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19th March 2021

Iron supplement for suckling pigs via milk cup system

As an alternative to iron injections, suckling pigs can receive iron supplements in a milk cup system without any negative impact on growth and the iron level of the piglet.

Study: Jakobsen, Nadia. Cand. Scient in Animal Science.
(Cooperation with SEGES & Copenhagen University)

Iron is an important mineral which forms part, for example, of haemoglobin. Haemoglobin can be found in the red blood cells responsible for the transport of oxygen to organs and muscles. Piglets are born with a limited iron store, and a physiological haemoglobin level drop takes place during the first few days after farrowing, since sow’s milk has a low iron content (approx. 1 mg iron per litre) and limited access to natural iron sources in traditional installations. If the piglets do not receive iron supplements after farrowing, they will develop anaemia. A suckling pig is considered to be anaemic when the blood haemoglobin level is lower than 90 g/L. Anaemia may manifest in pale, thin and weak piglets, and may result in reduced growth, poor feed utilisation before and after weaning and increased mortality after weaning. To ensure piglet health and welfare as well as optimum production, it is therefore important to ensure that the piglets get sufficient iron after farrowing.

Iron as supplement

Iron can be introduced in several ways. The most common way is injection of iron 3-4 days after farrowing. New domestic and international herd analyses show that up to 25% of piglets are anaemic at weaning despite iron supplement injections. The reason that the injection is not sufficient for some piglets can be incorrect injecting technique and/or high piglet growth. The more a piglet grows, the more iron it needs.

One solution could be to increase the iron dose, but high iron doses are toxic. Injecting larger qualities of iron can therefore not be recommended. 

Alternatives to injections

One alternative is iron supplementation in a Pump'n'Grow Fresh milk cup system. The system automatically mixes 1% Piglet Boozt with the milk replacer which is made freely available to the piglets. Piglet Boozt is a liquid iron mixture containing iron sulphate.

The benefits of supplying iron in a milk cup system include the reduction of working time, risk of overdosing and the infection risk related to injection. The method does, however, depend on the piglets actually drinking the milk replacer.  

Trial with milk cups

A new trial therefore was carried out to see if iron supplementation can be provided in a milk replacer system comparable to injection iron and no additional iron supplementation. The trial followed the piglets from farrowing and up to day 21 (see fact box).

Fact box

1. Control (c) Was not given supplementary iron 
2. Injected iron (II) Injection iron on day 3 
3. Milk iron (MI) Freely available supply of DanMilk Supreme with 1% Piglet Boozt (2315.5 ppm FeSO4· H2O) 
ATTENTION All groups received dry feed from day 6 

Iron in milk cup system works!

The results showed that the blood haemoglobin levels fell right after farrowing and that the blood haemoglobin level increased from day three after injection with iron. Providing iron in a Pump'n'Grow Freh system resulted in an increase from day 7 and in the control group the blood haemoglobin level increased from day 10. I.e., the haemoglobin level increased in the control group which did not receive iron supplementation. This may indicate that although the piglets were eating dry feed before day 10, the intake was not sufficient to meet the iron demand. The control group haemoglobin level on day 21 was 76.2 g/L, compared with 120.9 g/L for the II group and 105.4 g/L for the MI group. The control group piglet were anaemic on day 21, demonstrating that early iron supply is important to maintain the iron level. 

Supplying iron in a Pump'n'Grow Freh resulted in lower haemoglobin level on day 21 than after providing injection iron, but supply in the system did not negatively affect growth. Blood samples taken on day 21 showed that the milk group iron level was comparable to the iron level in piglets injected with iron. Based on these results, it can be recommended to provide supplemental iron via the Pump'n'Grow Freh system if it is ensured that the piglets drink the milk replacer. This can be done, for example, via video-based drinking pattern analysis, which in this trial showed that 92% of the piglets drank at least 10 times within a 24 hour period (day 18). You can arrange for your vet or advisor to assess haemoglobin levels for the piglets on an ongoing basis. The success of supplying iron in a milk replacer system depends on how many piglets are drinking and how much they drink. This means that if a large proportion of the litters do not use the milk-cup, the iron must be supplied in an alternative way.