore, between days 26 to 52 on average, creep eaters gained 0.47 kg daily and creep non-eaters 0.43 kg.
Figure 3. Line graph displaying digestive enzyme activity in piglets aged 0 to 7 weeks. Lactase (lactose) begins at 7.5 (relative enzyme activity) at 0 weeks, rising to 10 at 1.5 weeks, before steadily decreasing to 1.8 at 7 weeks. Amylase (carbohydrates) begins at 0.9 at 0 weeks, progressing steadily from 1.5 at 1 week to 2.5 at 3 weeks before increasing more rapidly to 8.5 at 6 weeks. Lipase (fat) begins at 2.8 at 0 weeks, rising to 4.4 at two weeks, slowly increasing to 5.5 at 5.5 weeks, and rapidly escalating to 10 at 7 weeks. Lastly, proteases (protein) begin at 1.2 at 0 weeks, dipping to 1.1 at 1 week, and then steadily increasing to 6.3 at 7 weeks.
Figure 7. Bar graph displaying piglet weight (in kilograms) at various stages: weaning, 48 hour post-weaning, and 7 day post-weaning. Two sets of data compare weight gain between piglets fed on small pellets and on large pellets. Piglets fed on large pellets gained the most weight. Piglets fed on large pellets weighted 6.39 kg at weaning, 6.97 kg at 48 hours post-weaning, and 7.30 kg at 7 days post-weaning. Piglets fed on small pellets weighed 6.18 kg at weaning, 6.33 kg at 48 hours post-weaning, and 6.57 kg at 7 days post-weaning.
- footnote Back to paragraph Shea, J.N., Beaulieu, A.D., Gillis, D.A., and Brown, J. Creep Feeding in the Farrowing Room: Do the outcomes depend on weaning age? 2013. Prairie Swine Centre Annual Report.
- footnote Back to paragraph Bandara, N., Shea, J.N., Gillis, D., and Beaulieu, A.D. Creep Feed Provision in the Farrowing Room Provides Benefits to Piglets Showing Evidence of Intake. 2011. Prairie Swine Centre Annual Research Report.
- footnote Back to paragraph Patience, J.F., Thacker, P.A., and de Lange, C.F.M. 1995. Swine Nutrition Guide, 2nd Edition. Prairie Swine Centre Inc. Pages 169-172.
- footnote Back to paragraph Seddon, Y., and Brown, J. Increasing Creep Feed Intake by Stimulating Exploratory Behaviour Using Enrichment. 2013. Prairie Swine Centre Annual Research Report.
- footnote Back to paragraph Edge, H., Dalby, J., Rowlinson, P., and Varley, M. The effect of pellet diameter on the performance of young pigs. 2005. Livestock Production Sci. 97:203-209.
- footnote Back to paragraph Newberry, R.C., and Wood-Gush, G.M. Social Relationships of piglets in a semi-natural environment. 1986. Anim. Behav. 34:1311-1318.
- footnote Back to paragraph Van den Brand, H., Wamsteeker, D., Oostindjer, M., van Enckevort, L., van der Poel, A., Kemp, B., and Bolhuis, J. Effects of pellet diameter during and after lactation on feed intake of piglets pre- and postweaning. 2014. J. Anim. Sci. 92:4145-4153.