Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal. His columns will run every second week in the Manitoba Co-operator.
Larger litters have created a new challenge in recent years when it comes to maximizing piglet survival rates.
It is not unusual to see barns averaging over 14 piglets born alive, which means colostrum management and fostering have to be carried out very diligently to get good results. There is no doubt that split suckling is the cornerstone of colostrum management and it’s essential to do this well for litters of 12 or more, especially where piglets vary in size.
The bigger the litter size, the more likely it is some piglets will either not have suckled colostrum at all or not ingested a sufficient amount to adequately protect them against disease. However, while the antibody protection that colostrum provides is essential, its energy component is even more crucial for many piglets. This is particularly so for smaller ones under one kilogram and those born late during farrowing. Often, these late-born piglets suffered a shortage of oxygen during birth, and so are lethargic and slow to get to the udder.
For piglets in these two high-risk categories, it is worth considering stomach tubing as a means of providing a quick energy boost.
Administering colostrum into the piglet’s mouth using a 20-ml syringe body is an alternative to tubing, but requires the piglet to have a suckling reflex. It can also result in a proportion of the milk being spilled. Stomach tubing gets the colostrum directly into the stomach without spillage, and is quick and easy to perform with proper training. Most importantly, the results are almost unbelievably quick. Recently I taught this technique to stockpersons in the farrowing section of a local Hutterite Colony and they were amazed at how quickly lethargic piglets revived and headed for the udder.
The first stage in the process is to milk colostrum from a sow or several sows, ideally one that is farrowing and is parity three to five. Gilts should not be used as they tend to be more nervous and the antibody level in their milk is lower than for older sows. It’s also important not to take too much milk from an individual teat (10 to 15 ml) so that there is adequate colostrum left for the piglet suckling that teat. Also, the teats to the rear of the udder have less colostrum and so, ideally, the back four teats should not be milked. If the colostrum is not to be used immediately, it can be stored in small, screw-capped bottles (20 ml per dose) either in a fridge for up to 48 hours, or in a freezer for up to four weeks.
TIMING IS CRITICAL
Timing is critical because small and weak piglets will rapidly lose body heat, even if they are under a lamp or on a heat mat, unless they get colostrum very soon after birth. It is also important the temperature of the colostrum given is as close as possible to the piglet’s core body temperature of 39.2 C. Cold colostrum will cause the piglet to use up precious energy to bring it up to body temperature.
I prefer to use a disposable 20-ml syringe, although when I took the photos for this article, one wasn’t available, but we managed perfectly well. What is more important is the type of tube used, because regular plastic tube can damage the esophagus and stomach. I prefer to use a soft silicone plastic tube of the type used for fuel lines in model airplanes. It needs to be 25cm (10 inches) in length because it’s a surprisingly long way down to the piglet’s stomach!
Prior to stomach tubing an individual piglet, the stomach should be checked. If it is tight and distended, the piglet should not have colostrum administered by stomach tube. However, it isn’t common to find full stomachs in the categories of piglets most likely to require colostrum.
People are often intimidated by the process of inserting the tube into the stomach, but it’s simple with the correct technique and a little practice. The key thing is to place the end of the tube in the piglet’s throat and let its suckling reflex take the tube down the esophagus. Forcing the tube into the throat may result in it entering the windpipe, causing choking. The tube is pushed past the sphincter muscle at the top of the stomach and some resistance will be felt at this point. Once fully in, there will only be 75 to 100 mm of tube left outside the piglet’s mouth. The final stage is to pour the milk into the syringe (if it wasn’t put in to start with) and push the plunger down, which can be done quite quickly.
Providing colostrum by stomach tube or even by syringe does take time, therefore it’s essential not only to target the pigs most at risk, but also those that are most likely to survive after treatment. There is little point in attempting to keep pigs of less than about 750 grams alive in situations where litter size is large. Carried out on the right pigs at the right time, the result is nothing short of miraculous. So much so that my friends at the colony, having observed the complete transformation of a rather small piglet within about 20 minutes, promptly called him “Bernie” and have promised to let me know how he gets on!
BERNIE PEETPeet onPigs