Nurse sow strategies are used to manage large litters on commercial pig farms. However, new-born piglets transferred to nurse sows in late lactation might be compromised in terms of growth and survival. We investigated the effects of two nurse sow strategies on piglet growth, suckling behaviour and sow nursing behaviour. At 1-day post-farrowing, the four heaviest piglets from large litters were transferred to a nurse sow either 21 (1STEP21, n=9 litters) or 7 (2STEP7, n=10 litters) days into lactation. The remainder of the litter remained with their mother and was either kept intact (remain intact (RI), n=10 litters) or had some piglets cross-fostered to equalise birth weights (remain equalised (RE), n=9 litters). The 7-day-old piglets from 2STEP7 were transferred onto a sow 21 days into lactation (2STEP21, n=10 litters). The growth of new-born piglets on 1STEP21 and 2STEP7 nurse sows was initially lower than in RI litters (F 3,33.8=4.61; P<0.01), but weaning weights did not significantly differ (F 4,32.7=0.78; P>0.5). After the 1st week of lactation, the weights and growth rates did not differ between treatments. Fighting behaviour during nursing bouts decreased over time. The frequency of fights was higher in 1STEP21 and 2STEP21 litters compared with RI litters (t 122=3.06 and t 123=3.00, respectively, P<0.05). The 2STEP21 litters had shorter nursing bouts than RI and 1STEP21 litters (t 107=−2.81 and t 81.7=2.8, respectively, P<0.05), which were more frequently terminated by 2STEP21 than RI sows (t 595=2.93; P<0.05). Transferring heaviest piglets from RI and RE litters to nurse sows reduced the percentage of teat changes during nursing bouts (RI: F 1,275=16.61; RE: F 1,308=43.59; P<0.001). In conclusion, nurse sow strategies do not appear to compromise piglet growth. However, new-born piglets transferred onto sows in late lactation experienced more competition at the udder, suggesting that the sows’ stage of lactation is of importance to how achievable nurse sow strategies are. Thus, the two-step nurse sow strategy is likely the best option (in relation to growth and suckling behaviour), as it minimises the difference between piglet age and sow stage of lactation.
- Large litters