New technologies to boost feed intake and performance of young pigs

Reducing post-weaning stress at the farm can lead to higher product quality, less losses and ultimately higher productivity. This article introduces promising strategies to reduce stress and health challenges while improving performance of piglets. The author emphasizes the interest of new technologies, and the benefits for animals, farmers and customers.

Dr. Stephanie Ladirat
R&D Director
NUQO Feed Additives

Nowadays, piglets are weaned and exposed to solid feed at an early age with the objective of increasing the number of litters and the productivity. However, early weaning is often associated with high stress and it may result in lower growth, intestinal disorders and other stress demonstrations.

Two of the major challenges faced by piglets at weaning are the separation from the sow and the change from liquid to solid feeding at a time when the physiology and immune system of the young animal are still under development. Because of the new environment and the new type of feeding, piglets experience a lot of stress and their feed intake drops dramatically. It can then not only take days for the piglets to recover, but it might as well compromise future growth, result in heterogeneous litter with a higher proportion of so-called ‘weak piglets’, and impair piglet’s health. Reduced feed intake, indeed, does not only limit the amount of nutrients that are ingested by the young piglets, but it also depletes the gut of nutrients at a time when its development is key. When the gut development is impaired, the absorption of nutrients is sub-optimal and weaned piglets are more susceptible to diseases, such as diarrhoea.

To sum up in a nutshell, when piglets are stressed after weaning, their feed consumption is reduced, which leads to a slower gut maturation, and therefore not only results in a delayed and heterogeneous growth but also in health challenges and welfare problems which all impact farm productivity.

Stimulating solid feed intake in suckling piglets is important. This early feeding seems vital for a good post-weaning performance. It is therefore critical to find strategies that initiate early feed intake, stimulate the number of piglets consuming the feed, and enhance its consumption level to create more robust piglets. Fortunately, pigs are opportunistic and omnivorous feeders and known to consume an extensive variety of food. They also likely have a high number of taste buds among mammals, only second to big ruminants (and perhaps rabbits) (Chamorro et al., 1993). This creates opportunities to develop solutions that positively stimulate the appetite of piglets and help overcome the stress created around weaning.

New concepts have recently emerged to secure feed intake, reduce health challenges and improve the well-being of animals. These concepts are based on the combination of several molecules acting as sweet taste enhancers and few specific molecules naturally occurring in plant such as cinnamon or anis. Ingredients of such hybrid solutions have been carefully selected to trigger multiple modes of actions:
• The different ingredients act synergistically to create a unique and more intense taste through a multi-sensorial approach, which stimulates the curiosity of the piglets and raise interest for feed during the weaning period
• Sweet-taste enhancers act to enhance feed intake but also to support the development of the gut (Moran, 2010), which later improves the absorption of nutrients and the feed efficacy
• Finally, molecules naturally occurring in plant such as cinnamon or anis improve intestinal health and reduce inflammation (Conforti, 2010; Liu, 2012)

Such concepts are brought under a granulated form to ensure optimal dispersion in feed. They offer all-in-one and cost-effective solutions to overcome the challenges triggered by-post weaning stress.

Several field trials have been conducted to determine the effect of such concepts during the post-weaning period. Figure 1 shows a summary of results measured or observed during these experiments (NC: Negative Control, TC: Tested Concept).

Figure 1 : Summary of measurements and observations made during trials, from 1 to 21 days, as well from 21 to 42 days post-weaning (NC = Negative Control; TC = Tested Concept)

As usual, many measurements and observations were made, and few important parameters were consistently improved during experiments:
• Feed intake was systematically improved, even though the amplitude of the response varies with tests
• Interestingly, the homogeneity of group was improved, due to a reduction of weak / light piglets
• Finally, the feed efficacy was improved, also for animals fed with positive control till 6 weeks post weaning

From these observations, it seems that supplementing such hybrid concepts to weaned piglets give good hope to better overcome damages from stress at weaning. Besides, expending application of these concepts to the sow may also help to further mitigate stress at weaning.

During the last decade, few scientific publications have demonstrated how an early ingestion of feed could be stimulated by facilitating information transfer from sow to piglets, both through flavor learning in utero and social learning. Scientists have evaluated if young animals could learn about flavors from the maternal diet that appear in the amniotic fluid and mother’s milk, and thus reduce neophobia for similarly flavored food types at weaning (Oostindjer, 2010). Flavor learning could be beneficial for piglets, which after the rather abrupt weaning in pig husbandry frequently show a period of anorexia, reduced health, and stress-induced behaviors.

To validate their hypothesis, this research team set up the following experiment: Sows were offered anise-flavored (F) or control (C) food during late gestation. Piglets were cross-fostered after birth, with each sow fostering 5 piglets from an F sow and 5 from a C sow. During lactation, sows were offered F or C food, resulting in FF, CF, FC and CC piglets. Piglets were weaned on day 25 and were given both control and flavored food for two weeks using a double food choice approach.

Figure 2 summarizes some of the findings of the research work. This is of course not a field evaluation or ‘real-life’ but these results highlight some interesting opportunities: Scientists concluded that exposing piglets prenatally to anise flavor from the maternal diet resulted in a higher food intake in the first days after weaning, a higher growth postweaning and a lower prevalence of stress-related behaviors and diarrhea.

Figure 2 : Adapted from Oostindjer, 2010 (Prenatal flavor exposure affects growth, health and behavior of newly weaned piglets) (4 treatments : animals exposed to anise both pre- and postnatally (FF), prenatally (FC), postnatally (CF), or never (CC))

Taken together, these experiments support the fact that supplementation of such new technologies can mitigate post-weaning stress of the young piglets and, in the meantime, improve piglets’ performance. Such technology shows consistent efficacy to stimulate feed intake, reduce gut inflammation and support gut maturation to secure long-term performance. Obviously, these concepts are stable and easy to use in feed, and compliant with the local regulatory environment, for instance regarding ingredients authorized for piglets or sow. More importantly, the technical benefits are converted into return of investment and support the profitability of farms, indicating that these concepts represent sustainable alternatives for the future of pig farming.

About Dr. Stephanie Ladirat
Dr. Stephanie Ladirat is the technology director at NUQO. She obtained her MSc degree in Food Technology with a specialization in Food Ingredient and Functionality and her PhD degree in Food Chemistry from Wageningen University (The Netherlands). During her PhD thesis, she studied in depth the human gut microbiota composition and its modulation upon prebiotic supplementation and/or antibiotic treatments. From 2014 till 2020, she worked at Cargill Animal Nutrition, first as technology lead for gut health additives and, then, as swine portfolio manager. She provided global technical product support for a broad range of products (phytogenics, organic acids, short and medium chain fatty acids, probiotics) and trained technical and sales teams. She most recently managed R&D projects and developped innovative feed additive solutions to answer specific customer needs related to animal gut health and performance.