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Iron supplements for newborn piglets may not meet needs

Iron supplementation is essential to newborn piglets to decrease the chance of anemia and boost their resistance to disease. Recent research suggests standard supplement protocols may not meet the needs of rapidly growing piglets. 

Piglets are born with limited iron stores and need iron supplementation within the first week of life. Advancements in  nutrition, genetics and on-farm management means today’s piglets are born into larger litters and grow at a faster rate than in previous decades, says Amanda Kubik who is completing an MSc program with advisor Dr. Terri O’Sullivan in the Ontario Veterinary College’s Population Medicine department at the University of Guelph before starting her PhD in fall 2015.

However, the standard protocol of a 200 milligram iron supplement in the first few days after birth may not meet today’s needs.

Anemic pigs have a smaller growth rate than those with regular hemoglobin levels, says Kubik. They can  also be more susceptible to disease as their immune system can be compromised when iron stores are low.  

Kubik sampled 20 commercial herds across the province, visiting the farms twice, to investigate if anemia was present at weaning and whether iron status affected post-weaning performance. She followed about 60 pigs at each farm, sampling 1,095 pigs in all.

On the first visit, Kubik randomly selected one small, medium and large pig from each litter, made sure they were healthy, weighed and took blood samples from each one to two days prior to weaning.

Three weeks later she took another blood sample and body weight from each of these pigs to see if there was an association between body weight and hemoglobin.

“There were statistically significant results,” she adds. The between herd prevalence of iron deficiency in the sampled pigs prior to weaning was 28 per cent and the prevalence of anemia was six per cent. When the same pigs were sampled three weeks later, the between herd prevalence had increased to 43 per cent for iron deficiency and 18 per cent for anemia.

Typically, iron supplementation is given in the first few days of life, within 24 hours to seven days of age, says Kubik.  Once pigs are weaned they get their iron from their feed.

There seems to be some issue with absorption and, in particular, an issue with faster growing pigs, says Kubik. The small and medium pigs had greater hemoglobin concentrations, while the larger pigs had lower values.

“We know that the 200 mg dose of iron is not sufficient anymore because pigs are growing so fast,” adds Kubik. Perhaps a second iron supplement prior to weaning would help, she suggests, however further study is needed on dosing and timing of any additional iron supplementation.

“I enjoy working hand-in-hand with producers,” says Kubik. “They are helping further research and they want to know what they can do to improve their operations.”

Funding for this research was provided by Ontario Pork and the University of Guelph-OMAFRA Research Partnership.