Birth weight variation in the domestic pig: effects on offspring survival, weight gain and suckling behaviour

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In domestic pigs, litter-mates often vary considerably in birth weight. To examine whether this size variation influences piglet survival, weight gain and suckling behaviour, we experimentally manipulated the number and size distribution of litter-mates in 51 litters. Litters were small (eight or nine piglets) or large (11 or 12 piglets) compared to the herd mean of 10 piglets, and were made more or less variable in weight by using the largest and smallest quartiles of two combined litters (variable) or the middle two quartiles (uniform). Weights were measured on days 0, 3 and 21. Behavioural measures (percent of nursings missed, mean teat consistency score, per capita number of teat disputes before milk ejection, and percent time spent in teat disputes in the 20 min after milk ejection) were recorded on days 1, 4, 10 and 17. Piglet weight variation (percent of coefficient of variation, CV) almost doubled over the 21 days in uniform litters and actually decreased in variable litters, but still remained higher in the variable litters. Overall, survival, percent of nursings missed, consistency in piglets’ use of teats, number of teat disputes, percent time a piglet spent in teat disputes after milk ejection, and weight gain were unaffected by birth weight variation although there was a tendency (P=0.09) for more piglet deaths in variable litters. Behavioural measures of sibling competition were higher in large litters. The data provide little support for the hypotheses that high birth weight variation results in decreased survival, or that it permits rapid establishment of dominance, thereby reducing wasteful competitive behaviour in surviving piglets.