Weaning of piglets causes stress due to environmental, behavioral, and nutritional stressors and can lead to postweaning diarrhea and impaired gut development. The diet changes experienced during weaning require extensive adaptation of the digestive system. A well-developed piglet that had creep-feed experience before weaning performs better after weaning. In the current study, the effect of providing sow-fed piglets with a supplemental nutrient-dense complex milk replacer (NDM) on gut development and growth performance was studied. Litters of sows with similar parities (3.6 ± 0.8) and similar numbers of live born piglets (13.5 ± 0.3) were assigned to 1 of 2 groups: 1 group of piglets had ad libitum access to NDM from Day 2 through 21 after birth, whereas the other group was used as controls. Nutrient-dense complex milk replacer–fed piglets were shown to be significantly heavier after 21 d of supplementation compared with the control piglets. At Day 21, 3 piglets from each litter were euthanized for morphological and functional analyses of the intestinal tract. The small intestines of NDM-fed piglets had significantly higher weights (g) as well as significantly higher relative weight:length ratios (g//cm) compared with the small intestines of control piglets (P <0.05). Morphometric analysis demonstrated that villi length and numbers of goblet cells did not differ between groups. However, NDM-fed piglets had deeper crypts (P <0.001) and an increased expression of the cell-proliferation marker proliferating cell nuclear antigen in crypts (P <0.05), suggesting higher cell-proliferation rates. The gene encoding IGF- 1 showed a tendency to higher gene expression in the jejunum from NDM-fed piglets (P = 0.07) compared with the jejunum from control piglets, suggesting that IGF-1 might be involved in the regulation of cell proliferation and intestinal growth. Finally, as a result of dietary fiber in NDM, piglets showed significantly increased concentrations of metabolic fermentation products. This suggests differences in metabolic activity in the colon between treatment groups. In conclusion, providing sow-fed piglets with NDM before weaning stimulates intestinal proliferation, leading to increased circular growth. Nutrient-dense complex milk replacer supplementation might, therefore, help piglets through the transition period at weaning by increased BW and increased capacity for uptake of nutrients.
- Circular intestinal growth
- Gene expression
- Gut health
- Nutrient-dense complex milk replacer