The importance of a good start

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Penny Young, ASAS/ASAP intern

Many people could tell you that a runt animal will be affected by its poorer start over the course of its life, and this understanding has prompted greater research into how those early life events can have a lasting influence on an animal’s development. In biomedicine, this concept is known as the “developmental origins of health and disease” (DOHaD) and is a current focus of interest. However, our understanding of the underlying mechanisms and how we might manage this influence to improve the likelihood of healthy and productive development is still limited.

A review by Gatford et al. from the University of Adelaide, “Off to the Right Start – How Pregnancy and Early Life Can Determine Future Animal Health and Production”, introduces this new perspective of DOHaD and the history of the field, and, largely in the context of pig production reviews some of the evidence for the long-term impact of early life on welfare and productivity in an animal population. The review also discusses intervention options and how these might improve long-term outcomes.

Gatford et al. refer to several studies that reveal the range of effects that may be seen in offspring as a result of stress in the mother during pregnancy. These range from impacts on birth weight, to longer lasting influences on body weight and composition, even after weaning, as well as effects seen in the immunity of offspring. In some cases, the impact of a stressful pregnancy can span generations.

The findings discussed in this review present a clear case for consideration of maternal stress during pregnancy, as increased stress impacts a range of traits with economic significance. As highlighted by the authors, maternal effects on progeny growth, immune function and behaviour are also especially relevant in poultry production because of the large numbers of progeny per hen, meaning that significant economic and welfare improvements are possible with small changes in feed efficiency and health.

“Off to the Right Start – How Pregnancy and Early Life Can Determine Future Animal Health and Production”, K.L. Gatford, C.T. Roberts, K.L. Kind and P.I. Hynd

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