Firing up fibre digestion for hogs

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Photo courtesy Farm & Food Care Ontario

What if we can redirect high quality grains like corn and wheat from feeding livestock to feeding our growing world population?

A University of Guelph researcher has been asking himself that question for years and has set out to find a practical solution.

A professor and researcher in the University of Guelph’s animal and poultry science department, Dr. Ming Fan has been working to find a way to increase the natural digestibility of lower quality feeds in livestock, which he expects will leave more grain available for human consumption or ethanol fuel production, an environmentally sustainable fuel alternative.

Corn, wheat, barley, oats, rye, and sorghum are all considered high quality grains that both humans and livestock consume.

Many grain processing techniques create grain byproducts that are very nutritional but undesirable for human consumption or further processing.

These byproducts, including wheat hulls (husks of the grain), wheat shorts, and distillers grains (from distilling and ethanol production), are high in dietary fibre and could replace the higher quality and costly grains traditionally fed to livestock, like corn and wheat.

The problem is that just like humans, monogastric livestock (animals with only one stomach chamber) like pigs have a hard time digesting high levels of fibre.

“Ever had a belly ache from eating too much of one kind of food, like ice cream or bread?” asks Fan. “Pigs feel that way if they eat too much fibre because they can’t digest too much at one time.”

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Feed bins at an Ontario hog barn

Familiar with the digestive system of pigs, Fan has been leading research since 2009 to find the key to unlock fibre digestion.

Grain byproducts and other lower quality feeds are economically cheaper and Fan’s research could change the livestock feed and grain industry if farmers have the ability to maintain the high nutritional value of feed at a lower cost.

“Finding natural fibre degradation or digestive enzymes would allow farmers to produce more with less,” says Fan. “That means raising healthy, nutritionally satisfied hogs with lower cost feed.”

He has discovered a naturally-occurring microbial enzyme in a pig’s gut, which has recently been patented.

It already digests fibre and Fan is working to duplicate this natural enzyme to increase a pig’s ability to digest fibre-dense, lower quality grains and byproducts.

Still in the early stages, this newly discovered enzyme represents a new type of fibre degradation biocatalyst for livestock and with further development, could increase an animal’s feed efficiency and enhance the digestion.

Just like humans take dietary supplements to improve their own digestive bacteria, Fan intends to naturally replicate the enzyme to develop into a feed supplement for animals.

“Feeding the digestive enzyme back to hogs has huge potential for the livestock industry,” says Fan, who expects feed efficiency to improve in hogs by as much as 10 per cent.

Fan says the enzymes need further development before they reach the livestock feed market and is currently finalizing his research data for commercialization.

“We’ve found naturally-occurring gut bacterial enzyme that will be multiplied and fed back to hogs as a feed enzyme supplement to increase their digestion of high fibre, lower quality feed grains and byproducts,” says Fan. “Increasing feed efficiencies like this could revolutionize the landscape of the livestock feed industry.”

Funding for the most current stage of Fan’s research is provided by the Gryphon’s LAAIR (Leading to Accelerated Adoption of Innovative Research) program, which is supported through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.