‘Bug’ benefits weanling pigs

A bacterium provides energy to pigs during weaning which helps boost their immune systems and reduce infections.

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American researchers have discovered that feeding bacteria to young pigs helps them fight infections and stay healthy during weaning. Mississippi State University researcher Janet Donaldson says that in a study of 36 weanling-age pigs, a dose of lipid-producing Rhodococcus opacus bacteria increased circulating triglycerides, a crucial source of energy for the immune system. “We could strengthen the immune system by providing the bacteria to animals at a stage when they need additional energy,” says Donaldson.

“Pigs, provided with an alternative energy source, may be able to fight off infections more efficiently.” Donaldson and other researchers tested R. opacus because it naturally synthesises large amounts of triglycerides. Normally, R. opacus would use the triglycerides for its own energy needs. US Agricultural Research Service livestock issues researcher, Jeff Carroll, says R. opacus could be used in a way that roughly mimics an energy producing probiotic.

Weanling pigs are more susceptible to pathogens and stress because they have to adjust to a changed diet and a new environment. Coming at a time when a pig’s immune system is immature, weaning can lead to reduced feed intake, less available energy and increased risk of infection. Researchers say that an oral supplement of live R. opacus would offer weanling pigs an alternative energy source. Even if pigs ate less, they would still have access to the bacteria-produced triglycerides.

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Donaldson noted no observable negative side-effects in the pigs given R. opacus. In the future, pig producers could pipe R. opacus into pens through existing watering systems.The next step is to test how pigs given R. opacus react to a disease challenge such as Salmonella. Carroll said he would also like to explore the possible beneficial effect of the bacteria on calves during transport. The project is the 2013 recipient of the US Pork Board Swine Industry Award for Innovation.