While most pig breeders administer iron to their piglets during the first week of being born, the role of iron as a health and growth benefactor in pig rearing has escaped wider interest. This is strange, says Professor Jens Peter Nielsen, University of Copenhagen. There are many upsides to an increased focus on iron.
Most indoor pig breeders administer iron to their piglets in some form – as a food additive or in parenteral form. Most pig breeders do it in the knowledge that iron has its own and important place in the suckling period – as a trusted and known supplementary prerequisite for prevention of anaemia and for strengthening the piglet’s growth potential in general and its immune system in particular.
What many breeders do not know, however, is that iron may be more than just that: iron supplementation in piglets may very well be an important growth and health factor in pigs after weaning. This may be even more important in light of the increasing litter sizes, growth rates, and production yields.Administered efficiently and discretely in line with current knowledge, iron is a major contributor to the piglet’s health and growth – and thus also to the overall potential porcine production profits. That, at least, is what professor Dr Jens Peter Nielsen of the Department of Large Animal Sciences in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Copenhagen argues may come from looking more consistently into the role of iron in porcine physiology.
“There are obviously a large number of factors influencing health and growth of the piglet. As litter size is increasing it becomes more challenging to keep the piglets healthy and viable until weaning. In this game, iron is an important player. It has been somewhat overlooked that iron supplementation and prevention of anaemia may also influence the health and performance after weaning. The relation between iron supplementation, haemoglobin levels, health and productivity after weaning needs to be discussed in more detail in both professional and academic settings,” says Nielsen.
He suggests that the apparent and widespread lack of focus on iron may in part be due to the fact that iron supplementation in general is widely accepted, as are the present administration regimes. Nielsen says, “I truly believe, however, that there is a significant upside in a more inquisitive stance and that the iron supplementation strategy indeed can be viewed as a pivotal and key component in the breeder’s ability to produce at an optimal level.”
He points to research areas and potential outcomes that from his perspective could and would remedy the situation and create a better place for anaemia and iron supplementation in porcine health management – and thereby giving iron a higher visibility.
An important and potentially defining area, Nielsen says, would be the role of the haemoglobin levels in farrowing sows. He says, “We know that a piglet born with low levels of haemoglobin is less likely to survive. It follows that it is important that the piglet is born with adequate or even high levels of haemoglobin and thus has had an adequate supply of iron during its time in the womb. And it is the question of how these levels are established that deserves closer scrutiny.”
He points out that an investigation may show that despite the pregnant body’s built-in accommodation of the unborn – that the carrier sacrifices its own needs for the needs of the foetus – low levels of haemoglobin in the sow may be of significance for the building of adequate haemoglobin levels in the unborn piglets. And hence that preservation of the sow’s haemoglobin levels, especially during the last part of the pregnancy is therefore of significance.
Another area worthy of research, Nielsen states, is the relation between the sow’s level of haemoglobin and the sow’s ability to supply its piglets with oxygen during farrowing.
He remarked, “With litter sizes going up to 18, delivery time has risen to an average four hours. An inadequate level of haemoglobin in the sow increases the risk of hypoxia with the piglets and also, I propose, the risk of anaemia and subsequent risk of mortality and under average growth performance. Not really a head start in life, so to speak.”
A third area of both academic and professional interest could be a more individually oriented use of iron. Today’s more-or-less industry standard is the parenteral 200 mg iron at day 3 or 4 after birth, but, Nielsen explains, there is a risk of anaemia as the piglet grows and depletes its iron stores. “The piglet cannot replenish its iron stores from the sow’s milk alone. And even when born with high levels of iron, the piglets risk iron depletion and anaemia before weaning. To avoid this, it may be reasonable to administer additional iron again before weaning. Or maybe even increase the initial dose, if possible,” suggests Nielsen.
One interesting aspect of administering extra iron to piglets is that there is a risk of stocking iron in the wrong piglets. Nielsen says, “We have a natural tendency to pick the scrawniest piglets when we administer extra iron. But we should actually take the largest piglets, as they grow the fastest and get all their nutrition from the sow’s milk that has relatively little iron to give. The lesser fortunate piglets, however, are also forced to visit the feeding tray where the fodder supplies them with a more adequate source of iron.”
From his perspective this question, as well as the two previously mentioned, are obvious areas of interest if the role of iron is to be examined more closely. Nielsen concludes, “And I think it [the role of iron] should. While most breeders as a matter of course administer iron to their piglets, a comprehensive and more creative look at the particular role of iron as a health and growth benefactor in pig rearing has many upsides, both from a professional and academic perspective.”