Nine key lessons for piglet gut health

Major changes in the piglet’s digestive physiology, its immune status and social and environmental needs can make the difference between a lifetime of poor or high health status. The director of The Pig Technology Company, Dr Mike Varley, and Alltech’s European pig specialist, Terry McArdle, highlight nine key lessons for controlling enteric disease and getting piglets off to the very best start

1. Don’t wean too early

Dr Varley: Piglets that are weaned at less than four weeks of age are less able to cope with the weaning process itself, being less able to digest solid food. During weaning the villi on the gut wall shrink and their absorption capacity is reduced, so dry matter intake is temporarily compromised. Evidence shows that some piglets eat as little as 50g/day throughout that first week, leading to gut damage and poor health. Their enzyme and immune systems are also not developed enough and they suffer from more enteric diseases and post-weaning mortality. The stress of weaning can also cause diarrhoea outbreaks. Weaning when piglets are more mature makes everything easier for them – and for you.

2. Encourage weaners with quality feed

Dr Varley: The actual process of feeding stimulates both piglet growth and gut health, so quality and quantity of feed is key and high-specification feed programmes, before and after weaning, are essential. Studies show that while starter feeds are only 3% of the entire feed input for a slaughter weight pig, they control 30% of the growth rate through to slaughter. Quality ingredients, including easily digested cooked cereals and milk proteins, will pay dividends.

3. Set key production targets

Dr Varley: While every enterprise is different setting key production targets will help you to stay focused. For example: Weaning, 8kg at 28 days to 30kg at 70 days; slaughter, 115kg.

4. Establish a feeding programme

  • Feed appetisers from day four, continuing for two to four days after weaning.
  • Creep feed from day 10. Aim for each piglet to consume 400-500g of creep feed prior to weaning. Creep feeding helps piglets to adapt to a dry diet while still on the sow and primes gut for the enzyme production needed to digest starch and vegetable protein post weaning.
  • Continue with the same creep feed seven days after weaning (Stage 1 diet).
  • Follow with a Stage 2 diet.
  • Move to a link feed.
  • Consider a Transition Feeder. Offering a fresh, ready mixed gruel on demand it provides both feed and liquid and in trials showed a 37% increase in feed intake.

5. Help piglets to optimise gut health

Terry McArdle: Establishing beneficial gut microflora will help piglets to absorb nutrients. The feed additives to consider include:

  • Organic acids: lowering gut pH, they prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria.
  • Essential oils: their strong anti-bacterial properties quickly kill pathogens such as Salmonella.
  • Prebiotics: (for example, the oligosaccharide Alltech Actigen) prevent pathogenic bacteria from attaching to the gut wall, promoting a wide range of beneficial gut flora – including the important lactobacillus bacteria.
  • Piglets fed Actigen took 15.6 days less to reach 40kg, increased their daily weight gain by 125g/day and improved their FCR by 12.6% (Alltech trials).
UK Actigen piglet performance trial 7-40kg
Control Actigen Difference
Start weight (kg) 7.0 6.9 -0.1
End weight (kg) 39.7 41 +1.3
Days on unit 78.8 63.2 -15.6
Daily gain (g) 416 539 +123
Daily feed intake (g) 894 1013 +0.13
FCR 2.15 1.88 -0.27
Mortality (%) 1.7 1.5 -0.2

6. Go organic

Terry McArdle: When offering mineral supplementation – for example, selenium and vitamin E to stimulate the immune system – organic, rather than inorganic forms, are best being more bio-available, more easily absorbed by animals, and a more effective way to supplement key nutrients.

7. Be alert to the mycotoxin risk

Terry McArdle: All pigs are sensitive to mycotoxins with young and breeding animals the most vulnerable. Both feed and straw bedding will present a risk and even very low levels of contamination can undermine their immune and health status causing irreversible tissue damage.

Symptoms of mycotoxicosis in pigs include:

  • Low feed intake affecting growth.
  • Reduced piglet weaning weights.
  • Reduced immunity.
  • Poor response to vaccines and medication.
  • Reduced performance and FCR in finishers.
  • Higher incidence of stillborn piglets and reduced total born.
  • Rectal prolapse.
  • Early embryonic loss and longer wean to oestrus intervals.
  • Ear and skin necrosis.

Rain during 2014’s critical flowering period of cereals in the spring means that the mycotoxin challenge will be high. Recent Alltech data shows that 97.5% of grain samples globally (tested from Jun-Aug 2014) contain an average of 6.7 mycotoxins per sample with Type B Trichothecenes, Fusaric Acid and Fumonisins being the most prevalent, present in over 71% of samples. The cumulative effect of multiple mycotoxins in feed increases the toxicity to the animal leading to reductions in health and performance that are often far higher than expected.

Combining data from 10 research trials, nursery pigs (1,047 pigs) fed various combinations of mycotoxins at low to high risk levels had a decrease in average daily gain (ADG) by 87.5g/day. Additionally, feed conversion ratio (FCR) increased by 13 points. Further valuable information can be gained by breaking these trial results into risk categories.

Effect of mycotoxin concentration on average daily gain (ADG)
Mycotoxin concentration ADG decreased
Less than 100 ppb 6.1%
100-200 ppb 13.5%
200 ppb 28.4%

Due to these dramatic effects on performance, the cost of mycotoxins to pig producers is an estimated average decrease of £3.93/pig during the nursery period. This trend can continue through the grower finisher period with ADG reduced by 8.4% to 15.6% as mycotoxin risks increase, or on average a reduction in gain of 82g/day. By the end of the finisher period, this decrease in growth resulted in a £4.75/pig loss in net return.

8. Take action - test and treat

Terry McArdle: If you suspect a problem, advanced mass spectrometry testing – the Alltech 37+ Program – can now detect more than 37 mycotoxins in finished feeds, raw materials and straw bedding including the Fusarium mycotoxins, DON, SEN, OTA and T-2, Fumonisins and Penicillium mycotoxins which have previously been largely overlooked, act at very low levels and are considered as “masked mycotoxins” – those disguised by being attached to a simple sugar. Adding a natural, non-clay mycotoxin binder to feeds, such as Mycosorb A+, protects piglets from the widest possible range of mycotoxins, including the Penicillium and Fusarium strains.

9. Pay special attention to husbandry

Dr Varley: At weaning, the piglet is still receiving its “immunological education” and being exposed to the right pathogens in the right doses at the right time. So, good hygiene is vital: clean, dry, well-insulated and draught free pens; an all-in/all-out husbandry system with every room emptied and thoroughly disinfected. Otherwise, piglets could easily be overwhelmed by harmful pathogens before they are equipped to survive.

For further information on weaner management, combining optimal nutrition and mycotoxin testing, contact Alltech’s Terry McArdle on 07725 873345

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