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Effect of different weaning ages (21, 28 or 35 days) on production, growth and certain parameters of the digestive tract in rabbits

Kovács, M., Bónai, A., Szendrő, Zs., Milisits, G., Lukács, H., Szabó-Fodor, J., Tornyos, G., Matics, Zs., Kovács, F., Horn, P.
Animal 2012 v.6 no.6 pp. 894-901
bacteria, butyric acid, cecum, digestive tract, early weaning, feed intake, liver, pH, propionic acid, rabbits, risk, small intestine, stomach, volatile fatty acids
The effect of different weaning ages, that is, 21 (G21), 28 (G28) or 35 (G35) days, on growth and certain parameters of the digestive tract was examined in rabbits to assess the risk of early weaning attributable to the less-developed digestive system. On days 35 and 42, G35 rabbits had 10% to 14% and 10% higher BW, respectively (P < 0.05), than those weaned at days 21 and 28. In the 4th week of life, early weaned animals had 75% higher feed intake than G28 and G35 rabbits (P < 0.05). The relative weight of the liver increased by 62% between 21 and 28 days of age, and thereafter it decreased by 76% between 35 and 42 days of age (P < 0.05), with G21 rabbits having 29% higher weight compared with G35 animals on day 35 (P < 0.05). The relative weight of the whole gastrointestinal (GI) tract increased by 49% and 22% after weaning in G21 and G28 rabbits, respectively (P < 0.05). On day 28, the relative weight of the GI tract was 19% higher in G21 than in G28 rabbits, whereas on day 35 G21 and G28 animals had a 12% heavier GI tract compared with G35 rabbits (P < 0.05). Age influenced the ratio of stomach, small intestine and caecum within the GI tract; however, no effect of different weaning age was demonstrated. The pH value of the stomach and caecum decreased from 5.7 to 1.6 and from 7.1 to 6.3, respectively, whereas that of the small intestine increased from 6.8 to 8.4 (P < 0.05); the differences between groups were not statistically significant. Strictly anaerobic culturable bacteria were present in the caecum in high amounts (10⁸), already at 14 days of age; no significant difference attributable to weaning age was demonstrable. The concentration of total volatile fatty acids (tVFA) was higher in G21 than in G28 and G35 throughout the experimental period (P < 0.05). The proportion of acetic and butyric acid within tVFA increased, whereas that of propionic acid decreased, resulting in a C₃ : C₄ ratio decreasing with age. Early weaning (G21) resulted in higher butyric acid and lower propionic acid proportions on day 28 (P < 0.05). No interaction between age and treatment was found, except in relative weight of the GI tract and caecal content. In conclusion, early weaning did not cause considerable changes in the digestive physiological parameters measured, but it resulted in 10% lower growth in rabbits.