Colostrum in the spotlight

by Dr Michelle Sprent, Pig Nutritionist

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Colostrum is often referred to as “first milk” and it is essential for piglet survival and development. Piglets are born with very low energy reserves, just 2% body fat and a small quantity of glycogen in the liver so colostrum is a vital source of energy.  

Colostrum provides immune protection in the form of immunoglobulins. This is particularly important in the pig as there is no transfer of immunity from the sow across the placenta during pregnancy. Colostrum also contains a range of growth factors and hormones which impact not just early survival but long term development and has been suggested to also influence factors such as fertility. Colostrum is only available for 24 hours from the onset of farrowing, starting the transition to milk once the first piglet has sucked, and within 12 hours of the first suck immunoglobulin content has reduced by half so early access for all piglets is critical.       

AHDB are currently running a campaign across all species called “Colostrum is Gold”. As well as highlighting the importance of colostrum in survival and subsequent growth performance, the campaign is also looking at the benefits of colostrum in terms of long term health and thus it’s link with the responsible use of antibiotics. There’s lots of useful information on a dedicated website called Colostrum is Gold.
Colostrum Is Gold: feeding colostrum to calves, lambs and piglets | AHDB
Pig Progress have just released a new podcast where Dr Casey Bradley (host of the Real P3 Podcast on Pig Progress) talks to South African Nutritionist Willem Steyn (Podcast: Understanding colostrum needs - Pig Progress). The Podcast covers a range of subjects linked to colostrum production and piglet survival. One area Willem talks about from a practical perspective is he has been working with South African producers to measure skin temperature of piglets using an infrared thermometer. The work of Devillers et al., 2011 indicated that rectal temperature at 24 hours after the start of farrowing was positively correlated to colostrum intake and strongly correlated with survival. Willem comments that using an infrared thermometer is a great non-invasive, stress free method for checking temperatures. The farms he is working with are then using this information to apply split suckling and other farrowing house management procedures to try to reduce neonatal mortality.
Finally, a third good resource is from an Iowa State, Purdue and Kansas State University collaboration looking at pig survival across all stages of the production cycle (Improving Pig Survivability - There’s a specific section on piglet pre-weaning mortality and further research work is being carried out by this collaboration. Dr Kara Stewart is leading the work on colostrum and again there’s an interesting podcast available (Global Ag Network | Episode 2: Colostrum Intake & Management with Dr. Kara Stewart).
 Whilst there is still much to learn about colostrum, there are things that producers can do to make best use of colostrum:

  • Management practices possibly don’t directly increase colostrum intake but…
  • Supervision of the farrowing process, and the first few hours post farrow, have been proven to improve piglet survival
  • Focus on the lightweight piglets has been shown to be particularly beneficial
  • Focusing on both low temperature and lightweight piglets could be even more worthwhile