Health

Background

Get it right from the start

The first week of life is crucial for developing a robust intestinal mucosa and ensuring a good gut health. By feeding the intestinal cells from day 2, a novel isotonic protein drink boosts villi development, and later encourages feed consumption, with positive effects that persist up to slaughter.

The modern piglet faces many challenges, even in the first week of life. Piglets are born with a relatively undeveloped intestine which grows tremendously right after birth. A piglet’s intestine must develop as much in 3-4 weeks as much as a foal, calf or human intestine would ordinarily develop in 6 months. Studies have shown that the total surface area of a piglet’s small intestine doubles by day 10, and the number of enterocyte cells (absorptive cells that line the villi of the small intestine) doubles in the first 3 days. This growth requires substantial amounts of nutrition and energy that are not always available from the sow in modern production systems. Piglets do not always get access to (or do not consume) sufficient amounts of colostrum or milk in the farrowing house. Even during short periods of starvation that occur during weaning and transportation, the small intestinal mucosa quickly atrophies, with negative effects being visible within hours of food withdrawal. The lack of nutrients in the intestine can disrupt the barrier functions of the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in gut atrophy, luminal starvation, bacterial translocation, and impaired immune functions.

Feeding the intestinal cells right after birth is a key step in preserving gut health. Photo: Tonisity
Feeding the intestinal cells right after birth is a key step in preserving gut health. Photo: Tonisity

Micro-enteral nutrition

Various strategies are used to try to overcome the key stress points of production – pre-weaning mortality, post-weaning diarrhoea and long-distance transportation. Milk replacer, electrolyte solutions, and quick-start drenches are all used by producers to give extra energy and fluids to piglets. Antibiotics, probiotics, prebiotics and plant extracts are all used in an attempt to modify the intestinal microflora. However, none of these strategies actually improve the essential function of the enterocytes, which are the engines responsible for absorbing nutrients. A more focused approach called ‘micro-enteral nutrition’ aims to feed the intestinal cells themselves and help those cells to do a better job of absorbing any available nutrients. By feeding the intestinal cells, the integrity of the intestinal barrier is also maintained which is key to maintaining gut health.

Micro-enteral nutrition is the delivery of small amounts of water, electrolytes, and readily absorbed nutrients (glucose, amino acids, and small peptides) directly to the gastrointestinal tract. These simple nutrients are delivered in solutions that are absorbed, and utilised directly, by the enterocytes to do their essential work – which is to absorb all of the other nutrients that the body needs. Micro-enteral solutions generally contain very simple sugars and single amino acids or small peptides and are also typically isotonic, with an osmolarity of about 300 mOsm/l. This ensures that they are quickly absorbed without creating further sodium or water loss. Such solutions have been successfully used to manage sick animals, particularly in the case of diarrhoea or other digestive disorders in dogs. A novel approach, combining previous knowledge in both human and canine micro-enteral nutrition, has resulted in the development of an isotonic protein drink for swine, Tonisity Px. This innovative solution is preferably delivered in open pans to facilitate the pigs’ natural curiosity and remove the learning and tactile barriers to drinking caused by mechanical nipple drinkers. Furthermore, this drink, being very attractive, is consumed in significant volumes, even by piglets less than one week old. By feeding the enterocytes, the drink has a positive effect on gut health and brings several clear benefits to the swine producer. One of the most visible impacts is the reduction of pre-weaning mortality.

A recent meta-analysis of 21 trials across Europe, Asia and the USA, involving 17,725 piglets, showed the positive impact of the solution on pre-weaning mortality, when given to piglets from day 2 to day 8 of life, at a rate of 500 ml per litter each day. On average, a 27.5% reduction in pre-weaning mortality vs. controls (8.80% vs. 12.14%) was observed, which equals +0.5 pigs per litter or +1.2 piglets per sow per year. The reduction of mortality was most likely due to the fact that the protein and amino acid profile of this isotonic protein drink delivered key energy-producing substrates to the enterocytes, leading to a positive impact on intestinal morphology and nutrient absorption. Indeed, histopathology analysis revealed that piglets receiving the drink from days 2-8 of age had significantly greater villus height, villus density, and crypt density that persisted until at least 28 days of age, regardless of what creep feed they were given (see Figure 1). Those pigs also tended to have superior intestinal mucosal thickness.

Figure 1 – The isotonic solution helps maintaining larger villi in the post-weaning phase.

Increased feed intake

Besides a clear reduction in pre-weaning mortality when given during the first week of life, the solution encourages feed intake by the piglet, especially if it is distributed around weaning. Maintaining feed intake around weaning is a key step in preserving gut health. This was recently demonstrated in an independent trial using a total of 1,034 piglets from 78 litters, which was supervised by Dr Tomasz Schwarz from Krakow Agriculture University, Zootechnics Department in Poland. In the experimental group, the Tonisity Px solution was given from day 2 to day 8 of life (500 ml per litter and per day) and as a gruel before and after weaning. While the average number of piglets per litter and the average body weight at day 2 were the same in both groups, it was observed that the piglets receiving the solution were 290 grams heavier at weaning (P< 0.001) and increased their advantage up to slaughter, reaching the target weight one week earlier than the control group. Their feed conversion rate during the fattening period was also significantly better (2.74 vs. 2.79, P=0.02).

By applying the concept of micro-enteral nutrition to pigs, the solution was developed to improve gut health especially in pre-weaning pigs. This novel isotonic protein drink delivers key energy-producing substrates to the enterocytes, leading to a positive impact on nutrient absorption and intestinal morphology and as a consequence, pre-weaning mortality is significantly reduced. Another benefit of the micro-enteral nutrition approach is the increase of feed intake and weight gain around weaning and during other stressful events, leading to faster growth up to slaughter and resulting in a clear and positive impact on the economic performance of the operation.

References available on request

Authors: Mathieu Cortyl, Ava Firth and Christina Higgins, Tonisity