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What is good for small piglets may not be so for the big ones

Practical implications of a study that analyzes the consequences of litter standardization by weight or number and the supply of creep feeding.

Commented article

Huting, A. M. S., Almond, K., Wellock, I. and I. Kyriazakis. What is good for small piglets might not be good for big piglets: The consequences of cross-fostering and creep feed provision on performance to slaughter. 2017. J. Anim. Sci. 95:4926–4944. doi: 10.2527/jas2017.1889
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Traditionally, piglet management routines at the farrowing house have been focused on protecting the small ones assuming that the big piglets are capable of expressing their maximum potential. Among these routines, cross-fostering and the supply of "creep feeding" are among the most popular. The study starts with sows nursing 12.0 piglets after cross-fostering. Cross-fostering is carried out either matching the litters by weight (large piglets [> 1.5 kg] and small piglets [<1.25 kg]) or just matching the number of piglets, mixing big and small piglets. When matching by weight, the productive performance of small piglets is favoured, but the performance of large piglets is reduced. This fact is also reflected at 165 days of age. Regardless of the cross-fostering system used, however, light-weight born piglets take four days longer than the big ones to reach slaughter weight. In litters of large piglets, the animals that suckle the posterior teats try to compensate their nutritional deficit by increasing the consumption of creep feeding, although they do not achieve it completely. In fact, the losses (dead and removed) of large piglets in the farrowing rooms —which stretch until the end of fattening—, were higher in the group matched by weight compared to the group matched by number (10.4 vs. 3.9%).

In short, carrying out cross-fostering by weight reduces the variability of the animals given that it favours small piglets, but it seriously harms the productive potential of large piglets. This effect is partly maintained until the slaughterhouse and, in strictly productive terms, it would be preferable to disregard the piglets’ weights when carrying out cross-fostering, and consider only their number. However, given that the experiment has been carried out in an experimental farm of high health status, the results should not be extrapolated to commercial farms with a more compromised health status. In addition, the applied management cannot be completely extrapolated to what happens on a commercial farm. In fact, matching litters to 12, at a time when the average number of born alive per farrowing in Spain is close to 13 (BDporc 2016), seems limited. On the other hand, the fact that some farrowings have been induced and that piglet transfers have been made on day 0 may affect the results. It would be useful to know the percentage of piglets that have remained with their dam after day 0 in each of the groups, given that it may have influenced their capacity of colostrum intake. In any case, the researchers open a very interesting door when not only the number of piglets is important, but also their quality.

Abstract of the commented article

Huting, A. M. S., Almond, K., Wellock, I. and I. Kyriazakis. What is good for small piglets might not be good for big piglets: The consequences of cross-fostering and creep feed provision on performance to slaughter. 2017. J. Anim. Sci. 95:4926–4944. doi: 10.2527/jas2017.1889

Major improvements in sow prolificacy have resulted in larger litters but, at the same time, increased the proportion of piglets born light weight. Different management strategies aim to enhance the performance of, and limit light weight piglet contribution to, BW variation within a batch; however, consequences on heavy-weight littermates are often neglected.

This study investigated the effects of different litter compositions, created through cross-fostering, and the provision of creep feed on preweaning behaviour and short- and long-term performance of piglets born either light weight (≤1.25 kg) or heavy weight (1.50–2.00 kg). Piglets were cross-fostered at birth to create litters with only similar-sized piglets (light weight or heavy weight; UNIFORM litters) and litters with equal numbers of light-weight and heavyweight piglets (MIXED litters); half of the litters were offered creep feed and the remaining were not. Piglet behaviour during a suckling bout and at the creep feeder was assessed; a green dye was used to discern between consumers and non-consumers of creep feed.

The interaction between litter composition and birth weight (BiW) class influenced piglet BW at weaning (P < 0.001): piglets born light weight were lighter at weaning in MIXED litters than those in UNIFORM litters (6.93 vs. 7.37 kg); however, piglets born heavy weight performed considerably better in MIXED litters (8.93 vs. 7.96 kg). Total litter gain to weaning was not affected (P = 0.565) by litter composition. Teat position affected heavy-weight piglet performance by d 10 (P < 0.001), with heavy-weight piglets in UNIFORM litters being disadvantaged when suckling the middle and posterior teats. Creep feed provision did not affect BW at weaning (P > 0.05) for either BiW class. However, litter composition significantly affected daily creep feed consumption (P = 0.046) and fecal color (P = 0.022), with heavy-weight piglets in UNIFORM litters consuming the highest amount of creep feed and having the greenest feces. In addition, a lower number of heavy-weight piglets in UNIFORM litters were classified as non-consumers (P = 0.002). The weight advantage heavy-weight and light-weight piglets had at weaning when reared in MIXED and UNIFORM litters, respectively, was sustained throughout the productive period.

In conclusion, reducing BW variation within litter (UNIFORM litters) was beneficial for piglets born light weight but not for piglets born heavy weight; the latter were disadvantaged up to slaughter. Although heavy-weight piglets in UNIFORM litters consumed the greatest amount of creep feed, this was not able to overcome their growth disadvantage compared with heavy-weight piglets in MIXED litters.

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