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ECO-FCE: A Whole-systems Approach to Optimising Feed Efficiency and Reducing the Ecological Footprint of Monogastrics

14 November 2013


Dr Stefan Buzoianu and Dr Peadar Lawlor of Teagasc, Moorepark outlined a new EU project aimed at optimising feed efficiency and reducing the ecological footprint of pigs and other monogastric animals at the Teagasc Pig Farmers' Conference in October 2013.

A new project entitled 'A whole systems approach to optimising feed efficiency and reducing the ecological footprint of monogastrics' or in short 'ECO-FCE' was launched last February in Belfast. ECO-FCE is funded by the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7 2007/2013) under grant agreement No. 311794.

As feed represents approximately 70 per cent of the cost of producing a pig, feed conversion efficiency is one of the key determinants of unit profitability. Through a better understanding of the interactions between animal genetics, gut structure and function, the microbial population of the gut and the attributes of feed, ECOFCE will propose strategies to improve feed efficiency whilst also reducing the output of pollutants from the animal (greenhouse gas - GHG - emissions, nitrogen, phosphorus etc).

The project is co-coordinated by Queen's University Belfast and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) Hillsborough. It brings together an international consortium of 17 partners from across Europe and the US to be awarded €6 million research funding over a four-year period, which will focus on one common objective: to provide the European pig industry with innovative strategies to feed the growing global population in an efficient and ecologically-friendly manner. The Teagasc Pig Production Department will play a central role in the project, leading one of the seven project work packages while actively participating in all others.

Another Irish organisation, Hermitage Genetics, will also play an important role in the project.

Work Programme and Objectives

The core scientific work of ECO-FCE is divided into a number of interactive subprojects:

Development of an ECO-FCE warehouse: Existing research into factors to improve feed conversion efficiency (FCE) and reduce the ecological footprint of pigs is plentiful, but perhaps under-utilised. ECO-FCE will compile this information into one, easy-to-use 'electronic warehouse'. This will be available for use by the pig industry to predict the effect of management and feeding practices on FCE and environmental pollutants.

Novel feeding strategies: ECO-FCE will substantially advance animal nutrition and feed science in pigs. Precision feeding of pigs will be a key area of research. The use of a range of feed additives will also be investigated to determine their effectiveness in improving FCE and reducing ammonia emissions and nitrogen and phosphorus excretion.

Gut manipulation: Using cutting edge technologies, ECO-FCE will identify characteristics of gut structure and microbial populations in the gut which promote 'good' and 'poor' FCE in pigs. Using this knowledge, strategies to manipulate the gut to promote a 'beneficial' gut micro-biome in compromised animals, will then be tested.

Development of indicators for nutrient partitioning: ECO-FCE will identify genetic indicators that are:

  1.  diagnostic for the utilisation and partitioning of nutrients,
  2.  indicative of the animal’s reactivity to nutritional and management interventions to improve FCE, and
  3.  informative regarding the genetic potential of the animal

Tool development and validation: Industry tools that will be developed include the ECO-FCE 'hub' (developed from the ECO-FCE 'warehouse'), which will allow endusers to extract information specific to their personal query, an ecological calculator and genomic models.

Expected Benefits for Pig Producers

Better feed conversion efficiency

All the strategies examined in the project will aim to improve FCE. As feed represents around 70 per cent of the cost of producing a pig an improvement in feed conversion efficiency will have a major influence on unit profitability.

For example, an improvement in feed conversion efficiency of 0.1 units between weaning and slaughter at around 104kg could save up to €3.30 per pig or up to around €40,000 per year for a 500-sow unit.

Better health

One of the aims of the project is to manipulate the gut to promote a beneficial gut micro-biome. A better intestinal microbial profile should improve overall pig health. Healthier pigs can divert energy to growth that would otherwise be used for maintenance of the immune system.

For example, diarrhoea in pigs can deteriorate feed conversion efficiency by up to 0.3 units thereby greatly increasing feed cost. An improvement in feed conversion efficiency of 0.3 units could lead to a reduction in feed costs of around €120,000 on a 500-sow unit.

Reduced output of pollutants

A more efficient feed converter by definition will require less feed to achieve a target weight. For this reason less manure, GHG, nitrogen, phosphorus etc will be excreted in the lifetime of the animal. In fact, one of the most effective means of reducing the polluting potential of a pig is to improve its feed conversion efficiency. All of this is not only good for the environment but will also reduce the manure handling costs associated with pig production.

Decision management tools

A tool (ECO-FCE 'hub') will allow producers and other personnel to extract information specific to their personal query. An ecological calculator will also be developed as part of the project.

Further Reading

You can find out more about ECO-FCE by clicking here.

November 2013

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