How to use the science of lactation to optimise sow performance and piglet health

For pigs to perform well, it all begins at the suckling stage. Kayla Silva offers an overview of Chantal Farmer's research into how sows’ mammary development can be managed to get them the best start.

15 April 2019, at 2:49pm

Dr Chantal Farmer is a research scientist and associate professor at Laval University in Quebec City, Canada. Her research focuses on swine lactation biology, her areas of expertise being in improving sow lactation performance via management; assessing the nutritional requirements of gilts to optimise mammary-gland development; and the endocrine control of mammogenesis and colostrogenesis in swine.

Her current projects include investigating the effects of increasing prolactin concentrations in sows on their mammary development and lactation performance, and the effects of dietary supplementation with the phytoestrogen genistein on mammary development of gestating gilts.

Speaking at the London Swine Conference (26 to 27 March), Chantal captured the attention of over 400 attendees when demonstrating her expertise on maximising sow performance.

Maximising sow performance

It is well known that for piglets to grow and thrive, the sow needs to provide adequate milk and colostrum. This becomes especially difficult when a sow has a large number of piglets – up to 16 – while only a certain number of teats are functional or are producing enough milk and colostrum. Colostrum is essential since it is a source of vitamins and minerals, growth factors for development of the gastrointestinal tract and passive immunity, as well as being an energy source for the piglet.

However, the amount of colostrum produced is variable and can range from 1.9kg to 5.3kg over 24 hours, with the average being 3.6kg per 24 hours (Devillers et al., 2005). If a sow’s teat is not suckled during its first lactation, that teat will produce little to no milk in the next lactation. Hence, research was conducted at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Sherbrooke Research and Development Centre to determine how long a piglet needs to suckle a teat in order for the milk yield not to decrease in the next lactation. Farmer et al. (2017a) determined that a piglet will only need to suckle for two days for milk yield in the next lactation to be unaffected. Therefore, sows are the limiting factor for piglet growth and development and more research of mammary development and nutrition is imperative.

The mammary glands are directly related to a sow’s milk yield, and so the animal’s proper development before puberty (around 90 days old), during the last third of gestation and throughout lactation is crucial. The targeted area of mammary development is the parenchymal tissues which contain ducts and alveoli that synthesise milk. Therefore an increase in weight and cell numbers would correlate to an increase in milk yield.

The nutritional treatments that increased parenchymal weight or cell number by more than 30 percent were: ad libitum feeding (90 days to puberty), 10 percent flaxseed (day 63 of gestation to end of the lactation period) and having a leaner gilt (24mm of backfat; Famer et al., 2004, 2007, 2016a).

It is obvious that feeding in gestation to attain a normal body-condition score (too lean or too fat results in less-developed mammary glands) is a critically important factor for mammary development. The provision of hormones, specifically oxytocin, is widely used in farrowing to aid in birthing – however, this also delays the closing of the tight junctions between mammary cells, a process that allows antibodies to be passed into the colostrum, which is highly beneficial for the piglets.

Novel research at the Sherbrooke Research and Development Centre was conducted to determine the relationship between oxytocin and the colostral phase (Farmer et al., 2017b). A high dose of oxytocin (75 IU) in lactation increased the amount of proteins, energy and antibodies in the milk – though there was no difference in piglet weight gain between piglets given the hormone and the control group injected with saline (although there was a lower tendency of pre-weaning mortality).

In conclusion, nutritional strategies such as maintaining a normal body condition in late gestation, as well as maximising feed intake in lactation, can positively affect mammary development, specifically the weight and number of cells in the parenchymal tissue. Administering oxytocin is also a good strategy to increase the colostral phase for beneficial antibodies and proteins. The reproductive success of a sow allows her to provide optimal nutrition for her piglets, which then results in the success and robustness for future litters.

Farmer, C., M. Amezcua, R. Bruckmaier, O. Wellnitz and R. Friendship. (2017a) Does duration of teat use in first parity affect milk yield and mammary gene expression in second parity? J. Anim. Sci. 95:681-687.
Farmer, C., M. Lessard, C.H. Knight, H. Quesnel. (2017b) Oxytocin injections in the postpartal period affect mammary tight junctions in sows. J. Anim. Sci. 95:3532-3539.
Farmer, C., M.F. Palin, G.S. Gilani, H. Weiler, M. Vignola, R.K. Choudhary and A.V. Capuco. (2010) Dietary genistein stimulates mammary hyperplasia in gilts. Animal 4:454-465.
Farmer, C., H.V. Petit, H. Weiler and A.V. Capuco. (2007) Effects of dietary supplementation with flax during prepuberty on fatty acid profile, mammogenesis, and bone resorption in gilts. J. Anim. Sci. 85:1675-1686.
Farmer, C., D. Petitclerc, M.T. Sorensen, M. Vignola and J.Y. Dourmad. (2004) Impacts of dietary protein level and feed restriction during prepuberty on mammogenesis in gilts. J. Anim. Sci. 82:2343-2351.

Monogastric Nutritionist at Grand Valley Fortifiers

Kayla Silva completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph in Animal Science and Agriculture in 2016. She went on to complete her MSc in swine nutrition, again with the University of Guelph. Kayla now works as a monogastric nutritionist with Grand Valley Fortifiers.

More from this author