Everyone loses a few nursery pigs. But if the biggest, fastest growing pigs are the ones that seem to die on your farm, a vitamin E deficiency may be the reason.

“Most of the deaths occur two to three weeks after pigs are weaned,” says Don Mahan, Ohio State University swine nutritionist. “It’s a sudden death. There are no apparent outward symptoms.” If you perform a post-mortem on those pigs, you are likely to find fluid accumulation around the pericardial sac surrounding the heart and perhaps some gut edema.

Nursery death rates due to vitamin E deficiencies can run 1 percent to 2 percent in a herd. The large, fast-growing pigs are the ones that die because they have a higher vitamin E requirement than their smaller contemporaries. 

The unknown factor is how vitamin E deficiencies negatively impact the surviving pigs’ health. “Vitamin E and selenium are attributed to enhancing the animal’s immune capability,” says Mahan. “If vitamin E and selenium levels are low, the pig’s ability to fight disease is less. It’s hard to measure the impact because the pig’s illness or death is attributed to the disease.”

Industry production trends have renewed some concerns surrounding vitamin E deficiencies.

As a fat-soluble element, vitamin E doesn’t pass through the placenta to the fetal pig effectively. Piglets enter life with nearly deficient levels. The sow’s colostrum and milk are excellent sources of highly digestible vitamin E.

For most piglets that’s a good start. But old, third-parity, highly productive sows ù those nursing 10 to 11 pigs that weigh 14 pounds at 21 days, for example ù may deliver milk short on vitamin E. 

The trend toward early weaning, even at two to three weeks of age, has complicated the issue. “Those pigs don’t nurse as long, so they just don’t consume enough vitamin E,” says Mahan. Consequently, they enter the nursery with deficient levels of the vitamin .

What to do? First, don’t take for granted that your feed supplier is taking care of your herd’s vitamin E needs. It’s true that the vitamin is added to nearly all formulations, but levels vary. Your supplier may add vitamin E to meet an average herd. Yours may be above average in sow productivity or age. Or you may be weaning pigs earlier. Vitamin E also is an expensive ingredient and is often cut back to reduce costs.

See that all diets throughout the sow’s reproductive life contain 40,000 to 60,000 international units of vitamin E per ton of feed. While that’s a safeguard, it’s no guarantee. Keep an eye on nursery pigs. If sudden deaths occur as outlined previously, inject piglets with 100 IU of vitamin E and 1 to 2 milligrams of selenium at weaning.

Nursery diets should contain 60,000 IU of vitamin E per ton as well. But because of erratic consumption patterns of just-weaned pigs, that can still fall short. Water treatments are another option.

“It’s important producers be aware of this issue, because it can be corrected,” says Mahan. And no one wants to lose those large, fast-growing  pigs.