Mar. 7, 2000 Piglet pacifiers may help make early weaning a little easier for little porkers and reduce farmers' production costs. University of Guelph animal scientist Prof. Ian Duncan and graduate student Jeff Rau are developing the pacifier-based feeding system to address growth-related behavior problems in early weaned pigs. The pacifiers -- baby bottle nipples without holes (called "blind" nipples), evenly spaced in the bottoms of weaning pigs' feed troughs -- are central to the system.
And they're not just a gimmick. Poor growth in early weaned pigs, called growth check in the farming industry, is a significant problem. Piglet pacifiers are part of a multi-faceted research project aimed at improving the condition.
"Nutritionists have done what they can with feed," says Rau, "but if a piglet isn't eating, [feed] doesn't do any good."
Piglets normally take 12 to 17 weeks to complete the transition from suckling to dry food. Currently, most producers begin weaning around 17 to 21 days, with a few starting at 14 days. There is little opportunity for the natural transition; the modified trough creates a sense of familiarity, says Rau.
Stressed out piglets are a problem. When they stop gaining weight -- or start losing it – their immune systems are weakened. Weight gain worsens and it takes longer to achieve market weight. This creates problems such as overcrowded housing, and increases farmers' costs.
But while food intake doesn't increase with the pacifier system, it has other advantages. For example, Rau says it appears to improve the welfare of the weaned pigs by reducing stress. At weaning, piglets still have a natural sucking impulse, which can get misdirected towards their litter mates. This condition, called belly-nosing, is highlighted by the piglets sucking, biting and aggressively rubbing each other's undersides, causing sores and hair loss.
Rau says piglets weaned on the new trough are less likely to belly-nose. For farmers, this new feeder could compensate for losses in weight gain associated with weaning four to seven days later, by improving weight gain afterwards. The energy that would otherwise be used for stress- related behaviour such as belly-nosing, can instead be used to grow.
The system is designed to be simple, with reasonable installation and maintenance. For Rau, one of the goals of this project is to "try to account for the needs of the animals and the industry at the same time."
The next step is to complete a study of pigs that have been weaned with the teated feeder to determine if, as in cows, the sucking action stimulates changes in the stomach that improve digestion. Rau says a long-term study is needed on the length of time it takes pigs weaned on the new trough to get to market. If further analysis reveals consistent, beneficial results to pigs and producers, the researchers plan to approach manufacturers and encourage production of this specialized feeder system.
This research is being sponsored by Ontario Pork and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Playtex Products Inc. provided the blind nipples.
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