Piglets’ behaviour and performance in relation to sow characteristics

Emma M. Baxter, Sarah A. Hall, Marianne Farish, Jo Donbavand, Mark Brims, Mhairi Jack, Alistair B. Lawrence, Irene Camerlink*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
63 Downloads (Pure)


The importance of maternal care in commercial pig production is largely ignored. The sow has little possibility to interact with her piglets, and piglets are often subjected to early weaning or artificial rearing. This study aimed to investigate aspects of physiological and behavioural maternal provisioning that contribute to offspring outcomes. We hypothesised that better maternal care and nutritional provisioning would relate positively to piglet immunity, growth and behaviour. Nineteen sows and their litters were studied in free-farrowing pens. Oxytocin and tumour necrosis factor-α in colostrum/milk and salivary cortisol were sampled from sows throughout lactation. Sows were assessed for dominance rank, response to handling, maternal defensiveness, suckling initiation and termination, posture and sow-piglet contact. Piglets were weighed, measured for body mass index (BMI) and sampled for blood (Immunoglobulin G; at birth). After weaning, they experienced a human approach test (HAT) and novel object test. Correlations were explored between individual sow characteristics, individual piglet outcomes, and between sow characteristics and piglet outcomes averaged by litter. Significant correlations between sow and piglet factors were analysed at the litter level in mixed models with piglet outcomes as response variables and sow characteristics as predictor variables, while accounting for sow parity, litter size and batch. Litters grew faster when their sow had lower cortisol values (P = 0.03), while sows with lower cortisol levels had more successful suckling bouts and engaged in greater amounts of sow-piglet contact. Litters had a lower BMI at weaning when the sow had a higher milk fat percentage at d3. Litters of the most dominant sows took longer to approach the human in the HAT, while litters of sows with higher cortisol at d0 took longer to approach the novel object when assessed on correlations (r = 0.82, P < 0.001) but not when the model accounted for parity and litter size (P = 0.35). Only some of the measured nutritive and non-nutritive sow factors influenced litter performance and behaviour, with parity and litter size also playing a role. Given the continued increase in litter size, but also the interest in loose-housed lactation pens for sows, further research on sows’ maternal investment and how it can be optimised is warranted.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100699
Issue number2
Early online date17 Jan 2023
Publication statusPrint publication - Feb 2023


  • Coping ability
  • Maternal behaviour
  • Physiology
  • Pig
  • Suckling behaviour
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Lactation/physiology
  • Litter Size
  • Parturition
  • Weaning
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone
  • Pregnancy
  • Animals
  • Swine
  • Female


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