Current research in swine production has revealed clear-cut data illustrating the beneficial effects of managing the microbiome, including enhancing growth performance, decreasing pathogen load and increasing feed-to-gain ratio.

Cheryl Day, Former Editor

November 21, 2017

8 Min Read
Holistic approach to answering the ‘why’ of gut health problems
National Pork Board

In a perfect world, animals from birth to finish grow uniformly, in reasonable time. Nothing shakes these pigs — not stress, sickness or environment — from reaching the finishing line above industry standards. Every hog farmer desires the pig that can grow essentially automatically, with pig health, genetics, nutrition, animal care and environment working in concert.

Pig farming is about producing pounds of pork efficiently. In the competitive world of pork production, leaving money on the table is really not an option. Yet, every farm has that bottom 20% that just seems to lag behind at a much slower pace, or cycle of pigs that takes up space and eats away at the operation’s profits.

Optimizing pig performance is a balancing act between the pig and the bearings of its environment. Still, even the best farms with first-class genetics, technology, facility and animal care practices can come up short. By nature, farmers always strive to do better and push the pig performance envelope.

Still, performance issues can be a mirror of things, but the secret to unlocking growth potential actually may lie in the gut. Yes, tiny microorganisms can either be beneficial metabolism-boosters or destructive invaders robbing the pig’s performance.

From human to animal, many research dollars are dedicated to gut health to understand the gut microbiome and its role in the growth and overall health. For the pig, an established gut microbiota is a complex micro-ecosystem composed of trillions of microorganisms (most of them are bacteria), which co-exist with the pig as the host. Current research in swine production has revealed clear-cut data illustrating the beneficial effects of managing the microbiome, including enhancing growth performance, decreasing pathogen load and increasing feed-to-gain ratio. As a result of veterinary feed directive regulations that went into effect Jan. 1, the search to find alternatives to antibiotics has made gut health a research priority and trending topic in livestock production.

In pig farming, it is not wise to focus on one thing. Throwing down feed in front of a pig to provide nutrition to the gut is simply not enough to optimize growth, especially during a pig health challenge.

It takes stepping back and looking at the entire picture, which is the exact approach that the team at Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition takes by examining the farm’s microbial terroir.

So, what is a farm’s microbial terroir? Basically, it is the sum of all things seen and unseen that touch the farm and its animals, and how all of these things influence the structure and composition of the gut microbial ecology. This includes housing facilities, feed, bedding, water, air and weather, as well as rodents or other transient visitors. It also includes microorganisms — bacteria, yeast, molds and viruses — found inside the animal and throughout the farm.

Each farm’s circumstances are different, and so is its microbial terroir. Arm & Hammer understands that a one-size-fits-all approach is not a solution to optimizing the gut for better pig health and nutrient utilization. The company developed the microbial terroir program as a holistic approach to animal nutrition, meeting the pigs’ needs right where they stand, right now.

Ellen Davis, Ph.D., swine field technical service manager at Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition, tells National Hog Farmer that the microbial terroir program starts with a conversation with the customer to determine the current problems on the farm.

“Viral diseases, including porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, perennially challenge the swine industry,” explains Davis. “But underlying those viral challenges — and sometimes because of them — animals may also experience bacterial infections that reduce their genetic potential.”

Realistically, Arm & Hammer cannot make viral diseases like PRRS magically go away, but Davis points out it is essential to look at ways to capture performance loss by scientifically evaluating the situation, and then formulating precision nutrition to enhance performance on individual farms.

After a healthy discussion that includes reviewing previously conducted veterinary diagnostic laboratory work, the Arm & Hammer team begins mapping out the multifaceted microbial terroir approach, which profiles the gastrointestinal tract of animals in the operation’s swine herd.

The process begins with shipping samples taken at the farm to the Arm & Hammer state-of-art laboratory in Wisconsin. The facility can handle samples taken multiple different ways. The type of sample chosen — rectal swab, fecal sample or samples from the gastrointestinal tract — is based on the farm’s needs. The samples go through a series of procedures and tests to identify the pathogens’ DNA. 


Arm & Hammer uses science to sift through the good and bad of pigs’ gut health.

