Beneficial bacteria used to keep pigs healthy

NSW DPI immunologist Dr James Chin and researcher Kent Wu at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute.
NSW DPI immunologist Dr James Chin and researcher Kent Wu at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute.

An innovative alternative to using antibiotics in piggeries is being trialled by scientists from the Elizabeth Macarthur Agriculture Institute near Sydney, according to the NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Ian Macdonald.

Mr Macdonald said probiotics, used in humans to promote gut health, are being fed to intensively reared pigs to stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the intestine, and prime the immune system.

“The use of probiotics in piggeries could help keep pigs healthy and reduce the reliance of the industry on in-feed antibiotic growth promotants”, Mr Macdonald said.

In humans, the most commonly used probiotics belong to the lactic acid bacteria family and include acidophilus and bifidobacteria, frequently found as supplements in live-culture yogurts.

NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) immunologist, Dr James Chin, said the time immediately after birth and during weaning are two of the most critical stages in a pig's life.

“A newborn piglet, like a human baby, has almost no immunity, and its gastro-intestinal tract is like a vacuum cleaner, capable of sucking in and being colonised by micro-organisms from their food and the environment.

“At weaning, the pigs’ diet changes and they can no longer depend upon the mothers’ milk for immunity.

“At this time, they become vulnerable to infection with E. coli, a bacterium that causes colibacillosis or diarrhoea, retarding growth and making the pig even more susceptible to other diseases such as Mycoplasma.”

Dr Chin said research trials to be undertaken at piggeries in NSW would seek to investigate the genetic signatures of good and bad bacteria, isolated from different parts of the pigs’ intestines.

“This would provide a quick way of determining whether a piglet is healthy or not and whether the provision of probiotics would improve gut health.”

The use of probiotics to restore a better balance of beneficial bacteria is important because these bacteria can produce substances that help fight invading pathogenic bacteria.

Dr Chin said a new designer lactic acid bacteria probiotic developed in collaboration with a commercial partner, International Animal Health, has already been tested on a herd of 53 animals, and has significantly improved weaner weight.

He said it would be valuable to find out whether a combination of probiotics used at birth and after weaning could provide “a complete process” for managing pig health, and reduce over-reliance on antibiotics.

A new three year research project is being funded with the help of the Pork Cooperative Research Centre and International Animal Health.