Robin Brice's new nursery story

Mark Harding with Robin Bryce in the new quality equipment nursery cabin

A unique, home-designed nursery is helping to save the lives of hundreds of piglets on a Suffolk farm through improved welfare and, as a result, will repay the £15,000 investment within a year.

Modern prolific sows have the genetic capability to produce increasing numbers of piglets but when a number farrow down with 19 or 20 per little it can pose a severe test to the management of the breeding herd.

This was the case at Countess Wells Breeding near Framlingham, where Robin Brice and his son, James, run 700 sows. Faced with this situation he put his thinking cap on. “There’s no point in having extra piglets if you can’t rear them,” he said. He didn’t care for the proprietary systems within the farrowing house and thought a better approach would be to rear surplus piglets separately and so decided to design his own.

Using a commendable degree of initiative – for which pig farmers are renowned! – he located on eBay two ex-BT air-conditioning units in the West Country for £1,000 each. These 14ft x 9ft containers were fully insulated and constructed to a very high standard so he snapped them up and paid a further £1,000 to have them transported back to Suffolk.

He called upon the expertise of Mark Harding, a director of Quality Equipment, to design the optimum layout within the space available and supply the equipment needed. Three raised pens, roughly 10ft x 4ft were installed, two on either side of a central passage and the third, laterally, across the back giving a total capacity of 75 piglets per container.

The company supplied steel frames, penning, plastic slats, made-to-measure polypropylene slurry trays, drinkers, hoppers, and, crucially, heat pads and warm-water Transition feeders.

"We did the plumbing, fans, and electrics, but wanted to get the nurseries kitted out and commissioned without delay and this enabled us to get piglets in the first nursery three months after we bought it"

Since using the nurseries the herd’s rearing figures have steadily risen – from 26.9 pigs per sow annually to 28.9 in the last six months with the last four batches averaging 29.43. In the same periods, mortality has dropped, respectively, from 8.14 percent, 7.39 percent to 6.6 percent.

The herd is averaging 12.55 pigs born alive per litter – partly as a result of tweaking management in the service and farrowing areas. For instance, sows are given a glucose supplement from weaning to service and three days before and after farrowing. This has resulted in more viable piglets, says James Brice.

With the extra piglets, a new approach had to be taken to rear them. Under the direction of his veterinary surgeon, Robin weans the strongest and oldest litters of piglets into the nurseries at eight days. The weaned sows act as nurse sows for the piglets from larger litters or any ‘underprivileged’ piglets. “During the second-week post farrowing this system allows us to be very proactive. If any individual piglets start to show signs of becoming disadvantaged we can immediately put a further litter into the container to free up another nurse sow.”

Robin believes this is the correct approach as the stronger piglets are more able to cope with weaning at this stage and the smaller pigs still get mother’s milk – if not from their own mother!

Certainly, this appears to be borne out. Mortality in the nursery is negligible. “I can’t remember the last time we lost a piglet,” says James. The room temperature is kept at 18° (64°F) – the same as the normal farrowing house temperature – and the heat pad provides a nice hot 30°C (86°F) area on which the piglets can lie.

Another key feature is the Transition feeder which provides the piglets with a freshly-mixed warm gruel every hour, throughout the day and night – little and often – mimicking the sow’s feeding pattern. Countess Wells uses their own blend of Primary creep diets – a mixture of milk powder with crumbs and milk pellets and after the first day or two, the troughs are usually licked clean. Additional pellets are introduced later, provided in a hopper, and freshwater is supplied via nipple drinkers. The slats ensure the pigs remain clean.

The piglets remain in the nursery until normal weaning age – 28 days, when they weigh over 9kg apiece and grow on well since they are already taking solid food.

Overall rearing mortality has dropped from 1.6 percent to 1.2 percent to 35kg while in the finishing herd it stands at 1.8 percent. “A lot of people say you can’t get below 10 percent from birth to finishing, but we’ve managed to get it down to 9.7 percent overall,” Robin said. He puts much of the success down to the new nursery.

“We reckon to put between 1,000 and 1,300 early-weaned piglets a year through the nursery. Over ten years the cost is just £1.50-£1.15 per pig – that’s got to be a worthwhile investment!”

This is based on the one container used for the very young (8-10 day old) piglets which would probably be lost to mortality – 75 every three weeks.

The second container is used for the smaller pigs at normal weaning time. These small pigs are given the extra TLC needed to kick-start their growth and they usually spend 16-17 days in the nursery. The flexibility offered by using the cabins for pigs of different ages is seen as a real advantage in the management of the farrowing house and superior to alternative systems.

In the first nine months alone the nurseries have enabled the lives of nearly 400 pigs to be saved.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Quality Equipment, having been so closely involved with developing the system, is now looking into producing it commercially.

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