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Rethinking colostrum management and piglet survivability

29 September 2021, at 4:04pm

Colostrum is vital to piglet survival but managing intake may benefit from some fresh thinking, according to Kara Stewart, associate professor of animal science at Purdue University.

As part of the industry’s Improving Pig Survivability project, Stewart has been studying colostrum and related management practices. “It may not be a very popular opinion, but we have a lot of work to do in this area,” she told Pig Health Today.

The fact that each piglet needs to get its share of colostrum remains true, but the management steps to achieve that objective are less clear. Practices such as split-suckling and drying piglets have been considered pathways to stimulate colostrum intake and boost survival. Stewart isn’t so sure.

“While some of these practices anecdotally did increase survival, it may be because we put employees in the barn to be present for the farrowing process and that aided in survivability,” she said. “A lot of studies have shown no direct increase in colostrum intake when these management practices are adopted.”

Looking for answers

A few things are clear. One is that colostrum is available for only 24 hours after a sow has farrowed. Another is that pigs are among the species that require colostrum and the immune protection it provides to survive. But it is about more than survival; colostrum intake affects the pig’s long-term growth and development trajectory, such as fertility in breeding animals.

Heavier-birthweight pigs and those born early in the litter birth order have an advantage. “Piglets born early and born big are naturally able to access more colostrum,” Stewart noted, “and they have a stronger suckling stimulus so they take in more colostrum.”

So, the theory has been that if a farm implements a split-suckling program, it will level the playing field. There are two primary approaches to split-suckling:

  1. Based on birth order, where the early-born piglets get access to the sow but are then removed to make way for the later-born piglets;
  2. Based on bodyweight, where the heavier-birthweight piglets are removed to give the light birthweights extra time to drink.

“The problem is, we haven’t seen that those piglets are actually taking in more colostrum,” Stewart noted.

When it comes to drying piglets, Stewart cited research that she has conducted, along with a trial by Mike Ellis, University of Illinois, involving a large commercial system. The data showed that drying did effectively change the piglets’ body temperatures, especially light-birthweight piglets, but did not significantly impact colostrum intake.

“For whatever reason, the piglets did not seek out the teat and take in more colostrum,” Stewart noted. “Maybe the smaller piglets have a limit to their suckling abilities, and maybe the capacity of their stomach is limited and they get full faster.”

Also, piglet mortality rates did not differ between dried or undried pigs unless the barn temperature was “pretty cold,” she added.

A new approach

With colostrum being such a vital, limited resource, it’s time to dig deeper and think more broadly.

Stewart and her colleagues recently completed a study looking at farrowing induction and how it might impact piglet mortality, colostrum composition and colostrum intake. The data is currently under review and will look at whether there are any benefits or disadvantages to the piglets.

In another upcoming project, she will be evaluating the impact of supplementing colostrum directly to light-birthweight piglets, specifically whether it can increase survival.

“We need to be really creative,” Stewart said. “We need to investigate ways to ensure every piglet gets to drink enough colostrum.”

To learn more about the Pig Survivability project, go to piglivability.org. The website provides access to related podcasts, presentations, research papers, fact sheets and other information.