Seaweed could be an unlikely solution to help pig farmers improve piglet health and reduce the need for antimicrobials, scientists have discovered.
Researchers at University College in Dublin have found that feeding seaweed – favoured in ancient Chinese medicine for its health-boosting properties – to sows can have long-term impacts on piglet health.
As well as improving the quality of colostrum, which leads to healthier piglets, scientists have discovered that seaweed extract changes the structure of the gut, reducing the risk of scouring during weaning.
It also causes a drop in the presence of e.coli in the gut, potentially leading to farmers needing to use fewer antimicrobials.
John O Doherty, Professor of Monogastric Nutrition at University College Dublin, said seaweed contained lots of properties which were beneficial to animal health, including vitamins, minerals and fatty acids.
But it is the sugars in seaweed – particularly a type of glucose called laminarin which is found in brown algaes – which are most promising for pig farmers.
During trials over the past decade, Prof O Doherty and his team discovered that feeding seaweed extracts containing laminarin to sows improved their gut structure – something which was passed on to piglets.
“It reduces inflammation in the gut and changes its architecture, which leads to an increase in the absorption of glucose and helps improve digestibility,” Prof O Doherty said.
“It shows the role that the sow plays in feeding the piglets is vital. We can change the gut bacteria and get totally different responses with the piglets.”
Prof O Doherty said another unexpected effect of the seaweed was that it reduced the bacteria which causes meat to decompose, meaning that it helped improve the shelf-life of pig meat.
“It has a lot of plus points for sustainable pig production. As well as helping animals to fight off infection, it helps improve meat quality, which will hopefully mean less nitrates being pumped into meat and less spoilage,” he added.
“We could see these extracts being available to farmers within the next year. It will be one of the alternatives along with better management, better nutrition, and more carefully monitored diets.”