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Sep 03, 2021

Boosting piglets from birth with colostrum management

Sep 03, 2021

As seen in Pig World September 2021

Often recognised as the number one thing pig producers can do to protect the health and welfare of pigs, good colostrum management is a vital component in the pig rearing process. As such, any activity to improve the quality or quantity that piglets receive is well worth undertaking.

Speaking at our latest webinar ‘colostrum quality – a golden opportunity to improve piglet performance’ Mandy Nevel, head of animal health and welfare at AHDB, provided practical hints and tips to help producers better assess and improve colostrum management.

“We know that the main function of colostrum is for energy and immunity; newborn piglets only have the energy to maintain their body temperature for around 30 minutes before they start to become hypothermic. When it comes to antibodies, piglets obtain over 95% of their immunity from colostrum,” Mrs Nevel said.

“However it’s crucial pig producers remember antibodies need to make their way into the piglet’s blood stream in the first hours of life, before the gut closes. Although gut closure is gradual, the rate at which this happens increases after the first feed.”

During her presentation, Mrs Nevel emphasised that the most important thing to remember when looking at colostrum management are the 3Qs: Quality, Quantity and Quickly.

Quality

“The level of antibodies in colostrum, and therefore it’s overall quality, can be affected by a number of things including a sow’s age. As sows get older, they are exposed to more pathogens on the farm so build up immunity and develop high levels of antibodies.

“There are however some things producers can do to prepare the sow for farrowing and support colostrum quality. For example making sure vaccines are up to date and good nutrition is provided, alongside ensuring the sow is comfortable and stress free, with easy access to food and water,” she said.

Quantity & Quickly

It can be difficult to know whether a piglet has had enough colostrum. Milk let-down in sows tends to only happen once every half an hour, so the sow is not constantly milking.

“Within the first 30 minutes after birth, piglets need colostrum for energy, and within the first 6-12 hours for immunity. Although it can be difficult to assess colostrum quality, in general if you’re experiencing increased piglet mortality it’s likely you’ve got an issue with colostrum. Evidence has shown that 30% of pigs that die in the neonatal period have no trace of milk in the stomach. It’s likely that another 30% that die have not had it quickly enough, and a further 30% have not had a sufficient amount.”

As average litter sizes have increased in recent years, assessing teat numbers is  important in ensuring that all piglets receive a sufficienct amount of colostrum quickly. Mrs Nevel explained that many producers have used the split suckling method effectively in scenarios where there are more piglets than teats.

“Split suckling is a great way to ensure the three Qs of colostrum management are achieved, helping all piglets have a better start in life.

“To do this successfully, split the litter into two groups and feed the smaller pigs first, swapping after 60-90 minutes to make sure they’ve had two or three feeds. You may need to assist small, weak pigs to the teat, and make sure those piglets that aren’t feeding are warm and dry. I’d recommend doing this during the daytime for up to three days.”

Although practical support like this may add to the workload, Mrs Nevel believes it is a worthy time investment which can help bolster piglets and reduce the likelihood of health issues later down the line, such as post-weaning diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Importance of gut health

Echoing Mrs Nevel’s belief that good colostrum management is key to piglet vitality, Sian Nichols, pig nutritionist at Harbro Limited, added that it’s important not to neglect good sow nutrition and gut health.

“From a nutritional perspective, having a feeding regime where you have the ability to provide a specific transition ration can help to maximise colostrum quality. This is because the colostrum is formed some weeks before the sow farrows, so to get the maximum benefit adjust the dry and transition sow ration,” Mrs Nichols said.

“It’s at this point that I recommend considering adding a specific probiotic yeast supplement, such as Levucell SB (S. c. boulardii CNCM I-1079). During this time, it offers the greatest benefit to the sow, which in-turn supports piglets through improved colostrum quality. From my experience, this tends to result in a more uniform litter at weaning, which take off better post weaning.”

Another way in which a specific probiotic supports colostrum quality is through the improvement it brings to sow gut health, Mrs Nichols explained.

“Keeping the sow’s gut moving before farrowing is really important. They’re often coming from loose housing to a farrowing crate where their rations change, and they might not have straw. This radical change can cause stress and unbalance the gut microflora, resulting in a dramatic impact to the digestive system.

“This can have a negative effect on colostrum quality, so we need to keep the sow eating and the gut moving, which is where ensuring correct fibre levels and adding a specific live yeast to the diet comes in. A probiotic supplement such as this, helps to improve feed efficiency, meaning sows can get more out of the feed. As a result, they are then able to put more energy into making quality colostrum which contains high immunoglobulin levels and offers a good level of immune protection,” she added.

Mrs Nichols noted that the probiotic live yeast supplement scavenges oxygen promoting good bacteria as-well as helping outcompete the bad bacteria, improving gut health, which directly impacts initial piglet health via the environment it’s born into.

“A piglet’s first exposure to microbes and pathogens is at birth when they will come into contact with the sow’s muck. If we can make that muck as favourable as possible then that will help reduce the pathogen challenge and get the piglet off to a better start.”

Although some producers may cut feed provision down when sows come in to farrow, Mrs Nichols recommended avoiding this as sows will need as much energy as possible.

“Cutting feed rations is potentially one of the worst things you could do because the process of farrowing is very energy demanding. Consequently, if the sow has not eaten much for the last two or three days, she will be running on empty which has a negative impact on piglet viability.

“Going forwards, with the impending Zinc ban, producers are going to need to take a more proactive approach to piglet health and supporting immunity via good quality colostrum will become paramount. With a narrow window of opportunity to get this liquid gold into piglets, it’s important to take a multifaceted approach to achieve this, combining good sow nutrition and piglet management.”