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To determine the relationship between within-litter birth weight variation and pre-weaning survival and weight gain, and to provide practical guidance on fostering low-birth-weight piglets, we analyzed piglet survival and weight gain in litters of piglets from 52 sows followed through eight consecutive parities. Litters with high variation in birth weight had more deaths, especially if the litter’s mean birth weight was low. High variation in birth weight was also associated with high variation in weaning weight, but was not significantly related to mean weaning weight. Piglets with birth weights well below the range of most of the litter (‘low-birth-weight piglets’) were more likely to die than their litter-mates, but their weight gains were normal for their birth weight if they survived. These piglets experienced particularly low survival in larger litters and litters from sows of sixth parity or older. Litters containing low-birth-weight piglets started, on average, with more piglets born alive and had a lower pre-weaning survival (with the majority of deaths being low-birth-weight piglets), but did not wean significantly more piglets than litters without low-birth-weight piglets. The majority of litters had a negatively skewed distribution of birth weights, with more piglets well below the mean than well above it. Our data are consistent with the hypothesis that high variation in birth weight contributes to reduced survival, at least for litters of low mean birth weight, and to variable weaning weights. Our data also support the hypothesis that in terms of survival, small piglets have a competitive disadvantage compared to their heavier litter-mates, a disadvantage that is exacerbated in large litters and litters from older sows. Our data suggest that selection for increased litter size that results in more low-birth-weight piglets per litter may not be beneficial unless measures are undertaken to improve the survival of low-birth-weight piglets.


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