Ask a producer if they’d rather save money or save the planet, and the answer is simple: Yes. That’s why researchers embarked on a project to increase nutrient utilization of feedstuffs consumed by growing-finishing pigs, thereby reducing feed costs and the industry’s environmental footprint.
Both are noble goals, and both are top of mind for the pork sector these days. With feed still responsible for 65 to 70 per cent of production expense, it continues to gobble up producer profits. This is especially true for growing-finishing pigs, as they account for about 80 per cent of all feed consumed.
Just as important as cutting costs these days is minimizing impact on the environment. Worldwide, the demand for animal protein is expected to reach over 400 million tonnes per year by 2050, a jump of 70 per cent from today driven by a growing world population.
Against that backdrop, it is vital that pig production be sustainable, and that means keeping it green.
As with other food animal production, the pork industry is continuously striving for feed conversion efficiency while reducing its environmental footprint by doing more with less. Despite continued progress, production systems do face challenges like greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), foul smelling odours from swine manure and the management of large volumes of pig manure slurry.
When swine manure is spread on the farm, it may lead to soil accumulation of minerals such as phosphorus (P), copper (Cu) and zinc (Zn). Heavy metal contamination of soil with Cu and Zn can pose antimicrobial-resistance risks and hazards to humans and the ecosystem through various means: direct ingestion or contact with contaminated soil, drinking of contaminated ground water with antimicrobial resistant bacteria, and a reduction in food quality and usable land for agricultural production.
When the manure hits the fan
The impact of swine farms on the environment has prompted new legislation in some countries that limits the use of animal manure or the expansion or localization of pig operations. Feeling the urgency to make a difference, scientists focused on one of the main causes of manure issues that may harm the environment: the limited capacity of pig guts to properly digest dietary fiber, leading to poor utilization of that fiber in commercial swine diets. In part, this is due to the use of ingredients that are high in low-cost agricultural by-products. Those by-products include wheat-shorts (leftover particles of bran, germ and flour produced during the milling process), wheat brans and oil meals such as canola meal and soybean meal.
While commercial fiber enzyme products have been around for years, they are limited in their stability and effectiveness in enhancing fiber digestion as part of swine feeding. They were originally developed for biofuel and light industrial applications, but were not custom-developed and designed for the livestock feed sector. Seeking a better alternative, researchers have been developing novel fiber enzymes to help resolve environmental footprint issues caused largely by the poor efficiency of natural dietary fiber.
As a reward for their efforts, scientists discovered a small, unique and multi-functional enzyme that is very rare in the natural environment. To accomplish this, they focused on designing a new generation of "custom-made" fibre enzymes specifically for livestock feeding applications. As well, they thoroughly investigated the stability of their newly developed enzymes in the pig gut environment to ensure their viability in the field or barn.
The enzyme breaks down dietary fiber into small end-products, rendering them easier to digest for pigs and their fussy guts. Referred to as "mono-modular, multi-functional and processive endocellulases", these enzymes may lack a catchy name, but their potential is catching interest from the pork sector. Because the enzymes are customized and optimized for pig feed applications, they will improve key aspects of pig growth performance such as feed conversion, thereby enhancing profit margins for producers. The enzymes will also support more efficient digestive utilization of dietary nutrients such as fibre and protein that contain carbon (C) and nitrogen (N). By doing so, they will reduce the production and emissions of the major greenhouse gases - methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) - that emerge from liquid swine manure slurry.
Once commercialized, these enzymes have the potential to dramatically improve feed conversion efficiency, profit margins and the environmental impact of pork production. Researchers are excited about the discovery’s potential to help producers continue to achieve better outcomes while reducing costs and environmental impact.
Because of its highly innovative nature, multiple sources of support and partners have been involved in this project for the past decade, working primarily at a lab at the University of Guelph (U of G) in Ontario. Contributors to the study include Mr. Laurence Cheng, a graduate student, and Dr. Weijun Wang, adjunct professor, both in the Department of Animal Biosciences at the U of G.
The team’s work has also been supported by research programs from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the Swine Innovation Porc (SIP) Swine Cluster Program, and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).
As a next step, the project team is seeking industrial partners to sponsor further study of this fiber enzyme by way of in vivo research (a specific type of experimentation that involves living pigs). In order to make this enzyme available to producers and industry in the future, scientists must study its effectiveness and functionality in pigs, as well as its physiological properties. By doing so, they hope to gather sufficient data to support governmental approval of the enzymes for commercial applications.
Innovation and discovery are well recognized in the pork industry as critical to unlock profitability, competitiveness and sustainability. The breakthrough on this project underlines the need for science and its commitment to continuous improvement. Though image is not everything, success in reducing costs while protecting the environment should impress both producers and consumers, keeping Canadian pork producers ahead of the curve.