The nutritional value of iron has been known for over 2000 years, and it's role is today well recognised and appreciated. In brief, iron is an integral part of hemoglobin and myoglobin, both of which play a central role in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the blood and muscles. Iron also plays an important role in the function of many enzymes, including those in the Krebs Cycle of the energy metabolism. As such, the role of iron in the organism can only be described as very important, if not indispensable.
Nevertheless, sow's milk is poor in iron (1 mg/liter) and piglets are born with low levels of iron reserves (less than 50 mg). With a daily requirement of 10 mg iron, piglets are bound to develop iron deficiency (anaemia) within the first week of life if their only source of iron is sow's milk. This apparent 'anomaly' in evolution does not take into account the fact that piglets born in natural environments (for example, wild boar piglets or piglets born in outdoors systems) do not develop anaemia. As it happens, constant contact with soil, which is very rich in iron, ensures enough iron is ingested (as dirt via natural rooting or by suckling through a soiled udder) to cover the needs of newborn pigs.
Still, we are left with piglets raised indoors that are sure to develop anaemia as they lack access to soil, making anaemia a systemic problem of modern pig breeding and not a disease as it was often thought of as in the past.
The ways to prevent piglet anaemia are many and varied. I offer here those known to me,
but I invite our readers to contribute with their experiences!
Sterilised soil in creep feeders
This is an obvious treatment but it has several problems, including variable intake of soil,
high labour requirement, and the risk of transferring parasites and diseases in less than well sterilised soil batches.
Another 'ancient' method, it involves covering the sow's udder with a paste of any ferrous salt. The paste can be readily mixed daily at the farm and the mix is then rubbed on the sow's udder using a large brush or cloth swab. Again, this is a very labour intensive procedure requiring attention to ensure sufficient coverage of the udder on a daily basis.
High levels of iron in creep feed
This is not recommended because piglets do not consume enough creep feed early
enough to prevent anaemia.
This is similar to providing soil, only in that sterilised turf or preserved silage, with or
without supplemental iron is offered the same way as with soil. This is more successful but equally laborious, and furthermore it requires diligence in application and hygiene.
An iron rich paste is placed into the mouth of newborn piglets (usually within two days from birth). This paste is also enriched with glucose, lipids, immunoglobulins, vitamins, and other minerals. Here attention should be placed on making sure the iron is of a readily digested source and that the paste is actually being swallowed by piglets.
Oral Tablets. A small tablet is placed at the root of the tongue causing a natural
swallowing reflex. Again, the iron must be provided in a highly digestible format. A trained person is required to perform this task to avoid rejection of the tablet.
Intramuscular injection. Piglets are injected in the muscle of the neck or ham with up to 200 mg iron, as iron dextran. When weaning age is around 21 days of age this is enough to cover their needs until they start consuming enough dry feed post-weaning. If weaning age is later than 21 days of age, then a supplementary dose is probably required. The only problem with this method is that there is always the risk of broken needles left inside the muscle, which result in condemning a large part of the carcass (usually a part as valuable as the ham) or even the whole carcass if efforts to retrieve the broken part are unsuccessful.
So, what are your experiences?