The Importance of Colostrum Intake in Piglets and the Supplementation of Bovine Colostrum.

Published on: June 24, 2022
Author: Biochem Team
Time: 7 min read

Colostrum, also known as beestings or first milk, is the first essential food available to piglets in the days immediately after birth. However, the formation and composition of colostrum varies among sows and the amount of colostrum available per piglet is not always sufficient. But what makes the timely and sufficient intake of colostrum so important? Why is supplementation of bovine colostrum useful? This article sheds light on the subject.

The importance of colostrum intake.

Unlike humans and certain animal species, piglets are born without passive immunity. The transfer of passive immunity is only possible via colostrum intake after birth.

Figure 1 Piglet Immune Protection
As the sole external energy supply after birth, colostrum intake is also important for thermoregulation and body growth of piglets.

The essential task of colostrum is therefore to provide the piglet with maternal antibodies as well as energy. A piglet that does not receive sufficient colostrum is predisposed to early infection and higher mortality rates. An early and sufficient supply of colostrum is therefore crucial for optimal piglet development.

Immunity and potential challenges during piglet development.

Antibodies transferred from the mother via colostrum are absorbed through the intestinal wall. However, this ability to absorb antibodies from the intestinal contents is time limited. Twelve hours after birth, colostral antibodies can no longer pass through the intestinal wall and are digested in the intestine like normal proteins. Suckling piglets have little chance of survival without a rapid intake of maternal colostrum as protection against pathogenic germs. It is not until two to three weeks after birth that a piglet begins to produce its own antibodiesactive immunity.

Large litters—less colostrum.

As a result of genetic selection, the average litter size for sows has significantly increased in recent years. This is, however, linked to a reduction in average birth weight along with a wider variation in body weight in the litter. As litter size increases, the amount of colostrum consumed per piglet decreases because the amount of colostrum required to meet the piglets' needs is not available.

Piglets that are born with a low birth weight or have had a long birth phase are often exhausted and cannot find their way to the udder in time. The required supply of colostrum for suckling piglets in large litters therefore quickly becomes insufficient (see Table 1). The targeted minimum quantity of 250 g of ingested colostrum per piglet is therefore not always available.

Figure 2 Colostrum Production in Pigs

Table 1: Influence of maternal colostrum production and litter size on the amount of colostrum available per piglet.

Suckling piglets are highly susceptible to diseases because their active immunity is not yet developed in the first few days of life. In addition, possible infectious agents can develop their pathogenic effect more easily, since the naive intestine has not yet developed a distinct commensal flora. Piglet diarrhea is considered to be the most frequent cause of suckling and weaned piglet loss worldwide.

The period after weaning—a critical phase.

The post-weaning period is crucial in the pig industry and is influenced by earlier events during gestation and lactation. Feeding-related piglet diarrhea that is caused by a too sudden change in feed from a lactose-rich dairy diet to a starch-rich diet occurs frequently. After piglets have received highly digestible colostrum and milk from the sow during the suckling phase, the diet is changed over to solid feed after weaning. Numerous factors can cause digestive disorders after weaning, including failure to develop an adaptive immune response and the lack of maternal antibodies. In addition, an immunity gap develops in piglets aged three to five weeks when the maternal antibodies ingested with colostrum are degraded and the formation of the piglet’s own antibodies is just beginning. The cell division activity of the lymphocytes is inhibited by stress hormones, and this leads to an increased susceptibility to disease.

The composition of bovine colostrum.

Bovine colostrum contains high levels of essential bioactive components similar to those found in the sow’s maternal diet. Immune, growth, and antimicrobial factors are among the key bioactive components.

Bovine colostrum, like sow colostrum, contains a particularly high level of protein. In the first hours after birth, this protein consists mainly of γ-globulins, or immunoglobulins. Three immunoglobulin classes, IgG, IgA, and IgM are essentially contained in colostrum.

Figure 3 Raw Milk Immunoglobilins

Immunoglobulins have numerous functions. For example, they can recognize and bind bacteria early, thereby preventing adhesion to mucosal epithelial cells. They can also neutralize viruses and bacterial toxins. The immunological function mediated by immunoglobulins depends on the immunoglobulin class.

Growth stimulating factors, on the other hand, play an important role in the development of the intestine in newborn animals. Insulin-like growth factors (IGF-1 and IGF-2) are considered the most abundant growth factors in bovine colostrum. Their function is to stimulate cell growth and differentiation.

Another growth factor is the so-called epidermal growth factor (EGF). This plays an important role in cell differentiation in young animals and can have a positive influence on the formation of the intestinal mucosa in the small intestine.

The transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β) also fulfills a variety of functions in the organism. Three different isoforms have been known for many years. These three TGF-β isoforms (TGF-β1, -β2, and -β3) are central regulators of cell differentiation, migration, proliferation, and gene expression involved, among other things, in reparative and fibrotic responses.

Antimicrobial factors include lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase and lysosymes. Lactoferrin supports and strengthens the immune system through its immunomodulatory properties. It is considered an important component of the nonspecific immune system because it exhibits antimicrobial properties against bacteria, fungi, and a majority of viruses. Lactoferrin, for example, can prevent adhesion of bacteria to abiotic surfaces through ionic binding to biomaterials or to bacterial structures.

An enzyme found in colostrum and milk, lactoperoxidase has an antimicrobial effect and acts as a catalyst for an oxidative reaction in the organism. Bacteria can be inhibited by a toxic oxidant. 

The action of lysosyme is considered an important host defense mechanism and is crucial for immunity. They have the ability to kill bacteria by helping to degrade cell walls of potentially harmful bacteria.

The use of bovine colostrum in piglets.

Bovine colostrum has been used as a traditional or adjunctive therapy in human and veterinary medicine for hundreds of years.

The results from a majority of studies have demonstrated that the use of bovine colostrum can have a positive impact on the intestinal health, performance, and health status of piglets.

Supplementation with bovine colostrum can lead to improved resistance to systemic infections in immature and immunocompromised piglets. Improved intestinal parameters such as villus height, absorption rate of enzymes and sugars in the small intestine, increased cell density in the large intestine, and reduced incidence of severe necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and diarrhea can also be expected. At the same time, supplementation with bovine colostrum has a positive effect on organ and intestinal development in suckling piglets.

Bovine colostrum is also used for post-weaning health problems. Studies on supplementation of bovine colostrum in weaned piglets show positive results on feed intake and growth performance in the first week after weaning. Feed conversion may also be improved. In addition, the use of bovine colostrum may have a positive effect on gut health. Intestinal integrity is improved, intestinal colonization of E. coli is reduced, and the immune response of the intestinal mucosa increases. An increase in local immunity is achieved by the uptake of the immunoglobulins, IgA, IgM, and IgG contained in bovine colostrum into the gastrointestinal tract.

The right concept for your piglets.

The use of high-quality bovine colostrum in Biochem concepts supports the immunity and healthy development of piglets. Piglet Protector®, Bimulac® Pre and other solutions tested in practice consistently showed a significant reduction in suckling piglet losses together with increased daily weight gain and reduced incidence of diarrhea.

Are you interested in further details? Please contact us!

More Articles

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Stay in the loop! Get educational insights and product news delivered right to your inbox. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter today!