The ongoing trend of providing supplemental diets to preweaning piglets, reflects the challenges pig producers face as highly prolific sows farrow larger litters. Supplementation can function as a strategy to bridge the gap between a sow’s limited milk production capacity and the amount of energy and protein demanded by larger litters. This feeding practice can ensure piglets receive the nutrients required for growth and development, while also helping prepare the piglets’ gastrointestinal tracts for the stresses that accompany weaning.
However, supplementation is not a straight-forward strategy. The practice gives rise to questions regarding the ingredients that should be integrated into the piglet diet to support gut development. Helping piglets develop a healthy gastrointestinal tract is the basis for producing healthy and productive pigs. Unlike mature pigs with relatively large intestines that act as a barrier to defend against harmful pathogens, neonatal piglets’ intestines are smaller and highly vulnerable to pathogens that trigger digestive disturbances such as diarrhoea. As legislative initiatives restrict producers’ use of traditional interventions, including antibiotic growth promoters and zinc oxide, to manage gut health disturbances, research is focusing on dietary interventions that can accelerate the piglets’ gut maturity.
The pre-weaning piglet’s gut is not yet fully developed to perform three essential functions: digest feed, absorb nutrients and protect against harmful pathogens and toxins in the environment. The ability to defend against pathogens and toxins is critical as neonatal piglets are exposed to pathogens originating from other pigs, including the sow, and the environment that can trigger diarrhoea and other health issues. With this developmental challenge in mind, it becomes desirable to accelerate gastrointestinal tract (GIT) maturation before weaning. While some of a piglet’s maturation process is genetic, the piglet’s GIT has plasticity and can potentially be accelerated through nutritional interventions, as demonstrated in various studies finding creep feeding aided precocious gastrointestinal function.
In a piglet’s earliest days of life, colostrum and sow milk support the initial developmental changes in the GIT that prepare the pig for weaning. However, towards weaning, typically between 21-28 days of age, the piglet’s GIT should be prepared for the abrupt stressors related to weaning such as ingesting more “challenging” nutrients in commercial pig diets. An ongoing area of research is the microbiota as we continue to learn more about how the microbiota population of a piglet’s GIT interacts with ingredients in feed, cells of the gut and the animal’s immune system. The influence of the microbiota on GIT development suggests that dietary fibres should be considered in the supplementation strategy as fibres have been shown to directly affect the composition of microorganisms in the GIT.
Researchers conducted a study to evaluate how adding a mixture of selected fibres present in wheat bran would stimulate gut development. Fibres from cellulose were added to the milk supplement and dry creep feed at the expense of corn starch which formed the high fibre group (HF) of piglets. Another group of piglets received a conventional diet which was relatively low in fibre (control diet). All sows were managed using the same protocols and piglets were weaned at 3.5 weeks of age.
Overall, piglets fed the high fibre diets showed an improvement in the intake of dry matter from supplemental feed (817g compared to 450g), although weaning weights were not significantly affected. Of special interest was the striking difference in the size of the small and large intestines between piglets of the two groups. For piglets in the HF group, the small intestine tended to be 18% longer, and the large intestine was 17% longer and 25% heavier than control pigs (Table 1). As noted earlier, the intestines of mature pigs have a large surface area, which supports an extensive immune system that can distinguish between harmful and nutritive entities. Although the data on gut barrier function in the fibre study were not conclusive, the data are in line with a more mature gut system at weaning, which could conceivably result in fewer digestive disturbances during the immediate post-weaning phase.
Scientific data gathered by Trouw Nutrition suggests that incorporating fibres into pre-weaning nutrition can aid piglets’ gut development and better prepare animals for predominantly vegetable-based diets post-weaning. These findings also align with research data relevant to calf nutrition. Tailoring supplemental feeding strategies with carefully selected ingredients, including dietary fibres, can help prepare preweaning piglets’ guts for the weaning challenge.
Table 1 – Effect of a combination of selected fermentable and non-fermentable wheat fibres on gastro-intestinal metrics of piglets one day prior to weaning and fed a milk supplement (day 2-14) and dry creep feed (day 14-weaning)
|Low Fibre||High Fibre|
|Small intestine (cm)||675 A||797 B|
|Small intestine (g)¹||204||226|
|Small intestine permeability (logo ug/m)²||1.15||0.96|
|Large intestine (cm)||121 a||141 b|
|Large intestine (g) ¹||60 a||76 b|
a, b and A, B: Different letters indicate group differences (p<0.05 and p<0.10, respectively) 1 Indicates empty weights 2 A lower value indicates a higher barrier function Source: Trouw Nutrition R&D, The Netherlands
Author details - Tetske Hulshof Researcher at Trouw Nutrition