Sow communication with piglets while being active is a good predictor of maternal skills, piglet survival and litter quality in three different breeds of domestic pigs (Sus scrofa domesticus).PLoS One. 2018; 13(11):e0206128.Plos
Maternal care behaviour is crucial for offspring quality and survival in pigs. Defining care is therefore essential for ensuring the welfare of pigs and sustainability of pig production. The aim of the present study was to investigate the relationship between sow nest building, communication with piglets (sniffing, nudging, grunting) during resting and activity, and piglet survival in three different sow breeds: a maternal line selected for high weaned pig production (Landrace), a paternal line selected for meat traits (Duroc), and a crossbred line (Landrace and Yorkshire). We predicted that a higher frequency of nest building and sow communication would have a positive impact on piglet survival. Secondly, we predicted that a high level of maternal care outside the time of nursing (nest building and communication) would increase the quality of the litter (weight at weaning). We also predicted that nest building activity and sow communication would be more pronounced in maternal sow lines selected for maternal traits than in a non-selected, paternal line, and that primiparous sows would perform more nest building behaviour and communicate more than multiparous sows due to high investment in their first litter. Finally, an impaired condition around farrowing (i.e. low body condition score and presence of shoulder lesions) was predicted to be negatively correlated to care behaviours. Data was collected on 38 sows with 511 born piglets. Sows with their litters, were loose-housed in individual farrowing pens until weaning. Nest building activity can be partly considered as maternal care behaviour as it prepares the sows for motherhood and is associated with a lower proportion of stillborn piglets (P < 0.001), starved piglets (P = 0.004), and overlaid piglets (P = 0.034). As predicted, sows that communicated more while being active had lower postnatal piglet mortality (starvation (P < 0.001), less overlying (P < 0.001), overlying with (P < 0.001), and without the milk in the stomach (P < 0.001) and fewer that died of other causes (P < 0.001), higher piglet survival (P < 0.001) and litter weight (P < 0.001) at weaning irrespective of the breed. A higher level of communication while active was associated with more pronounced shoulder lesions in sows (P = 0.010), suggesting a positive association between good maternal care and prevalence of shoulder lesions. We also found that resting sows that communicated more with piglets outside the time of nursing, had higher postnatal piglet mortality (P < 0.001) due to starvation (P < 0.001), overlying (P < 0.001), overlying with (P < 0.001), or without milk (P < 0.001). Communication during resting was more pronounced with increasing litter size at birth (P < 0.001), especially for thin sows (P < 0.001). Communication during resting was more pronounced in the non-selected Duroc line (P < 0.001). Our results suggest that sow communication while being active is a good predictor of good maternal care, piglet survival and litter quality in three different breeds of domestic pigs.