A healthier start to a pig's life

By Eureka. Pigs commonly suffer from digestive disorders around weaning, but a new plant-based product given before weaning helps the digestive tract to mature and improves weaning success.
calendar icon 29 January 2007
clock icon 6 minute read
Our impact will be that we are able to produce piglets more effectively and more cheaply. Prof Stefan Pierzynowski, Lund University, Sweden

EUREKA project E! 2675 HEALTHY WEANING has developed a plant-based product to stimulate the maturing of the digestive tract in pigs. Healthy weaning is critical for pigs, as at this stage they are very susceptible to infection; causing significant mortality. Antibiotics traditionally given as feed additives are now no longer used as they have been shown to contribute to microbial resistance. The new plant product, given at a specific stage before weaning, stimulates digestive tract development. This helps the piglets' adapt and significantly increases chances of successful weaning. The technique should have major cost benefits for pig producers.

Weaning is a problematic time for pigs, especially in intensive production. Piglets commonly become susceptible to bacterial infections including weaning diarrhoea, which restrict their growth rate; and often lead to piglet losses of 10% or more. This sort of infection can significantly increase production costs because the animals need food over a longer production period, and also for veterinary treatment. Similar problems are seen in weaning calves. The antibiotics used routinely for many years to control these rapidly-spreading infections have now fallen out of use, mainly due to the increase in resistant strains of bacteria, and because they also have negative effects on digestive tract and immune system development.

  • Cost € 1.75 million
  • Duration 36 months
  • Countries involved: Sweden, Poland

Speeding up development

A radical solution has been found by using a lectin obtained from the red kidney bean plant (Phaseolus vulgaris). Lectins are proteins that bind cells together; typically red blood cells, and are therefore known as phytohaemagglutinins. In the early weeks of life, the greatest changes in the digestive tract of young mammals occur in the pancreas, stomach and upper intestine. But, the changes needed for the animal to cope with a non-milk diet are not completed by the time weaning is carried out in production animals. Suddenly introducing a weaned diet frequently causes gastrointestinal disorders, which cause reduced weight gain and poor food utilisation. Calves show particularly rapid changes at the time the stomach adapts to the needs of a vegetable diet.

The EUREKA HEALTHY WEANING project coordinator, Professor Stefan Pierzynowski of Lund University, Sweden, explains: "Giving this new factor, which we call Suilektin®, for a short, specific period before weaning stimulates the digestive tract to reach maturity faster. This helps it to change from the digestive and absorptive needs of milk, to those of an adult diet." The EUREKA study showed that giving the lectin to piglets at 11-12 days old greatly enhanced successful weaning at 28 days. This result was achieved by accelerating the production of mature intestinal cells, able to cope effectively with the weaning diet. During the project, field trials determined the optimal timing and dose, together with the best consistency and method of administration; and the results analysed the animals’ performance and the economic impact of the technique.

Studies determined the exact effects of lectin at the cellular level of the intestinal lining and on intestinal enzymes production; others focused on developing immune cells and gut bacteria. All above mentioned studies contributed to developing an economic process for large-scale production.

A welcome innovation for industry

Current pig production methods could benefit significantly from this new Suilektin® product, and hopefully the studies will prove useful for pigs and calves as well. Other expensive, sophisticated weaning foods are already available on the market, but are not always an economic proposition for the farmer, as the profit margin on pig production is not high. "We are very interested in finding a producer for Suilektin®, and it could reach the market very soon. It will be both cheap and very effective," says Prof. Pierzynowski. Since the project was completed in October 2005, the project partners have filed two patents on their process and have received considerable interest from potential producers. A current consortium is actively working on behalf of the former EUREKA project partners to set up arrangements for production.

"Although giving any lectin in large amounts would not be recommended," he continues, "we will be explaining to farmers the advantages of its use in small, carefully calculated amounts for this very short period. This very specific use – as an additive and not as a food - will stimulate maturing of the digestive tract without causing any digestive problems." How soon Suilektin® reaches the market will be linked with the full implementation of the EU legislation.

Animal nutrition studies

The idea for the Suilektin® product originated in Dept Cell and Organism Biology (former Dept Animal Physiology) Lund University, Sweden, but in final form was developed in collaboration with other project partners. Dept Agricultural Biosystems and Technology, Agricultural Sciences University at Alnarp, Sweden studied the effects of lectin on pig development and behaviour, and its practical application and value in Swedish pig production. The Kielanowski Institute of Physiology and Animal Nutrition from the Polish Academy of Science and the Dept Animal Physiology from Agricultural University of Lublin, Poland carried out field studies, examining the effects of lectin on suckling piglets on a small and large scale, and determining the optimal dose.

At the beginning of the project Gramineer International AB, an SME then operating in Sweden, produced and purified the lectin; and Lund University tested it in laboratory studies. Another SME, Mifarmex GmbH in Poland, further developed the technology for lectin preparation and actually possess know-how to produce Suilektin® for big scale test and for commercial usage.

January 2007

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