Tackling piglet mortality

Newcastle University – Institute For Agri-food Research And Innovation

Protecting animal and crop production to feed a growing population is one of the major challenges facing society today, and a continued population increase means that more food will need to be produced in the next 35 years than has been in the last 10,000. An increasing awareness of environmental sustainability and repeated failures of plant and animal protection technologies, such as antimicrobial resistance, means that farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain production levels. PROHEALTH (PROduction HEALTH) is a €12 million, EU-supported research project, coordinated by Newcastle University, which aims to enhance the fundamental understanding of the interactions between animals, the environment, and diseases. This knowledge will be used to develop innovative control strategies for large-scale intensive pig and poultry production, and quantify their health, welfare and economic benefit. The project seeks to address a variety of issues, including the biological basis of production diseases at molecular, cellular and whole organism level, the influence of genotype and its modification by early life experiences on the development and persistence of production diseases. One of the foci of the project is the reduction of piglet mortality, a major concern for pig producers. Studies show that on European farms, roughly one piglet in six dies before weaning, with the majority of deaths occurring in the first three days after birth. There are many possible causes of piglet death – from oxygen starvation in body tissues to hypothermia – but one causal factor which has until recently remained underexplored is the impact of sow welfare, housing, and diet during pregnancy on piglet survivability. An initial study by PROHEALTH has suggested a link between “enriched” housing systems and sow health during pregnancy, and subsequent piglet survival. Maternal characteristics and piglet survival in conventional and enriched group housing systems in pregnancy were compared – the conventional system had slatted floors and the minimum legally required space allowance per sow, while the enriched provided straw bedding and more individual space. Researchers studied maternal characteristics in the sow both during and after pregnancy, including sow blood and colostrum composition, along with piglet characteristics such as body tissue development and vitality at birth. Researchers were particularly interested in colostrum as it contains vital maternal antibodies for piglet immunity. Results demonstrated that the housing system affected the sow’s milk composition, but had no apparent effect on colostrum. Sows also displayed some immune response differences in the period before giving birth, which suggests that the differences in the cellular composition of milk was linked to variation in maternal immune activation as a result of the difference between housing systems. This observation supports previous findings, and provides a physiological basis for improvement in sow and piglet health following the provision of enriched housing. By contributing to understanding the immune factors that contribute to piglet survival, PROHEALTH will continue to investigate and develop adoptable, cost-effective environmentally sustainable methods to improving sow health and piglet survival in intensive pig production systems. Photo courtesy of Elodie Merlot from INRA (French National Institute for Agricultural Research)

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