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SWINE HEALTH QUARTERLY: Start piglets right to avoid neonatal hypothermiaSWINE HEALTH QUARTERLY: Start piglets right to avoid neonatal hypothermia

There are many things working against a newborn pig being able to maintain its body temperature.

January 4, 2016

6 Min Read
SWINE HEALTH QUARTERLY: Start piglets right to avoid neonatal hypothermia

*Steve Tousignant is with the Swine Vet Center in St. Peter, Minn.

IT may seem fairly obvious, but pigs that get cold after birth have a higher mortality rate than piglets that do not.

There are many things working against a newborn pig being able to maintain its body temperature, so it is up to swine caregivers to ensure that everything possible is being done to keep the pigs warm.

When we reduce the number of piglets that become chilled (hypothermic) at birth, we are taking the first step in ensuring a successful start and increasing the likelihood that each piglet will be healthy throughout the entire lactation period.

Additionally, this may also lead to improved health and performance in the nursery and grow/finish periods.

At the Swine Vet Center (SVC), we see that farms striving to prevent neonatal hypothermia often achieve preweaning mortality of less than 6%.

Hypothermia of neonatal pigs is a year-round risk on farms, regardless of if it's in the heat of summer or the dead of winter.

During late gestation, a sow's body temperature can be anywhere from 99 degrees  to 102 degrees F, and her litter is then farrowed into an environment where the ambient temperature is around 74 degrees F.

In addition, the piglet is born wet, which has an evaporative cooling effect that compounds the risk of the piglet becoming chilled in the few minutes following birth. Pigs with smaller birth weights will chill more quickly compared to their litter mates at a heavier birth weight.

At birth, all pigs are at risk of becoming hypothermic due to the fact that they are born with a small amount of "brown fat," which provides the piglet with the energy to get up and get going — ideally, to the udder of the sow. If the piglet is left unattended, this layer of brown fat is utilized quickly as the piglet begins to shiver to maintain body heat.

At SVC, we feel strongly that the first step in minimizing piglet hypothermia is to attend as many farrowings as possible.

Historically, this meant frequent trips to the farrowing barn between other activities of day-to-day farm life. The caregivers knew when each sow began to show signs of labor and how much time had passed between each piglet's birth. Time was also spent to ensure that each piglet suckled colostrum within an hour of birth. As litter sizes have increased, the needs of the piglet are at least the same as before, if not greater.

The most successful farms within our practice will have dedicated staff to provide neonatal care around the clock. As integral members of the team providing care to the herd, it is their responsibility to oversee each farrowing sow, help manage the individual needs of these sows and assist newborn piglets after birth.

SVC has recommended for years that these designated people check on all females that are due to farrow and actively monitor farrowing sows every 15-20 minutes.

This is the time to begin to gently massage or rub the udder and also express a small amount of colostrum from each teat to make sure all is flowing freely. This minimizes the amount of effort it takes the piglet to get colostrum. All of this stimulation around the udder has the added benefit of releasing massive amounts of natural oxytocin, which encourages the uterus to begin contracting as colostrum begins to be let down.

As soon as the first piglet is born, additional attention will be needed to ensure that every pig born is dried off, warmed up and suckling as much colostrum as possible.

When left on their own, piglets that don't make it to the udder to nurse shortly after birth will begin to chill below critical temperature within a matter of minutes.

At SVC, we're seeing more farms choose to individually dry piglets with towels or rub a powdered drying agent over the body of the piglet following birth. Both are effective methods to pull excess moisture off of the skin's surface to eliminate the effects of evaporative cooling.

We commonly recommend having two heat lamps in place for farrowing sows, with one placed over each side of the sow.

Preferably, a mat should be provided on each side of a farrowing sow to increase the odds that newborn pigs find warmth before farrowing attendants are able to dry them. It is important to ensure that heat lamps are properly adjusted so they are heating an area near the back portion of the udder to approximately 95 degrees F, as read by an infrared laser thermometer.


Colostrum intake

Once piglets are warm and dry, colostrum intake becomes the next priority.

Colostrum is the first mother's milk present during and immediately after farrowing. It is rich in energy, which is absolutely critical to the piglet for maintaining its own body heat.

Additionally, it contains antibodies that jump-start a piglet's immune system.

During the first six hours of life, a newborn piglet's intestines allow for direct transfer of antibodies from the colostrum directly into the bloodstream. After that point, the intestines begin to mature, and this transfer potential is greatly reduced.

Furthermore, the sow will produce a limited amount of colostrum, so it is imperative that piglets find the udder as quickly as possible and get colostrum soon after birth.

During each 15- to 20-minute period, the neonatal caregiver should be watching for newborn piglets (fewer than six hours old) that are not at the udder. If piglets have wandered away to the far side of the farrowing stall, they should be picked up and placed back at the udder.

Small pigs are at the highest risk of not getting colostrum and becoming chilled. We often encourage spending some extra time with these piglets to ensure that they get attached to a teat and consume their share of colostrum.

As a sow farrows and litter size increases, situations often arise where there are more pigs than there are easily accessible teats. In these situations, we recommend the use of split suckling boxes. Placing larger or firstborn pigs that have already nursed adequate colostrum into a box that keeps them warm and dry allows smaller and later-born pigs to access colostrum more easily.

In very large litters, the first six to eight piglets can be placed in the box after they have a full belly, which minimizes the competition at the udder for the piglets born later.

One of the cornerstones of a great performance in the farrowing house is preventing neonatal hypothermia. Getting piglets warm, dry and full of colostrum are the key points to remember. The methods we recommend at SVC to accomplish these goals are not overly complex.

A team that is dedicated, observant and motivated, if given all the necessary tools, can help the herd achieve a very high level of performance.

Volume:87 Issue:49

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