The U.S. pork industry has the genetics in place to reach the goal of 30 pigs per sow per year — or psy — but pre-weaning mortality remains a cause for concern. In fact, the most recent USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System study estimates that 12.9 percent of pigs born live die before weaning.

Researchers believe colostrum quality is a key to reduce pre-weaning mortality and to help meet the genetic possibilities of today’s swine herd. Industry research also shows that high-quality colostrum plays a role in the pig’s lifetime productivity.

Of course, the process starts immediately — with the first colostrum feeding, which must be supplied to new litters within hours after birth. Colostrum provides the necessary immunoglobulins to kick-start the pig’s immune system. In addition to immunoglobulins, colostrum contains high levels of protein, energy and vitamin D that are vital to newborn pigs.

“Pigs are born with low body-energy stores, and without immunoglobulins from the sow’s colostrum to protect them from environmental pathogens, newborn pigs are at risk for disease,” says Gawain Willis, nutrition services director, Purina Animal Nutrition. “The only immune protection newborn pigs receive comes from the first feeding of colostrum.”

Paul Pitcher, DVM, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, agrees. He points out that for the best start possible, a newborn pig needs to receive a minimum of 40 milliliters of colostrum within the first five hours to seven hours of life. Expanding that to the first 24 hours, each pig needs 250 grams of immunoglobulins.

But the composition of the colostrum also is important in preventing disease susceptibility, poor growth rates and pre-weaning mortality. Pitcher says the colostrum should ideally be made of 30 percent immunoglobulin A, 10 percent immunoglobulin M and 60 percent immunoglobulin G.

While it can be difficult to measure just how much colostrum the newborn pig is receiving, a colostrometer or refractometer can help determine the colostrum’s quality. Pitcher points out that quality colostrum will be dense with solids and comprised of the adequate levels of each immunoglobulin type. Each one offers specific protection to the newborn pig. Immunoglobulin G is absorbed through the open gut of the piglet where it enters the blood stream to promote passive immunity. Immunoglobulin A provides protection in the gut after being absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, while immunoglobulin M assists the immune cells when responding to challenges.

“Each group of immunoglobulins plays a specific role in the pig’s early immunity,” Willis says. “The combination of the correct levels of the three can help the pig achieve immune-competence and can result in greater long-term performance.”

Unfortunately, colostrum produced by the sow can vary significantly within the herd, often making it difficult to predict which newborn pigs are not receiving the protection required. A research study by Le Dividich, Rooke and Herpin for The Journal of Animal Science shows that colostrum antibodies produced by the sow can fluctuate from 1,900 grams to 5,300 grams with “no clear effect based on litter size or parity.”

An additional study conducted by Devillers, Le Dividich, Farmer and Prunier found similar results in colostrum variation and concluded that colostrum production does not correlate with litter size. However, the researchers found that the quality of the colostrum and the levels of immunoglobulins supplied in the first feeding can directly impact pig health and can minimize pre-weaning mortality.

Researchers across the country have tested ways to help sows produce consistent colostrum with immunoglobulin levels that newborn pigs require. In 2011/2012, a series of feeding trials were conducted at five different sites during various seasons with several management practices. Researchers at Oklahoma State University, the University of Arkansas and Purina Animal Nutrition, as well as two on-farm field trials in Indiana and Illinois, measured the effects of Healthy Edge Technology — a proprietary sow feed additive.

Sows were fed the control or test diets for six weeks pre-farrowing to weaning. The only difference in the two rations was an additional 1-pound-per-ton inclusion of the feed additive. The average of all studies showed that supplemented sows were able to produce 1.4 more full-potential pigs (those weighing 8 pounds or more at weaning) psy.

Greater health and growth rates may be attributed to enhanced colostrum quality produced by the supplemented sows. Impact of the feed additive on immunoglobulin levels in colostrum was dramatic. Colostrum produced by the sows supplemented with the feed additive had 93 percent higher levels of immunoglobulin A, 115 percent more immunoglobulin G and 38 percent more immunoglobulin M than the non-supplemented sows, all of which were statistically significant.

To further examine the reason for increased pig vitality, researchers collected colostrum samples and evaluated the higher quality colostrum’s impact on pig growth rates. Research from the study showed statistically significant improvements in total pigs born (13.46 vs. 14.4 pigs) and pigs born live (11.77 vs. 12.5 pigs) with no decrease in piglet birthweights from treated sows.  At weaning, the additive increased pigs weaned (10.27 vs. 10.85 pigs) and litter weaning weight (149 pounds vs. 156 pounds).

“The higher quality colostrum made a significant difference in the growth rates and performance of the pigs as they moved through weaning,” says Brenda De Rodas, Purina swine research director, adding that supplemented sows produced 0.58 more pigs per litter at weaning and 0.69 more pigs per litter that met their full potential of 8 pounds or more at weaning than the non-supplemented group.

“Supplemented sows also had higher feed intake, which is required to sustain higher litter productivity without compromising sow weight and rebreeding performance,” she adds, explaining that the supplemented sows consumed 14 pounds more feed through lactation in the trial.

The studies confirm that the road to high colostrum begins long before farrowing and that sow nutrition through all stages can influence pig performance.

“Providing added nutrition during gestation and lactation can help the sow produce larger litters and better care for newborn pigs,” Willis says. “Close attention to sow nutrition is especially important in sow diets as the industry trend toward higher psy continues to rise.”

Research Update: Higher colostrum quality results in increased growth rates

In a 2011 trial conducted by Purina, sows supplemented with the company’s proprietary sow feed additive were compared with a group fed a non-supplemented ration. The supplemented sows produced colostrum with significantly greater immunoglobulin levels: 93 percent higher levels of IgA, 115 percent more IgG and 38 percent more IgM than the non-supplemented sows, all of which were statistically significant (P<0.05).

By following the pigs through the production cycle, the researchers saw significant benefits through weaning to the pigs born from supplemented sows, partially attributed to the improved colostrum quality.

Research from the study showed statistically significant improvements in total pigs born (13.46 pigs vs. 14.4 pigs, P<0.05) and pigs born live (11.77pigs vs. 12.5 pigs, P<0.07) with no decrease in birthweight of piglets from treated sows.  At weaning, the sows with greater colostrum quality produced more pigs weaned (10.27 pigs vs. 10.85 pigs, P<0.01) and greater litter weaning weights (149 pounds vs. 156 pounds, P<0.04).