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When it comes to rearing healthy pigs, sows possess the superpower – colostrum. That’s why Kara Stewart, assistant professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, is so invested in improving pig livability by starting with one of the most basic building blocks in a pig’s life.

Today’s sow is more productive than ever thanks to genetic selection for increased litter size, points out Jason Woodworth, research professor at Kansas State University.

“Unfortunately, increased litter size is also associated with lower birth weights and reduced piglet viability in addition to increased competition for milk and colostrum as there are more piglets than available functional teats to feed those pigs,” Woodworth says.


The resulting increased in prewean mortality is a big challenge for the industry as it represents lost opportunity for productivity and profitability.

“In theory, we’re losing pigs a little faster than we’re making them,” Stewart says. “We have a lot of work to do to help pigs get a better start.”

She’s a firm believer that colostrum is one of the best tools available to help swine producers make progress today.

Research shows one opportunity to improve pig livability is by helping lighter birthweight piglets drink more colostrum and ultimately reduce their mortality. Stewart says there are two ways to accomplish this – the sow needs to produce more colostrum or the piglet needs to drink more colostrum.

1.    Produce Better Colostrum

•    Parity
Parity two and parity three sows have higher colostrum production than parity one sows or older parity sows.

•    Genotype
Although researchers know genotype affects colostrum production and composition, it’s not clear how much genotype really impacts colostrum production in modern day pigs, she notes. The dairy industry has started using some functional candidate gene approaches and been very successful in selecting for colostrum production.

•    Teat location
Teats at the front are much better at producing colostrum and milk than the teats at the back.

•    Endocrine status
The endocrine status of the sow can greatly change her colostrum production. Colostrum is positively correlated with prolactin and negatively correlated with progesterone levels before farrowing, Stewart explains. Data shows farrowing induction can end colostrogenesis early and transition the sow to whole milk production earlier, but in the same study colostrum intake in piglets from induced and non-induced sows were not different, so the overall impacts of this change is not known.

•    Late Gestation Diet
Although the relationship between energy status and colostrum production is not very clear, altering dietary fat has been show to quickly alter colostrual fat. How this impacts the piglet still isn’t clear, but data shows that yeast and other fermented products being fed to the sows can increase the immunoglobulin concentrations in colostrum, she says, offering a little better immune protection for the piglets. Vitamins and minerals can also have an important impact on colostrum levels.

•    Stress
There is little data available on how stress in the sow or the hormone cortisol impacts colostrum production, she notes. Colostrum is produced at the end of gestation, before the piglets are even born and is not correlated with litter size, so stress late in gestation has the potential to reduce colostrogensis.

“For every additional piglet born in the litter, every piglet in the litter drinks 22 to 42 grams less of colostrum. So, we’re taking the same amount of colostrum and dividing it by more piglets as we increase our litter sizes. We haven’t really seen any data that shows that we’re increasing colostrum production as we’re increasing our litter sizes,” she says.

2.    Ingest More Colostrum


Stewart says there are three main factors that influence how much piglets drink: nursing behaviors, litter characteristics and fighting around the udder and birth order.

“I think those are some areas for research and investigation to happen,” Stewart says. “We’ve recently done a study looking at ways to try to stimulate piglets to go drink milk faster. In dairy cattle, if you give a calf a little dose of lactose, something sweet on their tongue, they start to have a suckling stimulus faster and will go to drink out of a bottle easier and faster.”

Her team tried this in piglets using a little 4 milliliter pump of sow colostrum or evaporated milk. They didn’t see any differences in the time to nursing and time to first suckle or their colostrum intake.

“We weren’t successful in stimulating nursing behaviors,” she says. “But there could be 100 other ideas to try to improve things.”

How Do We Move the Needle? 

The multifactorial nature of colostrum intake and piglet survival makes it hard to determine if different management practices have any positive influence, Woodworth says.

“The high variability from one sow to the next leads to a large number of sows needing to be evaluated in order to determine if an improvement can be realized,” he adds.

This is the hard part. Most of the data that’s published is in low numbers of animals, in low numbers of litters or results in negatively impacting some piglets while helping others, Stewart says.

“For example, split suckling for three days straight reduced overall pre-weaning weight gain in your heavy pigs but advantaged your light birthweight piglets,” she says. “How much are we willing to take away from gain and growth in our heavyweights to make sure we bring up our lightweights to even it out?”

Some of the research ideas are also unrealistic to perform in commercial settings or require 5,000 piglets per treatment to see statistics to power a study to see differences in mortality. The data that academia has access to is limited by what’s published. In all of the published data, Stewart says there is almost never an impact of any of these management practices on colostrum intake or survival.

That’s why she sees great value around discussions between producers about what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately, there’s no replacement for a high quality, observant team providing care in the barn.

“When I think about the farms that show a good improvement in mortality from putting in one of these management practices, perhaps they’re really just putting people in the barn that are paying attention,” Stewart says. “We’re putting people next to the sow, that maybe when they’re drying the piglets, they’re also grabbing the sow’s piglet next door that’s about to get crushed. They’re hearing the screaming piglets and getting them out in time to save them. They’re noticing a sow hasn’t farrowed or popped out a pig in a while, so they’re providing more assistance.”

Stewart and Woodworth are part of the Pig Livability group, a team from Iowa State University, Kansas State University and Purdue University that was formed because of the financial support of National Pork Board and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research to create a targeted emphasis on improving livability in all phases of swine production. For more information on the research trials, literature reviews and projects that have been conducted to generate information to help reduce mortality, visit  


Farm Journal Pork | JENNIFER SHIKE | October 20,

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