Why colostrum is so important for newborn pigs

Judith Tooth looks at what farmers can do to help piglets get the best start in life

Ensuring animals get enough colostrum is probably the most important thing you can do for them, says vet Mandy Nevel, AHDB’s head of animal health and welfare.

“We call it liquid gold because it is so valuable,” she says.

Below, Dr Nevel sets out why colostrum is so important, and how farmers can help ensure newborn pigs get enough good-quality colostrum in the first minutes and hours of life.

See also: What to consider before a switch to five-week pig weaning

Colostrum has two main functions: to provide energy and immunity.

Energy

A newborn pig has only enough energy to maintain body temperature for up to 30 minutes before it goes into negative energy. If that happens, it faces an uphill struggle for the rest of its early life.

Colostrum is higher in energy than normal sow milk. It is vital the newborn pig gets the shot of energy colostrum gives within the first few minutes of being born.

Mandy Nevel’s top tips for colostrum management

  • Remember the three Qs: Quality, Quantity and Quickly
  • Attention to detail makes a big difference. Make sure mum is comfortable and move the piglets closer to her

Immunity

Colostrum is full of immunoglobulins, or antibodies, to protect newborn pigs from disease in early life. While humans get more than 95% of their immunity from the placenta before they are born, pigs get more than 95% of theirs from colostrum.

A newborn pig’s gut is quite leaky at birth to allow large molecules such as antibodies to pass directly into the bloodstream and travel around the body.

The gut remains leaky for 24 hours but starts closing rapidly after six hours, so it is essential to get plenty of colostrum before that process begins.

But the gut is also leaky to pathogens, meaning it is important to get colostrum into the pig’s system before them.

Hypothermia

Pigs are born wet and very small, with a large surface area-to-body-mass ratio, meaning they lose heat rapidly. They can also lose a lot of energy in the farrowing process.

Ease of access to the sow for the first feed can have a big impact. In indoor units, is the floor too slippery when it’s wet? On an outdoor setup, is the straw bedded down? If not, it can be like an obstacle course for the newborn pigs to reach the sow.

Little things can make the difference between a newborn pig becoming hypothermic or not:

  • moving the pig closer to the sow
  • drying the pig a little
  • making sure there is a warm environment.

Quality of colostrum

The level of antibodies in colostrum is determined by:

  • Age of sow – as they get older, sows are exposed to more pathogens on the farm, so build up immunity and develop high levels of antibodies
  • Level of immunity – this depends on the pathogens the sow has encountered on the farm, her vaccination status, and her nutritional status
  • Herd structure – a herd with a high proportion of first parity sows may have a lower herd immunity than an older herd, and this can affect quality of colostrum
  • Stress – make sure the sow is as stress-free as possible.

Quantity of colostrum

It is quite difficult to know that piglets have had enough colostrum. The sow isn’t constantly milking: milk let-down happens for a short time, probably once every half-hour.

With large litters, not having enough teats for each of the pigs in the litter can be a real issue.

Piglets tend to feed little and often, so if you have to tube-feed, copy this pattern of feeding.

Piglets feed within the first 30 minutes for energy (a few ml), and within the first six-to-12 hours for immunity. The gut starts closing following the first feed, so if a piglet has a little and then nothing for a few hours, its level of immunity will be compromised.

Measuring colostrum quality

Test colostrum with a Brix refractometer within the first three hours of farrowing:

  1. Calibrate the refractometer with a few drops of distilled water to ensure the light and dark areas meet at zero
  2. Wipe and dry the refractometer
  3. Place two to three drops of colostrum onto the refractometer, wait for 15 seconds and record the Brix reading
  4. Using the table below, determine the immunoglobulin quality of the colostrum based on the Brix reading, corresponding immunoglobulin IgG level and IgG category.

Good practice

Much of what the farmer can do centres on preparation of the sow. As she gets closer to farrowing, ensure:

  • Her environment is as comfortable and stress-free as possible
  • She has ad-lib water and access to food
  • The accommodation, equipment and the sow herself are very clean so newborn pigs are not at risk from harmful bacteria
  • If outdoors, bed up in good time so she can build a nest
  • Observe regularly (this is harder on an outdoor unit on the day of farrowing, but much of the other preparation can be done).

Smaller pigs are at a disadvantage, but attention to detail and taking extra care really pay dividends.

If you need to split-suckle:

  • Split the piglets into two groups and feed the smaller ones first
  • Swap them after 60-90 minutes (after two or three feeds)
  • Ensure the pigs not feeding are warm and dry
  • Weaker pigs may need help to get to the teat
  • Consider hand- or tube-feeding for up to three days – a newborn pig’s stomach is very small and it doesn’t take much to strip out a little milk from a sow. This can also be a good time to measure colostrum quality (see “Colostrum quality scorecard”).

Signs of poor colostrum management

An estimated 30% of newborn pigs that die have not fed and were probably hypothermic. It is likely that another 30% haven’t fed quickly enough, or have fed on poor-quality colostrum, and a further 30% may not have had enough. These pigs suffer from poor growth rates growth rates, higher risk of disease, and increased mortality.

Make colostrum the first thing you look at if you see an increase in pre-weaning mortality.

Longer term effects

Innate immunity is the protection the newborn pig receives through colostrum. The antibodies absorbed by the pig reach a peak in the first hours of life and then gradually decline and plateau during the following weeks.

Acquired immunity builds up gradually as the pigs start to develop antibodies themselves, through contact with pathogens.

A point of dangerously low immunity – the lowest since birth – comes when innate immunity has declined substantially, and acquired immunity is rising, but only slowly. This point often coincides with weaning.

The more colostrum, or the better the quality of colostrum, a pig gets, the greater the immunity it has when that danger point is reached, and the lower the risk of post-weaning diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Colostrum quality scorecard

Brix reading %

Corresponding IgG level

IgG category

<20

14.5 +/- 1.8

Poor

20-24

43.8 +/- 2.3

Borderline

25-29

50.7 +/- 2.1

Adequate

>30

78.6 +/- 8.4

Very good

Source: Hasan et al, 2016

Mandy Nevel was speaking at a Lallemand Animal Nutrition webinar, Colostrum quality – a golden opportunity to improve piglet performance, on 9 June. Watch the webinar in full.

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