A successful weaning strategy begins with a healthy gut

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Author: Dr. Hazel Rooney, Alltech Gut Health Management

Introduction

Getting piglets off to a healthy start in life can have a significant impact on the health and performance of these animals throughout their lifetimes. In commercial swine production, the initial period after weaning is frequently characterised by poor growth and diarrhoea, as the piglet quickly adjusts to new environmental and nutritional conditions (e.g., new nursery accommodation, a sudden dietary change from sows’ milk to a solid diet of different composition and feed form, separation from the sow, new pen mates, etc). Following the stress experienced by piglets during this critical life stage is a damaging effect on both the gastrointestinal tract and immune system of piglets, and the reason why we observe this growth depression and increased susceptibility to diarrhoea after weaning. Traditionally, antibiotic growth promoters were used in piglet feeds to improve growth rates and to reduce the incidence of post-weaning diarrhoea. The use of zinc oxide (ZnO) at pharmacological levels has since been heavily relied upon to help maintain gut disorders and performance losses at weaning, after the global phase-out of antibiotics as growth enhancers. Although ZnO is recognised as an effective and low-cost nutritional tool for young pigs, the prolonged utilisation of ZnO at medicinal levels is linked to environmental pollution, increased antimicrobial resistance, and unfavourable changes in the piglets’ microbiota, posing a concern to both human and animal health. For these many reasons, the EU has taken the decision to prohibit the use of ZnO at levels above 150 ppm total dietary zinc in piglet feeds and it seems only a matter of time before similar restrictions are imposed in other swine producing countries such as Canada, the United States, and some Asian countries.

The key to helping piglets overcome weaning associated challenges in the absence of ZnO, is to establish a healthy gut as soon as possible after birth by focussing on the early-life nutrition of the piglet. So, nutritional efforts have now shifted to developing alternative feeding strategies that support gut health and development in young pigs, with the aim of maximising their lifetime growth performance and minimizing antibiotic use. Nutritional strategies that also promote favourable microbial populations within the gut will be very effective, given that the piglet gut microbiota is strongly linked to certain performance parameters.

A heathy gut is a healthy piglet

A piglet will struggle to get over a “bad start” and it’s therefore important for swine producers to ensure that piglets get off to a healthy start early in life. A healthy piglet will be capable of reaching its maximum growth potential and require less antibiotic treatment over its lifetime, therefore, reducing reliance on antimicrobial use. As a result of improved farm productivity and lower medication use, the producer’s profitability will also be positively impacted.

To have a healthy piglet, you must have a healthy gut! Gut health can be a complicated topic but simply put, metabolism, physiology, disease defence and growth are all fundamentally linked to the gut. For example:

  • 90% of diseases can be traced back to gut health and the microbiome
  • 70% of the immune system functions through the gut tissue
  • 30% of energy requirements come from the gut

Consequently, if the gut is not healthy and functioning optimally, the piglet’s health, welfare and performance will suffer. To establish a healthy gut in young pigs, producers need to focus on promoting favourable microbial communities within the gut, optimising gut structures to ensure effective nutrient digestion and absorption and supporting the immune system, as all of these components are intrinsically linked with gut health.

Maximising early-life nutrition with Blueprint

Over the last five years, Masterfeeds has conducted extensive research studying monogastric gut health and has designed several Swine Management Programs that focus on supporting animal performance from birth by promoting favourable bacteria communities, building natural defences and maximizing growth. The Masterfeeds Blueprint® Swine Starters Program (BP) is an exciting new program that is designed to modify the gut microbial population of piglets so that favourable and more diverse microbial populations are established after birth. Establishing and maintaining a beneficial and diverse gut microbiome in early life is vital in pigs. This is because the first microbes to colonise the gut are central to the establishment of permanent microbial communities, which affect the growth performance and health of pigs later in life. The BP program is also focused on delivering an optimized return over feed cost for swine producers, that is derived from high growth performance and proven consistent results.

The benefits of the BP program have been demonstrated both commercially and in research studies, showing that it can play a key role in ensuring a smooth weaning transition. Incorporated into the BP program are natural feed materials, that are proven to help maintain a healthy gut and support the normalising of gut microflora. This in turn may help to reduce the risks associated with development of antimicrobial resistance. Several studies have demonstrated a significant improvement in the intestinal structure of piglets post-weaning when such materials were supplemented in creep and starter feeds. As a result, nutrient absorption and utilization increased, and this was followed by an improvement in piglet weight gain and feed conversion efficiency. Results from a recent commercial study, that was conducted in the same nursery over a 6-year span, also demonstrated a significant reduction in piglet mortality and an improvement in FCR with the BP program. The nutrition program for young pigs should also be designed to provide ingredients that stimulate feed intake in the early post-weaning period. The BP program utilises highly digestible and palatable feedstuffs, that are designed to stimulate feed intake in young piglets. A good intake of an easily digestible diet will enable the piglet gut to develop correctly, resulting in increased feed intake and growth, improved feed efficiency and minimised digestive disorders after weaning and beyond.

Conclusion

Early-life nutrition is critical if we are to achieve optimal lifetime piglet performance and health and the gut cannot be overlooked! The Masterfeeds Blueprint Swine Starters program is designed to support gut health in young pigs and in turn, positively affect microbial diversity and gut structure. An animal exhibiting good gut health is one that efficiently utilises feed with minimal production disruption, resulting in optimal lifetime performance in a sustainable way. With feed ingredient prices reaching unprecedented highs over the last few months, incorporating cost-effective dietary alternatives will also be important in protecting the profitability of swine operations.

To find out more about how the Masterfeeds Blueprint Swine Starters program can benefit your swine herd, contact us today at topherd@masterfeeds.com.