Peri-natal environmental effects on maternal behaviour, pituitary and adrenal activation, and the progress of parturition in the primiparous sow
Maternal behaviour in free-ranging sows is normally performed in an isolated nest that the sow has built during the pre-parturient period. Consequently there is much concern over the use of restrictive farrowing crates, in which manipulable substrates are often not provided, for parturient sows under commercial conditions. This study examined the impact of the provision of space and substrate on the performance of maternal behaviour by gilts (primiparous sows) on physiological indicators of stress and on the progress of parturition. Gilts had an indwelling jugular catheter implanted 12 days before their expected farrowing date. At 5 days before expected farrowing, 34 gilts were plac ed in one of four farrowing treatments: crate without straw (C, n = 8), crate with straw (CS, n = 9), pen without straw (P, n = 9) or pen with straw (PS, n = 8). Behavioural observations of gilts and piglets were made during an 8 h period after the expulsion of the first piglet. Blood samples were taken via a catheter extension to minimise disturbance throughout the parturition period. Gilts in all treatments were most active in the first 2 h: performing more standing/walking, substrate-directed and piglet-directed behaviour. This active phase was followed by inactivity and passivity, as has been seen in free-ranging sows. However, this temporal profile of behaviour was more pronounced in the penned gilts (P and PS), which were more active during the first 2 h than the crated gilts (C and CS). Gilts in crates spent longer sitting throughout the 8 h period and tended to show more savaging of their piglets. Savaging gilts were found to be more active and responsive to piglets. The provision of straw did not alter gilt behaviour but did alter piglet behaviour, with piglets that were born into environments with no straw (C and P) spending more time next to the gilt's udder. The provision of straw increased the length of parturition (CS and PS), but this did not have detrimental effects on piglet survival. Plasma cortisol was unaffected by space or substrate, however, plasma ACTH was found to be highest in C gilts during the second hour of parturition. Plasma oxytocin was unaffected by space or substrate, however, there was a positive relationship between plasma oxytocin and unresponsiveness to piglets. In conclusion, it appears that farrowing crates thwart interactions between the gilt and her piglets, and that the provision of space during parturition, irrespective of straw availability, facilitates the performance of maternal behaviour that more closely resembles that performed by free-ranging sows.
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