Colostrum management for pigs

Piglets are born with little energy and very few protecting antibodies. They therefore rely on colostrum from the sow immediately after birth for energy and defence against bacteria and viruses.
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Colostrum is the ‘first milk’ and an essential source of energy, nutrients and immunity for the piglet. It is secreted from the udder immediately after farrowing and within several hours its composition changes to that representing sow milk.

Colostrum is critical for development of the piglets’ immune system and optimum lifetime performance. It is, therefore, important to maximise colostrum intake in the first six hours after birth, ideally achieving at least 150 ml intake per kilogram of birth weight by 16 hours post-farrowing; for example, a 1.45 kg piglet would need a minimum of 217.5 ml colostrum.

Beyond 24 hours is too late, as the piglets’ intestines can no longer absorb the large antibodies found in colostrum. And in any case, colostrum is only available in quantity for about 12 hours, because after 20 hours the sow will be producing milk and not colostrum.

Colostrum deprivation will reduce lifelong survivability and performance, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Ensuring colostrum intake

Actions

When to use it

How

Time Taken

Split suckling

Litter size is large. Considerable variation in piglet size.

Split the litter into two groups. Initially, enclose the group of heavier, stronger piglets within the creep area, behind a board or in a box, to reduce competition. Allow the smaller, less viable piglets to suckle and then swap the groups over after 90 minutes to allow for two sucklings at 40-minute intervals. Both groups of piglets should be able to access a warm environment.

On average, five minutes for each litter requiring extra help. It is an easy task and can be combined with litter work.

Assisted suckling

High numbers of small, low viability piglets have been born.

Considerable variation in piglet size.

Supervise and assist the vulnerable piglets to gain access to teats and suckle. Ensure they can suckle unhindered, then mark each piglet, when seen to suckle. Consider stomach-tubing vulnerable piglets.

On average, 10–15 minutes for each litter requiring extra help. This requires considerable patience but can be combined with split suckling.

Hand-feeding

colostrum

 

High numbers of small, low viability piglets have been born.

When creating litters of small piglets.

 

Milk sows that have farrowed within the last five hours. Syringe-feed the piglets with the colostrum when establishing the new litter until the suckling pattern is established (the colostrum can be fresh or store frozen colostrum and defrost naturally as required).

On average, allow at least 15 minutes for milking and feeding the piglets that require the extra help. It can be time-consuming but colostrum is essential for piglet survival.

Colostrum intake

  • Intake by the newborn piglet is highly variable and may range from 200–450 g per piglet
  • Intake depends not only on the piglet’s ability to extract colostrum but also on the ability of the sow to produce enough for the whole litter
  • Many factors can influence both colostrum production and consumption, e.g. sow parity and nutrition, litter size and piglet vigour at birth
  • Piglets with very low birth weights and which lack vigour at birth may not consume sufficient colostrum for survival or for their longer-term health and performance

Colostrum deficiency

  • The amount and timing of colostrum consumption are both critical to the subsequent health, development, survival and lifetime performance of the newborn piglet
  • Colostrum intake must be optimised as soon as possible after farrowing
  • After 6 hours the gut begins to ‘close’, and after 24 hours the full benefits of the immunoglobulins are no longer available to the piglet
  • During this critical window, the piglet can rapidly absorb the protective colostral factors (immunoglobulins) that are essential for good health and performance
  • Unless sufficient colostrum has been consumed, the piglet remains highly vulnerable to disease
  • The minimum threshold requirement for colostrum is unknown; a recommendation is that piglets must consume 150–280 g/kg bodyweight soon after birth

Management guidelines

Optimise production

Little is known about the factors affecting colostrum production but the rearing strategy for replacement gilts, vaccination policy, and the disease and hygiene status of the farm are likely to influence the immunological properties of colostrum.

Apply best sow management principles to ensure high colostrum, milk yields and litter productivity:

  • Reduce stress before, during and after farrowing
  • Feed diets appropriate for pregnancy and lactation

Ensure sows have unrestricted access to fresh drinking water at all times

Sharing between piglets

Supervise farrowing

Supervision during and immediately after farrowing should focus on early establishment of piglets at the teats, to ensure adequate intake of colostrum; remember, the ability to absorb antibodies falls rapidly after 6 hours and is almost completely gone 24 hours after birth.

Batch farrowing

This can assist in the planning and implementation of stockperson supervision of sows and piglets at farrowing.

Synchronised farrowing

The use of synchronising agents needs careful consideration and should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Cross-fostering

To ensure colostrum sharing, cross-fostering should take place as soon as possible following birth, ideally across sows within 24 hours or sooner after farrowing. If this is not possible, colostrum sharing in large litters should be facilitated by shift (split) suckling.

If porcine colostrum is unavailable, bovine colostrum may be used as a substitute.

Consider milking off surplus colostrum from some sows, freezing and using for compromised pigs (do not defrost using a microwave!). Milking sows is not a practical option on commercial farms.

Split suckling

With many units on 3-week batch systems, coupled with larger average litter sizes and numbers born alive, there may not be many spare teats at farrowing. Split suckle litters, until spare places can be found, to:

  • Ensure piglets receive a good intake of colostrum
  • Reduce mortality
  • Maintain staff morale and motivation
  • Assist training piglets to lie in the creep area

Key to success

  • Ensure co-workers understand the importance of colostrum intake
  • Have adjustable lids on the creeps to allow air to circulate and prevent piglets from becoming too warm
  • Have everything prepared and within reach
  • To ensure minimal transfer of disease between farrowing crates, disinfect using the clean foot dips placed in every farrowing room
  • To reduce both the time input by staff and stress on the piglets, consider removing only the largest piglets, leaving the smallest piglets permanently with the sow
  • Support older parity sows, by split suckling when there is large variation in birth weights. This allows the lighter piglets to have better access to the teats

Example system

  • Once sows have finished cleansing, split suckle large litters (13 or more piglets)
  • Remove the biggest piglets from the sow and place into the sealed creep area at the front of the crate
  • Established suckling pattern during the day:
    • Small piglets one hour, larger piglets one hour
    • Small piglets two hours, larger piglets one hour
  • Release piglets overnight
  • Continue up to three days or until the whole batch has farrowed
  • Foster off using the transition feeder
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