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Social rank of pregnant sows affects their body weight gain and behavior and performance of the offspring

Kranendonk, G., Mheen, H. van der, Fillerup, M., Hopster, H.
Journal of animal science 2007 v.85 no.2 pp. 420-429
sows, pregnancy, swine housing, group housing, social dominance, birth weight, body weight, liveweight gain, animal behavior, piglets, aggression, backfat, thickness, saliva, cortisol, temporal variation, litter size, fetal death, gestation period, weaning weight
Previous studies on group housing of pregnant sows have mainly focused on reproduction, but we hypothesized that the social rank of pregnant sows housed in groups could also affect birth weight, growth, and behavior of their offspring. Therefore, in the present study, pregnant gilts and sows were housed in 15 different groups (n = 7 to 14 animals per group) from 4 d after AI until 1 wk before the expected farrowing date. All groups were fed by an electronically controlled sow feeding system that registered, on a 24-h basis, the time of first visit, number of feeding and nonfeeding visits, and number of times succeeding another sow within 2 s. Only in the first 6 groups (n = 57 animals), agonistic interactions were observed continuously. The percentage of agonistic interactions won was highly correlated (rs = 0.90, P < 0.001) with the percentage of displacement success (DS) at the feeding station, which was calculated as: [the number of times succeeding another sow within 2 s/(the number of times succeeded by another sow within 2 s + the number of times succeeding another sow within 2 s)] x 100. This allowed us to classify all sows (n = 166) according to their DS: high-social ranking (HSR) sows had a DS >50% (n = 62) and low-social ranking (LSR) sows a DS <50% (n = 104). Body weights before AI did not differ between HSR and LSR sows, but HSR sows gained more BW during gestation, and lost more BW and back-fat during lactation (P < 0.001). Maternal salivary cortisol concentrations at 2, 7, and 13 wk after AI did not differ between HSR and LSR sows, nor did gestation length, litter size, or percentage of live born piglets. During a novel object (NO) test at 3 wk of age, HSR offspring moved and vocalized more than LSR offspring (P < 0.05). In addition, the latency time to touch the NO was shorter in HSR offspring (P < 0.05), and HSR males spent more time near the NO than LSR males (P < 0.01). At weaning, HSR offspring weighed more than LSR offspring (P < 0.05), and at slaughter HSR offspring had more lean meat than LSR offspring (P < 0.05). Results indicate that the social rank of the sow during gestation affects her own BW gain and loss as well as the growth and behavior of her offspring. Pig breeders that apply group housing for pregnant sows should pay attention to reducing competition around the feeding area, which may reduce aggression among the sows and minimize differences between HSR and LSR sows.