Genome Alberta

Livestock Blog

A companion site to Genome Alberta's
Bovine Genome Sequencing Project
March 8, 2013 12:30 PM

Colostrum consumption linked to reproductive development in piglets

United States researchers are working to link data on piglet colostrum consumption to regions on the pig genome responsible for nursing and colostrum production.

As any livestock producer knows, colostrum consumption is vital to a newborn animal’s survival. The National Hog Farmer article states that up to 20 per cent of piglets die before weaning. Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food puts that number at 12 to 15 per cent. Of those deaths, 85 per cent happen in the first three days of the piglets’ lives. Though most of those deaths can be attributed to trauma, the ministry suggests maximizing colostrum intake, including for weak piglets.

Researchers at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center developed a test, called an immunocrit assay, to measure the immunoglobulin levels in the piglets’ blood. Colostrum has very high immunoglobulin levels, and a piglet’s ability to absorb immunoglobulins only lasts for 24 hours, so researchers could check for these proteins shortly after birth. Piglets are born without immunoglobulins, so any immunoglobulins in their blood samples come from colostrum.

Scientists have studied thousands of piglets, and the next step is to link the collected data to areas of the pig genome related to nursing failure. They are also trying to pinpoint places on the sow’s genome associated with colostrum production. Scientists hope to eventually use the research results to select more sows with better colostrum production, and more piglets that can nurse.

Colostrum intake research revealing

Usually colostrum intake isn’t an issue. Piglets are motivated by hunger to nurse, and sows start producing colostrum before the piglets are born. But sometimes sows don’t produce colostrum, and some piglets don’t nurse. And though the problems are sometimes obvious, the research revealed a few subtleties.

Eyeballing whether or not a piglet is getting colostrum can be misleading. Though the smaller piglets can be at higher risk, researchers found that they often do get enough colostrum. Checking whether piglets have full bellies can cause farmers to miss the piglet that has a belly full of amniotic fluid instead of colostrum.

Researchers at Auburn University and Rutgers University are also looking at how colostrum affects future fertility. They’ve found that colostrum is needed for the reproductive tracts in male and female piglets to develop normally.

For example, relaxin, a hormone found in colostrum, helps the female reproductive tract develop. But treating a gilt with relaxin alone doesn’t fully support normal reproductive tract development, so there are other, unknown, elements in colostrum.

Scientists tracked piglets with low initial immunoglobulin levels into adulthood. Piglets with low levels, which survived, had smaller litters than siblings with higher immunoglobulin levels. So although colostrum intake affects a piglet’s chance of survival and future fertility, perhaps the industry could use immunocrits to screen out such females early on.

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