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3 stages of optimizing piglet nutrition for gut health

November 3, 2020

As they start life, piglets are extremely vulnerable to disease challenges in the farm environment.

Newborn piglet care is a challenge on every farm. In the early stages of their lives, these young animals are more susceptible to health issues that would never affect older, more developed pigs. These challenges can come from all angles, as disease-causing organisms (such as bacteria, protozoa and viruses) are present in every part of the farm environment. From the sow to farm personnel, equipment, bedding and feed materials, there is no escape from these threats.

Even with the appropriate biosecurity measures in place, as piglets grow, they encounter other health-impacting sources. Changes in the diet, for example, can cause digestive disorders, manifested as diarrhea and failure to thrive and grow.

Due to the exposure to and consumption of external, potentially disease-bearing entities, such as water, feed and bedding, maintaining proper immunity is essential. Optimizing gut structures and microbial populations is vital for young animals, as it establishes the basis for their ongoing health and development. Piglets have very specific needs to establish good gut health and functions and to limit disease development. Providing the best gut health in young piglets can be achieved through various feeding interventions. Here are three crucial stages of developing good gut health in piglets to help put you on the right path.

1. Optimize colostrum from the sow

While in the womb, pigs benefit from the fully developed immune system of the sow. However, once born, piglets do not take any of these immunities along with them, essentially starting from scratch. To help encourage good gut health, the producer's task is to ensure that the newborn piglets have a good supply of immunoglobulins (Igs). These act as the first line of defense for young piglets, helping them to build their immune system to fight off the challenges they face in their environment. The best source of Igs is the colostrum supplied by the piglet’s mother, making it a crucial first step in optimizing gut health in piglets.

After the initial colostrum intake, piglet immunity status tends to diminish, making them more vulnerable to disease, which commonly manifests as:

  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Poor milk consumption

In addition, the switch from a milk-based diet to a grain-based diet at weaning means that their gut structures and microbial populations need to adapt quickly. This difficult period is referred to as the “weaning gap” in terms of health and immunity and occurs somewhere between 14–21 days of age.

To ensure that piglets continue to get the support they need and have a strong base to help them through the diet transition, the expression of Igs in the sow’s colostrum must be optimized. This can be achieved by including prebiotics and mannan-rich fractions (MRF) in sow gestation diets. Feeding trials (Spring et al., 2006) have shown that doing so increases the levels of all Igs in the colostrum and in the blood of the subsequent piglets that receive it.

2. Promote good gut health directly

As well as using them to optimize the mother’s colostrum, pre- and probiotics can be administered orally to piglets, promoting the development of the correct bacterial balances within the gut, establishing the best basis for future disease prevention, and maximizing health and growth.

Long-established research studying MRF has shown that it binds to the projections on the surface of disease-causing microbes, preventing them from attaching to the gut wall, which they need to do to reproduce, leading to harmless removal in feces. In addition, this binding activity interacts with the immune system in the gut, promoting faster responses to any disease threat. Multiple trials have shown that this activity of promoting better gut health increases feed intake, digestion and growth and improves feed conversion.

3. Use high-quality creep feeds

When piglets reach the age to begin weaning, creep feeding is introduced to prepare their digestive systems for the change in diet. This is another opportunity for the producer to bolster the young animal’s gut health by formulating creep feed with the best-quality raw materials, processed to maximize digestion and supplemented with proven feed ingredients. These can include:

  • Nucleotides to facilitate gut tissue development
  • Enzymes for maximum digestion
  • Chelated minerals to ensure the best uptake and establish tissue mineral reserves during times of stress

These types of diets will ease the difficult period during weaning and will not compromise the gut environment, keeping disease at bay. Nucleotides are the building blocks of DNA and are essential for young animal development. They have been shown to significantly increase the growth of gut tissues and are important for repairing and preventing damage to the gut wall. A more robust gut structure is necessary to withstand the change from milk to grain-based feeds at weaning, when the erosion of essential structures (villi) for nutrient absorption can occur.

Seed, Feed, Weed

Over the last 40 years, Alltech has conducted extensive research studying gut health and has designed several gut health management programs that focus on supporting animal performance from birth by promoting favorable bacteria communities, building natural defenses and maximizing growth. The Seed, Feed, Weed (SFW) concept is one such program that is designed to modify the gut microbial population to establish favorable and more diverse microbial populations after birth. This program utilizes the advice above to help establish and maintain a beneficial and diverse gut microbiome in piglets. The SWF program supports gut health in piglets by:

  • Seeding the gut with favorable organisms: It is vital to “seed” the intestine with the correct bacteria as soon as possible after birth. The first organisms to colonize the gut will determine the composition of the flora by creating the micro-environment necessary to establish a complex microbial community and optimal architectural development. With the right intestinal microflora now in place, piglets show improved early growth, feed conversion, uniformity and livability.  
  • Feeding the favorable organisms: In addition to “seeding” the gut with the correct pioneer species, it is crucial to enhance the capacity of favorable organisms to colonize and rapidly dominate the microbial community in the small intestine. Once a beneficial microbial community and intestinal ecology is established, the villi will flourish. This step is critical for piglet health and feed efficiency because the healthier a piglet’s villi, the more efficiently nutrients will be absorbed.
  • Weeding out the unfavorable microorganisms: The gut can also contain harmful pathogenic microbes (e.g., enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli), which can damage the intestinal villi. It is, therefore, important to “weed them out” before they can attach to the gut lining and replicate enough to cause disease. By blocking the attachment mechanisms of unfavorable organisms with a type-1 fimbria blocker, their capacity to compete with the favorable organisms (e.g., Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus) in the gut is reduced. Minimizing the gut’s exposure to these harmful microbes will help to improve the animal’s natural defenses and shorten its recovery time from disease.

"Seed Feed Weed"

Figure 1. The Seed, Feed, Weed concept is designed to modify the microbial population in the gut to establish favorable and more diverse microbial communities after birth.

Providing solutions for each step of the Seed, Feed, Weed process, Alltech offers a range of products for both the sow and their young that help to optimize piglet nutrition and support gut health and development. These include:

As they start life, baby pigs are extremely vulnerable. Any change in their environment potentially exposes them to a whole new group of pathogens, which can limit their performance. Furthermore, as they mature over the weaning period, they are typically moved into new environments and exposed to other equipment, animals and people. Ensuring that the best gut health is established as early as possible is key to limiting disease, increasing health and welfare and maximizing growth. This is essential for the young piglet and helps to ensure optimal lifetime performance and profitability for producers in a sustainable manner. The use of gut health management programs will also play a pivotal role in helping producers work toward antibiotic- and ZnO-free production.


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