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Piglets are born immunologically underdeveloped and their immunity in the first weeks depends completely on maternal colostrum. So, colostrum plays an essential role in survival and growth of neonatal piglets by providing energy and immune protection.
Several studies reported that approximately 30% of hyper-prolific sows produce insufficient colostrum for their litters. It is not a surprise that a healthy sow has a better chance to farrow healthier piglets. Therefore, it has been said that a successful weaning of piglets starts with a successful farrowing. Piglets should be started off with a sufficient amount and optimal quality of colostrum. Our study published in Livestock Science explains different factors (obtained both from field studies and laboratory analysis) that can influence colostrum yield and quality.
Study and our working hypothesis
Six different herds from Finland and the Netherlands included in the study contained different hyper-prolific sows breeding lines. A total of 230 sows and 3210 liveborn piglets were studied in the trials. Selected ear tagged piglets were followed until weaning.
Our hypothesis was that hyper-prolific sows apparently have a longer farrowing duration, which significantly reduces the colostrum production. Duration of farrowing and colostrum production are mainly regulated by hormones; therefore, sow’s behavior and hormonal status could have an impact on colostrum production.
Normally, at farrowing progesterone level goes down while prolactin increases. Delayed decrease in level of progesterone not only lengthens the farrowing, it can impair the sow colostrum yield as well. At farrowing sows not only undergo hormonal changes, also substantial metabolic and physiological changes take place during this very short period including tissue damage and inflammatory response due to the parturition process.
A prolonged duration of farrowing and low haptoglobin in sow plasma decreased sow colostrum yield. Therefore, easing the process of farrowing can reduce farrowing duration and pain/inflammation for the sow, improving colostrum production and allowing greater colostrum intake for the piglets. We found that the average progesterone levels were numerically the lowest in the herds where sows had unlimited access to nest building material and sows were loosely housed in pens. Therefore, it is strongly recommended to provide the sow with sufficient nesting material and allow expressing proper maternal behavior. This will result in a consequent increase in the prolactin-to-progesterone ratio.
In addition, sow body condition and age are important factors that influence colostrum quality. We demonstrated that a sow with thicker back fat at farrowing had more IgA in its colostrum. Many studies also reported that back fat reduction in the late gestation is negatively associated with sow colostrum yield. Therefore, it appears essential that sows improve their body condition gradually during the whole pregnancy, arriving at farrowing in good body condition to allow protein turnover and promote sufficient colostrum yield. Moreover, colostrum of older sows (parity over 5) contains more IgG and IgA. We would suggest considering also these issues when planning early culling of sows.
We hope this information can help developing better farrowing management and early piglet management strategies aiming at reduction of antimicrobials in neonatal piglets.