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Mother’s milk: Timing and colostrum important

By Staff | Dec 29, 2017

Ultrasounding sows can help producers see what their litter sizes might be. Here, two women look on while Drew Lugar, a Ph.D. student at Perdue University, demonstrates how the ultrasound machine works.



LE MARS – When it comes to feeding babies, mother’s colostrum and milk is just as important for baby animals as it is for baby humans.

That’s according to Dr. Kara Stewart, reproduction specialist with Purdue University, who spoke at the Advanced Swine Reproduction Seminar, held Dec. 13 in Le Mars.

Stewart said it takes more energy for a sow to lactate than it takes during gestation, but added producers are time and money ahead in ensuring a sow is lactating properly due to antibodies, immunities and other health benefits transferred to piglets.

She illustrated the importance of mother’s milk, saying breastfed human babies have more mature immune systems, fewer problems in the digestive system, fewer and less severe upper respiratory infections, are less constipated, and in general, operate with more efficiency overall than formula-fed babies. It’s the same for piglets, and that, with piglets, the time in which they receive the colostrum is a more concerning factor.

“Colostrum is the energy that piglets need within the first 24 hours to survive. It’s produced in late pregnancy, and the best colostrum is produced within the first 24 hours of farrowing,” she said. “It probably goes longer than that, but the good, good valuable colostrum is within that 24 hours.”

The mother’s milk composition changes quickly during and after farrowing, going from colostrum for the first day, transient milk during the two to three days following farrowing, and then mature milk comes in from days three to 21. Stewart looks at the percentage of protein in the milk to tell her story of the importance of getting pigs up and eating as quickly as possible.

She said the percentage of protein is very high – 18.9 percent – directly after farrowing. Within 12 hours after the first piglet is born, it is reduced to almost half – 10.2 percent – and between 15 and 24 hours, the percentage of protein goes down to 7.2 percent. When the transient milk begins, the percent of protein is around 6.9 percent and goes down to 6.8 percent by 72 to 120 hours after farrowing. The percentage of protein in mature milk – day 17 and after – comes in at 4.7 percent.

Since the rate decreases quickly after the first piglet is born, Stewart said the immunities passed from the mother to the piglets declines drastically as well.

“If it takes a sow 12 hours to farrow, the piglets that are born near the end are already extremely disadvantaged,” she said, adding they are missing out on the richest possible colostrum that is produced within those first hours.

She also said the amount of colostrum produced depends on the sow, not the size of the litter, because the sow begins producing that colostrum before she has the piglets.

“If she produces 1,000 grams of colostrum and if she has eight piglets, that’s 1,000 grams divided by eight,” she said, illustrating that with larger litter sizes, the amount allocated to each piglet goes down, putting them at a disadvantage.

Research is being done to help produce a richer colostrum, but so far no data exists to show ways to help sows produce more colostrum, according to Stewart, who added some swine lines produce more colostrum than others.

Piglets are born with little to no energy reserves, so getting them to eat quickly is key. Cold piglets have a more difficult time obtaining energy and carbohydrates needed to warm up quickly, so, according to Stewart, towel-drying piglets can mean the difference between piglets that do well and ones that lag behind and/or die.

Her research tested pigs that had been towel-dried after birth and some that had not been touched after birth. The body temperature of towel-dried piglets dropped to just under 100 degrees after coming out of a sow with a body temperature of 102 degrees. After 30 minutes, the temperature of those piglets returned to a normal temperature of 101 degrees. The body temperature of piglets that were not touched at all dropped to 98 degrees before returning to a body temperature of just under 101 degrees.

“Newborn piglets can get chilled quickly and they require more energy to warm their bodies back up,” said Stewart. “Remember that they are born with no energy reserves, and they have to put their energy into warming their body up four degrees. If you’ve ever had a fever of 101 degrees – only two or three degrees higher than normal – you know how miserable that feels. Four degrees doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a heck of a lot.”

She added drying piglets can help regulate their body temperatures to help them thrive. When small piglets born from a large litter sit under a heat lamp warming up, Stewart said they lose opportunity to get in on the richest colostrum that will help them the most.

One attendee said towel-drying piglets on their farm reduces the amount of attending time needed during and after farrowing because the sow doesn’t have to take care of everything, and as a result, she farrows faster and the piglets do better.

Stewart also said mothers don’t produce as many antibodies after 24 hours, and that piglets can’t absorb them as efficiently after that amount of time, and stressed getting them dried off and eating as soon as possible after birth. Maximum absorption is within the first six hours of life, and that absorption ability is gone between 24 and 36 hours after birth.

She went on to say cross-fostering allows smaller pigs who can’t as easily make their way to the teat to get in on some early colostrum by sending them ahead to a sow that is in the process of farrowing, when the best colostrum is produced. Bottle feeding is also an option, as she said piglets adapt easily to bottles.

Colostrum can also be frozen and used later in a bottle or tube.

Stewart said the long-term impacts of reduced colostrum intake in piglets shows up in decreased growth and survival, puberty at a later age, fewer piglets born alive in the first farrowing – a one- to four-pig difference – and decreased mammary gland function.

She said researchers are working on trying to improve the quality of colostrum.

Stewart added swine producers should pay attention to humidity. Pigs can’t take warmth and high humidity.

Additionally, it’s important to maintain functional teats so the piglets have as much opportunity to eat early on as possible. Stewart said that’s very important with today’s larger litter sizes, which can put piglets at a disadvantage if there is less opportunity to eat within the first 24 hours.

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