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.