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Genetically selecting sows to increase their reproductive output provides larger litter size and increased profitability for the farmers. However, it is well established that larger litters at birth can impair piglet viability, leading to increased pre-weaning mortality (Quiniou et al., 2002, Wolf et al., 2008). In addition, the need for a group housing system for gestating sows has led to many questions concerning management and feeding strategies to maintain optimal reproductive performance and production of viable piglets (Johnston & Li, 2013). Based on this, some strategies applicable to sows during late gestation, before parturition, and after birth have been implemented to increase piglet survival rate (Peltoniemi et al., 2021).
Dietary elevations of tryptophan (200-400% more than the requirement), a precursor of serotonin that reduces anxiety through its sedative effect, has been investigated as a supplement to potentially decrease aggression in sows at mixing (Li et al., 2011; Polleto et al., 2014). Richert et al. (2017) did not observe changes in sow behavior during farrowing after feeding high levels of tryptophan. However, they observed a reduction in stillbirths and increased feed intake after farrowing. Other strategies to reduce aggression during group housing are to mix first parity sows with gilts instead of other sows (Li et al., 2012), increase feed intake before and a couple of days after mixing (DeRouchey and Tokach, 2013), or install a non-competitive feeding system — although this may be more expensive and take up a lot of space (Johnston & Li, 2013). In terms of preventing farrowing problems, increasing the frequency of meals (more than thrice daily) can be advantageous to maintain glucose blood level stability throughout the day to provide adequate energy for the farrowing processes of sows with large litters (de Leeuw et al., 2004; Feyera et al., 2018).
Diets with increased levels of fiber are being provided for gestating sows to increase colostrum production (Theil et al., 2014), improve the farrowing process (Oliviero et al., 2009; Feyera et al., 2017), increase litter size (Reese et al., 2008), reduce stereotypic self-directed behaviors (Bergeron et al., 2000, de Leeuw et al., 2008), prolong satiety (de Leeuw et al, 2008), and decrease sow activity (Bolhuis et al., 2008, de Leeuw et al., 2008) and aggression among penmates (Bolhuis et al., 2010; Richert et al. 2017). Although all of these benefits contribute toward a reduction in piglet mortality, feeding more fiber can also increase the risk for mycotoxin contamination. Therefore, it is essential to assess the mycotoxin status of fibrous products used in pig diets (Brooks, 2008).
Other variables that can influence sow behavior and cannot be ignored are stress and lameness, which can compromise the resiliency and productivity of sows. Problems concerning lameness, claw lesions, and skin lesions are closely related to floor characteristics and group housing (Calderón Díaz et al., 2013). Some studies have reported that rubber flooring increases the welfare of group-housed sows (Elmore et al., 2010; Calderón Díaz et al., 2013; Calderón Díaz & Boyle, 2014). Bos et al. (2022) observed that the incidence of lameness peaks during the first half of the gestation period, being considerably less pronounced for sows housed in pens with rubber flooring instead of concrete. They also observed a decreased chance of sows becoming lame, a better than average score of locomotion, and less severe claw lesions when sows were housed on rubber flooring. On the other hand, zinc supplementation (0, 50, or 100 mg/kg of 50% organic and 50% inorganic zinc) did not have any effect on claw health or sow locomotion. These authors reported that, since the rate of hoof growth has been reported to be heritable (Quintanilla et al., 2006), sows should also be selected according to characteristics of claw health.
Due to recent changes, European Welfare legislation now requires that gestating sows need to be group housed after insemination until a few days before parturition and fed with a diet that satiates their hunger. As a result, nutritional and management strategies are indispensable to satisfy animals’ behavior and welfare needs to keep improving sow resiliency and productivity. Regarding this, high fiber diets, nutritional supplements like tryptophan, rubber flooring, and mixing gilts with first parity sows are some alternatives that can reduce sow stress, lameness, and, ultimately, piglet mortality.
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17 October 2022
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