Establishing a solid foundation for our piglets.
We all know that colostrum is important. This is true across species. Yet, with pigs, some qualities of colostrum are often overlooked.
I believe that the lactating sow and preweaned piglets form the foundation of a farm. After all, producing piglets is why sows are kept. At the same time, this is the beginning of a piglet’s life. What happens here can influence it for the rest of its life. If this is true, then colostrum plays a significant role in building this foundation. It is the first way in which the sow influences her newborn piglets and it is the first nutrition that newborn piglets receive.
Functions of colostrum
The quality of colostrum is heavily influenced by the sow, which lays down the foundation for her piglets. There are 3 basic functions of colostrum. Firstly, it provides energy that is desperately needed by the newborn piglet. Secondly, it provides passive immunity. Lastly, it is a source of bioactive compounds, which assists in gut development and improves nutrient absorption by protecting the piglet against iron-dependent bacteria.
The amount of colostrum ingested by each piglet is quite variable from piglet to piglet. However, despite the variation, studies are united in prescribing a minimum intake of 200-250 g per piglet. One study found that, if a piglet received less than 200g of colostrum, prewean mortality spiked to 43%. However, if they ingested more than 200g per piglet, prewean mortality dropped significantly to 7.1%.
Colostrum intake has a significant effect on a few important production parameters: weaning weight, intermediate weight (at about 70 days), finishing weight, prewean mortality and nursery mortality. Please note that this effect is more pronounced in small piglets.
The nutrient composition of colostrum consists of fat, protein and lactose. These nutrients are influenced in different ways and influence different factors.
Colostrum fat is an important parameter for neonatal piglets as it affects their immediate survival. Piglets are born with minimal body reserves and they need that extra energy to stay warm and keep suckling. In smaller piglets, fat plays an even more important role.
Protein is not something that is easy to influence. However, it remains a critical factor. Immunoglobulins are basically proteins and will be analysed as such. Thus, protein is an indication of the passive immunity transferred in colostrum.
Lactose’ significance lies in the fact that it is the main osmotic factor in milk, influencing the amount of water present in colostrum. As the lactose in the milk increases, the volume of the milk increases i.e. more water is present in the colostrum. In this way, lactose is a good indication of the volume of colostrum produced. Lactose levels are dependent on glucose availability, as glucose is a precursor for lactose.
The most important thing to remember about colostrum composition, is that colostral nutrients affect different stages of a piglet’s life. Colostral energy (from fat) is the main influencing factor when it comes to prewean mortality, while the immunoglobulins and bioactive compounds in colostrum play a more significant role in postwean mortality.
Our local research results
We have been collecting colostrum samples since May 2020. Our research efforts spread across 5 provinces and 3 different genetic groups, from 10 different farms to gain a total of 269 samples up to date. The purpose of the colostrum collection was to analise and gain insight into the fat-, protein-, lactose- and solid content of colostrum.
It is interesting to compare our data with that of studies done in Europe. What we find interesting is the fact that South African colostrum’s lactose level is higher than that of Belgium, which is also a more recent study than that done by Mavromichalis. This could indicate that our sows are producing higher volumes of milk.
However, it is clear that, because of our higher milk volumes, our colostrum fat seems to be diluted quite significantly. An average colostrum fat content of 4.75% is lower than what is expected internationally. This affects piglets significantly as milk fat serves as their first source of energy and heat.
The practical significance of this is that the data proves we need to put effort into ensuring that our piglets ingest enough colostrum. Knowing that our average colostrum fat content is lower than European colostrum means that our piglets actually need more than 250 ml colostrum per piglet.
Colostrum research abounds in other farm animal species, like dairy cows. This is research we can and should learn from. Colostrum is no less important for a piglet than for a dairy calf. It is something we can learn to manage properly in order to give our piglets a proper start to life.
By testing colostrum on a regular basis, you can make the correct dietary or management changes on a farm to mitigate problems caused by poor colostrum quality or poor colostrum intake. If we can lay a proper foundation for those piglets, we can help equip farms to grow future pigs for future profit!