Creep feeding has the ability to positively influence maturation of the GI tract whereas other relevant parameters are unaffected.
Modern type prolific sows produce larger and larger litters and thus have a positive effect on the pig producer´s profitability. The increasing litter size also has negative side-effects:
It is not uncommon to see that the number of liveborn piglets in the litter exceeds the number of functional teats. Following the increase in litter size the birth weight of the individual piglet has also decreased. The lower weight of the piglets in combination with sows that need to feed more and more piglets increases the risk of lower weaning weights.
Piglets in large litters are usually handled with the help of nursing sows or, where legislation allows it, batches of viable piglets are weaned early to increase the number of available teats for other piglets. Nevertheless, many farmers face the dilemma between hyper prolific sows potentially weaning more but also smaller piglets and the future demand for post-weaning feed without medicinal zinc oxide and a strict regulation in usage of antibiotics. This evolution has created room for an increased promotion of creep feed solutions as well as re-thinking of how to use existing products in pre-weaning feed for piglets.
Although the weaning process is a challenge in many farms, creep feeding is not managed as well as it could be. Especially in farms weaning three weeks of age or earlier the suckling piglets consume negligible volumes of feed. As a result, the small volumes of feeds are translated into a conclusion saying that it is not vital to focus on creep feeding. It is true that suckling piglets consumes very small amounts of solid feed prior to 8-10 days of age. However, in the subsequent age interval a large proportion of the piglets start eating solid feed. Below I have listed the performance figures that can be improved and which that cannot.
Before we look into the effects of creep feeding it is important to consider which parameters that have the biggest impact on profitability for piglet producers. The most important figure is piglets produced per sow pen per year and thus indirectly the number of piglets produced per sow per year. The most effective way to increase this figure is to get more liveborn per litter and subsequently to minimize piglet mortality. Weaning weight and uniformity in this context are also very important figures due to the impact on the weaning process and days needed to reach market weight. Heavier and more uniform piglets are most often performing significantly better post-weaning than piglets with the opposite characteristics.
Effect or no effect of creep feed?
Creep feed can increase weaning weight; however, the increase is very variable both within and among litters ranging from 0 to 1 kg higher weaning weight per piglet and of course also depending on weaning age. The performance of the pig from weaning to slaughter is highly correlated with the weaning weight. If the weaning weight increases one kg the pig can usually go to market one week earlier.
The biggest proportion of suckling piglets die from crushing in the first few days after farrowing and several days before they learn eating solid feed. So unfortunately, there is no evidence of an effect of creep feeding on pre-weaning mortality.
From time to time it is hypothesized that creep feeding increases uniformity. It is argued that the smallest piglets in the litter i.e. most often the piglets that suckle the posterior teats, can compensate for the smaller sow milk intake by eating creep feed. This hypothesis is probably nothing more than wishful thinking because the intake of solid feed at this age is linked to exploratory behavior and not to food-seeking. In addition, it is also well-known that the sow´s milk production often is not sufficient to cover the need for the piglets´ maximum growth in the latter part of the suckling period. This means that even the bigger piglets in the litter would have a reason to search for additional food items. Research have shown that creep feeding does not increase uniformity.
Several studies have shown that eaters of creep feed have a more mature gastrointestinal tract at weaning. This means that the intake of creep feed has the potential to alleviate post-weaning problems and most often improve piglet FI, DWG and FCR.
The content of specific raw materials in the creep feed can exert a prebiotic effect and increase the presence of beneficial bacterial populations in the GI tract, e.g. lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. In this way the GI system is more robust around weaning and the eating piglets may have a higher resistance to pathogens.
Conclusions and recommendations
Creep feeding has many potential benefits especially the significant impact on alleviating post-weaning problems. If the rate of pre-weaning piglet mortality is too high, creep feeding should not be considered as a tool to reduce this problem.