Maximizing Sow Productivity using Phytogenics - A Nutritional Approach

Photo: iStockphoto/marilyna

Today’s sow produces three more pigs per litter and 40% heavier piglets than four decades ago. A sow needs to produce an adequate amount of milk to sustain the growth of a larger and leaner litter. Nutritional requirements of the sow are heavily influenced by phase of production and parity. Efficient sow herd management and continuous updates to the nutritional program are required to ensure high levels of sow productivity and producer profitability. Phytogenic feed additives have consistently proven to be beneficial in increasing the feed intake of sows during lactation and providing intestinal relief by preventing oxidative stress and reducing inflammatory processes.

What is a Phytogenic Feed Additive

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Economics of sow retention and lactation feed intake

Targeting 70% retention of the gilts entering the reproductive pool and retaining them in the herd through at least the fourth parity will optimize profitability. Sow margins are optimized later in life when reaching the highest return on investment (ROI) between the fourth and seventh parity (Figure 1). However, on many commercial units 40% to 50% of sows are culled before reaching their third or fourth parity.

Figure 1. Impact of sow retention on return on investment.
Source: Adapted from Pinilla and Lecznieski, 2010

Sow retention is influenced by multiple factors, including genetics, nutritional programs, gilt development and health status. From a nutritional perspective, suboptimal intake of amino acids and/ or energy during lactation have been associated with prolonged wean-to-estrus interval, subsequently reduced litter size and lighter litter weights at weaning along with lower retention rates.

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Research suggests that if a sow consumes ≤ 3.5kg of feed per day during the first two weeks of lactation, it is likely to be removed from the herd prior to the next parity. Insufficient feed intake during lactation becomes critical especially for younger parity sows when nutrients are prioritized for milk production and maintenance, reducing nutrients available for reproduction.

Phytogenics have a positive impact on voluntary feed intake during lactation. Furthermore, there is evidence that phytogenics have a stabilizing effect on digestion, resulting in improved feed conversion. The data presented in Figure 2 were obtained from a trial in the United States. Sows were fed a basal diet either with or without Digestarom®, a phytogenic feed additive. Sows fed Digestarom® consistently ingested more feed when compared to Control (P<0.01). Total feed intake over the period was 6.2kg, more than 14% higher than the control at 5.4kg.

Figure 2. Effects of dietary inclusion of Digestarom® on lactation feed intake for multiparous sows.
Source: Gorman et al., 2005. Texas A&M University

Oxidative stress on sow and fetus

Current nutritional recommendations suggest that sows might benefit from a two-phase feeding program due to higher amino acid requirement during late gestation, based on dramatic changes in fetal tissue gain. However current gestation feeding programs use only a single diet, regardless of gestation phase and parity. This does not provide enough nutrients during late gestation for fetal and mammary growth, causing catabolic conditions in sows.

New housing systems, retrofitted on new facilities can be designed to accommodate multiple phases feeding options. However, with the existing gestation facilities in many farms in the USA, feeding two gestation diets is impractical.

Catabolic conditions increase the production of reactive oxygen species, causing oxidative stress which is related to decreased availability of antioxidants during late gestation and lactation. Oxidative stress then begins to normalize towards the end of lactational period.

Oxidative damage is a strong indicator of health status and well-being of animals in relation to aging, stress, nutritional status and disease. Increased oxidative stress is responsible for a reduction in milk production, reproductive performance and eventually the longevity of sows.

During gestation, there is high energy demand and an increased oxygen requirement, which also leads to oxidative stress characterized by the placental production of reactive oxygen species including superoxide and hydrogen peroxide. Excessive free radical production may cause both lipid and protein oxidation and impair normal endothelial cell function. The elevated oxidative stress could alter placenta and fetal skeletal formation as well.

Power of plants

Phytogenic feed additives offer a pronounced antioxidative capacity. The antioxidative properties of some phytogenic substances have been attributed to the phenolic terpenes in their essential oils. An important cellular element is the transcription factor Nrf2 system, one of the major cellular defense mechanism against oxidative and xenobiotic stresses in the intestinal tract. Activation of the Nrf2 pathway leads to the induction of genes responsible for cellular defense against reactive oxygen species and detoxification.

In vitro evaluations of Digestarom® were found to upregulate Nrf2 target genes in comparison to the Control (P<0.05) (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Up-regulation of Nrf2 target genes.
Source: Gessner et al., 2013

Reduced inflammation and gut protection

Regular supplementation of phytogenic feed additives improves performance, not only by upregulating the transcription factor Nrf2 but also by acting as a prophylactic against inflammatory reactions in the gastrointestinal tract by down-regulating the NF-kB factor.

Digestarom® significantly reduced the mRNA levels of the NF-kB target genes IL-8, ICAM-1 and MCP-1, which initiate and maintain inflammatory reactions stimulated by antigens. To improve the performance of pig through higher feed intake and feed efficiency, subclinical inflammatory processes need to be reduced in order to increase the availability of energy and nutrients for performance rather than defense mechanism.

Lower somatic cell counts

Digestarom® decreased the gene expression of the transcription factor NF-kB and the apoptotic marker TNFα significantly in ileum and jejunum, respectively during in vivo evaluation by Kroismayr et al., (2008) suggesting an improved zootechnical performance. The data presented in Figure 4 were obtained from a trial in Slovakia. Sows were fed a basal diet either with or without Digestarom®, a phytogenic feed additive. Sows fed Digestarom® showed a lower somatic cell count compared with the control treatment.

Figure 4. Effects of dietary inclusion of Digestarom® on somatic cell counts for multiparous sows.
Source: BIOMIN, 2008


An increasing number of reports have confirmed that supplementation of swine diets with phytogenic feed additives resulted in improved performance and animal health parameters. Supplementation of diets with phytogenic feed additives increases voluntary feed intake during lactation and preventing intestinal stress by providing a pronounced antioxidative capacity and modulating inflammatory processes.

Phytogenics have proven to be highly effective in improving sow nutrition and assuring producer profitability.

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