Ask a pork producer to describe an ideal farrowing event, and it will include a fast, smooth delivery where pigs start nursing quickly after birth. The reality sometimes fails to match the ideal, though.
“We were facing issues with prolapses and sow mortality,” says Heath Kasperbauer, owner of Kasperbauer Swine Management, which manages 12,000 sows on three farms in west-central Iowa. “We were looking for answers.”
Kasperbauer utilizes Paul Armbrecht, a veterinarian from Rockwell City, Iowa, who notes that sow mortality has been on the rise in the swine industry. Prolapses and stillborns are also a challenge in many herds. “The pigs of today aren’t always achieving their potential,” Armbrecht says. “I let the pigs be my guide as I tried to understand what might be going on.”
For Armbrecht, this quest involves more than 45 years of observing swine behavior and health, along with blood testing to pinpoint answers. When disease isn’t part of the equation, nutrition becomes a key factor. “Producers would say, ‘My feed supplier says my ration has everything it needs,’” Armbrecht says. “But when there is no disease present, it’s clear that something more is needed in the diet to maximize the swine genetics of the herd. We’re starving pigs of some key nutrients.”
This supports the research of Rob Stuart, Ph.D., an animal nutritionist with decades of vitamin experience who founded Stuart Products Inc.in 1988. “Of the six major nutrients, including proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water, what’s the most costly? The one that’s most limiting,” Stuart says. “In many cases, that’s vitamin E.”
What has changed?
Since 1978, vitamin E has been recognized as an essential nutrient in hog production. It plays a key role in muscle function, immune system and reproductive health, influencing everything from birthing time to the number of stillborns. Armbrecht agrees. “Go back 30 years, and sows typically had eight to nine live pigs born in a litter. Today, the average number of pigs born live is closer to 15. Also, sows used to raise 20 pigs per year, but now it’s closer to 28 or 30 pigs per sow per year” says Armbrecht. Confinement feeding and early weaning are two additional changes.
Despite these changes, resources for vitamin recommendations in swine diets, including the National Research Council, haven’t always kept pace. While the NRC increased its vitamin E recommendations for swine rations in 1988, the vitamin E requirements, especially for the gestating sow hasn’t changed since then. “Gestating sows consume approximately one-third less feed than lactating sows, yet the NRC recommendations per ton of feed are the same for both gestation and lactation,” Stuart says. “This results in a potential vitamin E deficiency in the gestating gilt or sow.”
Vitamin E deficiencies compromise swine health and reproduction.
While proper vitamin levels are critical to swine health, deficiencies are common. Levels in serum offer an excellent method to assess vitamin E deficiencies. “We see vitamin E deficiencies in swine frequently,” says Steve Ensley, DVM, Ph.D., a clinical toxicologist at Kansas State University.
These deficiencies can lead to serious consequences for swine health, especially for newly-weaned pigs. Mulberry heart disease is one of the most common syndromes associated with vitamin E deficiency, according to Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. MHD is manifested by sudden death in pigs one to four weeks post-weaning that were thought to be in excellent health. “I saw MHD fairly frequently when I worked at ISU,” says Ensley, who previously worked at ISU for 16 years in the College of Veterinary Medicine prior to joining Kansas State. Supplementation with the right form of vitamin E will dramatically reduce deaths from MHD, according to ISU.
Vitamin E also functions as an antioxidant, which is nature’s way of protecting cells from damaging free radicals triggering oxidative stress, which hinders pig performance and impairs animals’ health and growth. “Pigs under oxidative stress are more likely to have reduced performance” Stuart says.
During delivery, inadequate levels of vitamin E can hinder the uterus’s ability to push out the pigs. Proper vitamin E supplementation prior to farrowing, however, improves muscle tone, so sows can deliver pigs faster and easier. “Good muscle tone means a farrowing time can be reduced up to 50 minutes, and my goal is to keep sows alive and have fewer stillborns,” Armbrecht says.
