Weaning is a problematic time for pigs, especially in intensive production. Piglets commonly become susceptible to bacterial infections including weaning diarrhea, 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.
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.
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.
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