Improving piglet survival continues to be top of mind for pork producers, as it enhances animal well-being and producer profit. While the swine industry has seen improvements in litter size, there has also been an erosion in piglet quality — leading to increased preweaning mortality.
Going forward, piglet quality will likely get better as geneticists are focusing on improving piglet birth weight. However, geneticists may need to increase attention toward other component traits of litter weaning weight, such as the number of functional teats, the litter size at weaning and piglet weaning weights. Hence, while the industry waits for the creation of the perfect sow, strategies to enhance "nutrient access" to the piglet are needed.
Feeding fat to sows to improve piglet survival is a concept that has been well-established. Reviewing the literature, Pettigrew (1981) showed feeding greater than 2.2 pounds of fat during late gestation increases colostral fat and enhances piglet survival in herds where piglet survival is less than 80%.
Given piglet survival rates in today's commercial production systems, perhaps feeding sows added fat in late gestation deserves renewed attention.
Besides the quantity of fat fed, the fat source may also impact piglet survival. In a small experiment (51 sows), Jean and Chiang (1999) showed feeding coconut oil enhanced piglet energy stores and piglet survival relative to feeding soybean oil.
This was why researchers at North Carolina State University decided to further investigate feeding coconut oil in late gestation to improve reproduction.
Coconut oil levels
Sows (n=302) within a North Carolina commercial production system were assigned to one of three feeding levels of coconut oil from Day 109 of gestation until farrowing. Coconut oil feeding levels were 0, 0.24 and 0.48 pound per day. At birth, piglets received an ear notch corresponding to sow coconut oil feeding level.
Piglets were cross-fostered within treatment. The total number born, number born alive and number weaned were recorded by the student assigned to the project.
The results are shown in the graph. As coconut oil feeding level increased, piglet survival (number weaned ÷ total number born) increased (P=0.05). Sows fed 0.48 pound of coconut oil per day had greater (P=0.05) piglet survival than control-fed sows (80.7 vs. 77.8%).
Larger study needed
Assuming 14 total born, $25 weaned pig value and $1 per pound for coconut oil, the estimated return on investment for the high level of coconut oil is approximately 3.5:1 relative to the control.
While these results are promising, the researchers say they believe a larger study is needed to validate the results before farms implement feeding coconut oil, or another fat source, in late gestation to enhance piglet survival.
The researchers would like to thank the North Carolina production system for their continued help and support, and the U.S. Pork Center of Excellence for funding this project through the Swine Research & Education Experience program.
Researchers: Mark Knauer and Patrick Yeich, North Carolina State University. For more information, contact Knauer.
Jean, K-B, and Chiang, S-H. 1999. Increased survival of neonatal pigs by supplementing medium-chain triglycerides in late-gestating sow diets. Anim. Feed Sci. Tech. 76: 241-250.