Gruel feeding as a management tool
Gruel feeding is a feeding management tool recommended for underprivileged piglets, mostly right after early weaning. This feeding method requires great attention to detail but pays dividends in speeding up the growth of small-for-age piglets. With gruel feeding we target the bottom 10–20% small-forage piglets in any weaning group, regardless of actual weaning age. Of course, the greater the weaning age, the fewer the pigs that require or rather benefit from gruel feeding. In general, research and commercial experiences have indicated that gruel feeding offers four distinct advantages when done correctly:
- it enhances ingestion of nutrients especially during the early days post-weaning,
- it allows a smoother transition to dry feed, especially when the feed is pelleted,
- it prevents damage of the gut from allergens, antinutritional factors, or prolonged starvation, and
- it promotes hydration, an extra and very significant benefit, particularly for sick piglets.
Of course, for all these to succeed, gruel feeding needs to be done according to high(er) standards of hygiene. It is usually a labor-intensive task, and requires staff dedicated to assisting small-for-age piglets. Quite often such labor becomes unavailable and if this is the case, then it is better to abandon gruel feeding. Otherwise, a non-hygienic environment created by inappropriate gruel feeding application can become a hindrance rather than a benefit to a farm. Below is a 10-step guideline for efficient and practical gruel feeding.
- Use large open bowls or lock-down circular feeders. In general, the larger plastic feeders offer best results as they allow communal feeding that coincides with the natural tendency of piglets to eat all together.
- Place the gruel feeder near the feeder with the dry feed avoiding pen corners, waterers, sleeping mats, and heat lamps; the idea is to associate gruel feeding with the feeding area.
- Place a small amount of the dry gruel product in the normal feeders from the first day, even though piglets may appear to ignore it. After the first couple of days, change to normal dry feed (meal, pellets, or crumbles) in normal feeders while continuing wet gruel application.
- Using a strong flavor with a distinct aroma in the dry gruel product and in the normal dry feed may help piglets to associate faster dry feed with nourishment.
- Offer wet gruel at least three times per day, starting with a mix of 1/4 dry gruel product and 3/4 water mixed in a large bucket for all pigs or directly in each feeder.
- Warm water or a liquid milk replacer may be used to create a gruel of better acceptability. In fact, milk will promote even higher intake of nutrients, but this might not be needed if the dry gruel product is already high in dairy products, which is normally the case.
- Feed enough wet gruel for pigs to clean up in a single feeding episode. If any gruel is left uneaten, remove it, clean the feeders, and reduce allowance in the following feeding.
- Gradually thicken the wet gruel to 2/3 dry gruel product and 1/3 water. This will allow piglets to turn to dry feed easier and faster.
- Gradually reduce the number of feedings per day and discontinue by day seven after weaning, at the latest. The exact timing should be determined by the people who actually do the feeding.
- Make sure pigs have access to fresh water from day one from drinkers. For underprivileged piglets a bowl-type drinker is believed to give better results, whereas some producers prefer to use nipple water drinkers letting them dribble during the first day or so.
An example of a typical 5-day gruel feeding program
An example of a commercial gruel feeding program is presented in Table 1.1. It is not the only schedule possible, and it can and should be adjusted to suit the needs of each farm. Usually, gruel feeding is discontinued by the third day postweaning, although in pens with sick pigs it might be extended to seven days or longer (usually under the supervision of a veterinarian).
When pigs only drink the water and leave the feed
Sometimes, especially during the first couple of days of gruel feeding, pigs may drink only the liquid (water) and leave a paste of feed at the bottom of the feeder. This indicates that pigs are either particularly thirsty and an alternative way of providing water must be provided or gruel mixing requires adjustment to avoid solids separation. Replenishing the feeder with more water and remixing with the residual paste usually results in consumption of the remaining feed.
Avoiding a second weaning
One of the most discussed issues of gruel feed is that piglets love gruel too much. In fact, they like it so much that if they can have enough of it, they will not consume dry feed. So, it is important to offer them just enough gruel to sustain them without satisfying their hunger. This will force them to seek more nutrients from normal (dry) feed. For this, a gradual change from gruel-supplemented nutrition to all-dry feed is recommended. Such a program is presented in Table 1.1 showing a reduced frequency of feedings as piglet age progresses.
Table 1.1 An example of a commercial gruel feeding program
Is there an ideal product for gruel mixing?
There are dedicated dry gruel premixed products that are sold for on-farm mixing of a wet gruel. Some of them are very similar to a milk replacer, which does not always serve the purpose of gruel feeding; that is forcing piglets to consume dry feed within the medium of the “soup”. A liquid milk replacer has a totally different role, use, and application.
In general, it is considered best to use a dry mix that has been designed to create a gruel. Failing that, the creep feed (offered during the lactation period) or the first diet post-weaning (sometimes these two can or should be the same). If this is the case, then it is not a bad idea to buy a diet of higher quality to be used as gruel for underprivileged piglets than that used for the rest of the weaning group. The extra expense, if actually associated with higher quality, usually pays back dividends by speeding up these small-for-age pigs to reach the performance of their heavier counterparts by the end of the nursery period.
Gruel feeding instead of creep feeding
Some producers are impressed high enough by the results of gruel feeding underprivileged weaned pigs that they are willing to consider it for suckling pigs. This is a good idea, especially for large litters, orphan litters, and for sows not producing enough milk. Nevertheless, gruel feeding should be discontinued by the end of the second week after birth so that normal dry creep feed can be introduced in time to accustom piglets to their expected feed post-weaning. Of course, this transition to dry feed can be delayed until after weaning, but then gruel feeding becomes a serious drain on farm labor. Today, there are even automatic gruel feeding machines, but again, the cost of equipment, the sophistication of running it, and the overall labor required one way or other should be weighed against the expected benefits: piglet weaning weight uniformity and ease of transition to normal low-cost dry feed.
Gruel feeding for all piglets
Finally, there is the question whether all weaned piglets should be offered a wet gruel during at least the first few days postweaning, especially if weaning age is before 21 days of age. The answer remains positive if the realized benefits outweigh the cost and the dedicated labor is available and willing. Farmers should be discouraged to feed gruel for too long or they will have to face the problems of a second weaning, just like with overfeeding a liquid milk replacer post-weaning.
I am a huge proponent of gruel feeding, using any kind of piglet feed, as I have experienced its positive results in every possible situation. Again, the only problem beyond cost and labor has been hygiene, for which I cannot overstress its importance.
Nowadays, I support the use of specially designed gruel dry premixed products because through them one can offer additional nutrients and additives that are not required in the normal feed for the rest of the piglets. These products are more expensive than normal feed, but obviously, they offer more!