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The influence of a magnesium-rich marine extract on behaviour, salivary cortisol levels and skin lesions in growing pigs

  • K. O'Driscoll (a1), D. M. O'Gorman (a1), S. Taylor (a1) and L. A. Boyle (a2)

Abstract

Growing pigs can display undesirable behaviours, reflecting or causing poor welfare. Addition of magnesium (Mg) to the diet could reduce these, as Mg supplementation has been associated with improved coping ability in response to stress. This study examined the effect of supplementation with a Mg-rich marine extract-based product (Supplement) on the behaviour, skin and tail lesion scores and salivary cortisol concentrations of growing pigs. At weaning (28 days), 448 piglets were assigned to either Control or Supplement (0.05%) diets in single-sex groups of 14. Four weeks later (c. 17 kg), pigs were blocked according to weight and back test scores. Seven piglets from each pen were mixed with seven from another pen of the same sex and dietary treatment to yield the following groups: control male, Supplement male, control female and Supplement female (n = 4 of each). This marked the start of the 9-week experimental period. Instances of the following behaviours were recorded in each pen for 8 × 2 min periods 1 day/week: aggression (fight, head-knock and bite); harmful (tail-in-mouth, ear-chewing and belly-nosing); and sexual/mounting behaviour. Four focal pigs were selected from each pen, and their behaviour was continuously recorded for 2 × 5 min periods on the same day. Saliva was collected once per week at 1000 h by allowing pigs to chew on a cotton bud for c. 1 min. Salivary cortisol was analysed in duplicate by an enzyme immunoassay. Skin and tail lesions were scored according to severity 1 day/week. There were fewer aggressive incidents in Supplement pens (P < 0.01), and mounting behaviour (performed only by males) was almost three times lower in Supplement than in control pens (P < 0.01). However, there was no effect of Supplement on the incidence of each of the harmful behaviours. Behaviour of the focal pigs showed no treatment effect on the duration or incidence of aggressive behaviour. However, Supplement pigs spent less time performing harmful behaviours compared with control pigs (P < 0.001). Supplement had no effect on the occurrence or severity of tail-biting outbreaks or on tail lesion scores. However, Supplement females had lower skin lesion scores, in particular in the ears and shoulders (P < 0.01). Finally, Supplement pigs had lower salivary cortisol concentrations (P < 0.01). Mounting is a major welfare concern in uncastrated pigs, and therefore this represents an important welfare benefit of Supplement. Reduced salivary cortisol, in conjunction with reduced skin lesion scores in supplemented females, suggests that addition of a Mg-rich marine extract improved pig welfare in this system.

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