How to know if pigs are short on vitamin E
There are some key tools to assess optimum vitamin E levels in swine. Evaluating a swine herds’ vitamin status starts by sending serum samples to a veterinary diagnostic laboratory for analysis. If serum/tissue values reveal a vitamin E deficiency, adding more vitamin E to the gestating ration, and supplementing the drinking water of newly-weaned pigs may be of benefit.
Not all vitamin E sources are equally absorbed by the newly-weaned pig
Due to superior stability, alpha-tocopheryl acetate is added to the feed. After consumption, the acetate molecule is removed creating the active-form of vitamin E- alpha-tocopherol that is absorbed. However, due to lack of intestinal enzymes in the newly-weaned pig, there is a lack of utilization of the stabilized acetate-form of vitamin E. “No matter how much vitamin E-acetate is added to nursery diets, the newly-weaned pigs can’t utilize it because it’s in the wrong form — the acetate ester” says Stuart (See Figure).
That’s why Stuart developed EMCELLE liquid vitamin E supplements for adding to drinking water of pigs.
What about the needs of the sow both pre-partum and pre-breeding?
“We recommend injecting the sow one week pre-partum with VITAL E-Repro and again one week pre-breeding,” says Stuart, who has been furnishing vitamin E products since 1988.
A 2015 Michigan State University study shows that total farrowing time per pig dropped nearly 25% per pig for sows injected with VITAL E-Repro. A 2015 North Carolina State University field study also shows that total farrowing time dropped 25% (139 minutes versus 185 minutes) for sows injected with VITAL E-Repro. In addition, the number of stillborn pigs in treated Parity 6 sows was 1.31, compared to 1.71 stillborns for the non-supplemented Parity 6 sows.
A 2017 NCSU study also tracked the percent of sows requiring birthing assistance. Supplemented sows were injected with 5 mL of VITAL E-Repro seven days pre-partum. The field study revealed that 9.5% of treated sows required assistance compared to 19% of sows in the control group, a 50% reduction (See Figure).
VITAL E pays
Kasperbauer boosts gilts upon arrival at his farms with VITAL E- REPRO to get them off to a good start. Sows are injected two weeks before farrowing. “It’s priced right and costs me about 40 cents per sow,” says Kasperbauer, adding that pigs receive an injection of VITAL E-Newborn when they receive their iron shot. VITAL E brand injectable vitamin supplements are paying off. Kasperbauer has lowered his farms’ sow mortality rate from 18% to 12%. “VITAL E-REPRO is a safe, high-quality product that is making a big difference,” he says.
Armbrecht notes that one farm he serves was struggling with three to four dead sows a week. After implementing a new system where sows are injected with VITAL E-REPRO pre-farrowing, the number of dead sows dropped to zero. “I expect at least a three-to-one return on investment before I’ll recommend a product to my clients,” Armbrecht says. “VITAL E products deliver this and more.”
Kentucky research revealed that vitamin E content in sow ovaries increased by 75% when vitamin E was administered in the proper form. This speaks to the priority of this nutrient demonstrating the importance of vitamin E for optimum reproductive success.
Boost optimal swine productivity
While more research is needed on vitamin requirements for all segments of the swine industry, especially the gestating sow/gilt, the role of vitamin E is clear. There are many factors that work together to promote swine health, including vitamin E. If you don’t have enough vitamin E, it becomes the weak link in the chain when it comes to optimal swine productivity. Vitamin E contributes in so many ways to swine which contributes to better swine performance, Stuart concludes. “Anyone who is looking to improve their swine herd, needs to include vitamin E given in the right form at the proper time.”
Recommended VITAL E and EMCELLE Programs for Swine
VITAL E-Newborn (0.5 mL). This injectable, which can be administered at processing along with an iron shot, costs less than 10 cents per pig.
EMCELLE E-D3 Liquid is administered through the drinking water for two to three weeks post-weaning and costs 25 to 35 cents per pig during the two- to three-week program.
EMCELLE E-D3 Liquid, or EMCELLE D3 Liquid, pulsed monthly, or as needed.
Gilts and sows
VITAL E-REPRO (5 mL), used at one to two weeks pre-farrowing and at weaning time. Each injection costs about $1 per sow.