A seamless transition from weaning to 100% creep feeding with improved performance can be encouraged by adding flavour and antioxidants to the sow ration, and continuing this through to the creep feed.
For many years, the process of flavour “imprinting” has been explored in pigs. In humans we know that flavours, such as banana and spices, will pass quickly from food to the expressed milk.
To try and encourage creep feed intake in piglets, a number of trials have been conducted on various flavour and smell combinations in lactating sow feed. The idea is that these would be expressed in the milk and the familiar flavour can then be used in creep diets.
This research has been of limited success and, as a rule, not followed up. In 2011, Wageningen University published a paper that suggested imprinting in its own right didn’t give any flavour preference in the sow diet and subsequently into creep feed, but behaviour and growth rates were improved. The theory is that there’s a reduction in stress by association with the familiar comforting smell from the sow and milk, rather than by active flavour preference.
An aniseed flavour was used to conduct this work, and it was either added into the starter diet, or sprayed in the air. Piglets exposed to the aniseed smell, regardless from the feed or the air, reduced the time from weaning to creep feed eating, and were also less aggressive.
This suggests there’s some relationship between putting volatile flavours in the lactating sow diet and the same flavour in the starter feed. Getting the piglets eating as soon as possible post weaning is critical to improving their subsequent performance as it reduces damage to the small intestine and provides essential nutrients for growth and the immune system.
Research by Provimi on including natural antioxidants in the lactating sow diet has been shown to increase birthweights and piglet viability. As the lactation diet is fed to sows as they come into the farrowing house, it’s relatively easy to add key antioxidants into this diet for the benefit of the sow and her piglets. These antioxidants will vary from increases in synthetic Vitamin E, to natural Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Selenomethionine and, most recently, flavonoids from grape seeds and other extracts.
Natural antioxidants are suggested to be a more appropriate mechanism for maintaining the antioxidant status of the sow and piglet by reducing free radical damage, particularly in the critical phase of farrowing and lactation.
Nutritional science continues to develop new strategies for improving overall herd performance. These will be welcome solutions as producers strive for greater operational efficiency and overcome some of the challenges such as lower birth weights and unthrifty pigs.
> Born in Essex, schooled in Suffolk and a graduate of Reading University, Dr Phil Baynes has spent his career in pig welfare and nutrition. Now based in Cheshire, he runs Baynes Nutrition and is a consultant nutritionist to Provimi