“We do a RAPD [randomly amplified polymorphic DNA] PCR [polymerase chain reaction], which gives you a genetic fingerprint of the individual isolates that are recovered from the samples we have taken to represent the herd,” notes Davis. “What that does is measure the diversity of genetics of the pathogenic bacteria that are present.”

Veterinary diagnostic work is essential for herds during a health challenge. Yet, their mission is to locate the problematic organism causing the disease and sometimes use it to develop a vaccine. Davis says that organism is likely the one dominant pathogen triggering the disease, but there are additional strains that are working in concert. Therefore, Arm & Hammer takes a broader examination at the whole population diversity and microbial succession over time, allowing the team to map the shifting of the microbial population.

If a farm is experiencing a problem with piglets transitioning from preweaning to post-weaning, the company can narrow down when the transition in microbial population occurred or when the pathogen is dominating the gut. It is a scientific look inside the pig’s gut during a very stressful time, using molecular techniques to help determine the dominant bacterial species present.

Also, Davis says it is possible to compare the flow of pigs against each other by tracking the microbial succession of two sites, showing pigs with a more healthy gastrointestinal tract exhibiting more Lactobacillus (“good” bacteria) dominantly present or pigs with mostly problem organisms existing in the tract. The comparison allows farms to evaluate what is different between the two sites and answer some questions. Is a management practice contributing to increasing the amount of pathogens inside the pig? Is it possible to solve this through nutrition to prevent a drastic switch in microbial population?

Recognizing that vaccines are an essential animal health tool, the team can map how the isolate(s) used in the vaccine relate to the overall pathogenic diversity present in the herd. This helps to understand the pathogenic diversity that is genetically removed from the vaccine isolate, suggesting the diversity is moving away from the vaccine coverage.

“It shows that your vaccine is covering this amount of genetic material, and you got 60% to 70% other diversity that your vaccine is probably not touching,” says Davis. “You can also see the shift in genetic diversity away from that vaccine.”

Ultimately, Arm & Hammer is offering its customers an outside evaluation. It gives the farm a fresh look into the operation, from what is happening inside the pig to the influence of the environment and management practices. As a side benefit, “it helps them look at how their management practices influence their herd health,” Davis notes.

From there, the company can recommend a scientifically formulated, customized nutrition option that enhances the good bacteria to combat destructive invaders, in addition to making other adjustments on the farm.

For Davis and her team, the service does not stop at handing over a product to the customer. The company also follows up by tracing the microbial succession in the pigs after changes are implemented on the farm.

“We don’t tell our customer, ‘Buy our product, and we turn you loose.’ We want to demonstrate that product is working. We want to make sure we have the right product in there for our customer’s needs,” says Davis. “Microbial populations are always trying to win the war.”

The gut microbiota is ever-changing, so following up and routine evaluations can ensure the right micronutrition are fueling a healthy pig GI tract, giving the best defense to perform and thrive.

Walking through the Arm & Hammer lab, it is clear the process is intense, with serious investment in resources and technology to assist livestock producers in sifting through the good and bad of gut health. For the company, it is not about the bag product; it is about offering a holistic service.

What draws customers to Arm & Hammer? “I really do think a lot of it becomes those that are interested in the data,” says Davis.

The evaluation can be completed on any segment of a hog operation, from farrow to finish. It is based on the problem the customer wants to solve. The majority of the time, the sampling is done on piglets; however, some work is being conducted on gilts and sows to understand the microbial populations during gestation and lactation. It allows Arm & Hammer to determine if the pathogen is coming from the sow, or if the pig picked it up in the nursery. “We can work with the individual producer — that is really where we differentiate. What information can we provide that they are looking for?” she stresses.

Customers receive all the data to be used any way they see fit. All data are kept confidential. The company does not share the data or use them unless the customer grants permission.

Overall, it is about the individual farm, not what is going on at the neighbor’s or in the region. Whereas it is important to have a regional discussion about animal health, the Arm & Hammer approach narrows down the actual problems to the individual farm level. It helps the company answer the “why.”

About the Author(s)

Cheryl Day

Former Editor, National Hog Farmer

Cheryl Day is a former editor of National Hog Farmer.

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