Conversations: Ask your herd health consultant about digestive health and live probiotics
By Dr. Kevin Martens
Probiotics continue to gain attention in the dairy industry as a way to not only improve the digestive health, but also feed conversion of the animal. For probiotics to be effective, it’s important to understand what you’re buying before making a purchase. Have a conversation with your nutritionist, veterinarian or herd health consultant to make the decision that’s right for your herd.
Live probiotics continue to garner interest as a dairy herd nutrition tool. These feed additives offer producers a way to augment animal performance without pharmaceuticals/antibiotic feed additives, with a positive impact on any operation, large or small, dairy or beef.
Research shows live probiotics can improve feed efficiency by 2%-3%. Working hand-in-hand with increased feed efficiency is improvement of the cow’s digestive system, playing a critical role in the overall health and well-being of the animal. Selecting the right probiotic is going to help the cow be more efficient and productive by maintaining a healthier, more efficient digestive system.
1) What is a live probiotic?
A probiotic is a preparation (as a dietary supplement) containing live microorganisms (as lactobacillus acidophilus and Propionibacterium freudenreichii) which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.
Similar to what is often seen in human health, probiotics offer producers an opportunity to improve the digestive health and efficiency of the animal. The improvement of digestive health, while not visible to the human eye, is crucial to the overall health and well-being of the animal. There is still much to learn about the animal’s digestive tract, but research continues to confirm the benefits of feeding probiotics to dairy and feedlot cattle.
2) What am I trying to accomplish?
Before deciding which probiotic to use, it’s important to determine if a probiotic fits your operation. Are you looking for a tool to make your operation and cows more efficient and profitable, or are you looking for a quick fix to a crisis?
We all want an easy solution to a problem but there usually is not one. Live probiotics should be viewed as a management tool to become a more profitable operation. Decisions should be made on sound science, not based on “crisis solution.”
3) How will I measure success?
After goals are set, determine strategies for measuring success. It can often be difficult to quantify a healthier, more efficient digestive system, so be sure not to set unrealistic expectations.
Even though measurable results may not immediately be noticed, a live probiotic can be impacting herd health. When feeding a live probiotic, the lower digestive system becomes healthier, allowing the cow to absorb more nutrients. That should result in better feed conversion, with the cow extracting more energy from the diet for her daily needs.
Manure analysis can be the best way to determine if the probiotic is having an effect. Evaluate how variable the manure is across your herd prior to feeding the probiotic, and then after. If the probiotic is having an impact on the herd’s digestive system, manure should become consistent from cow to cow, with less undigested material in it.
4) What do I look for in a probiotic?
There are many different probiotics on the market, manufactured differently and supported by various levels of research and benefits. Differentiating factors among probiotics include bacteria species and strain selection, which part of the digestive system the live probiotic impacts, and manufacturing processes.
Before investing in a probiotic, producers should investigate each of these factors:
• What strains of bacteria are used to create the probiotic?
• How does the manufacturer guarantee the product is alive?
• Can the manufacturer ensure the product gets to the lower gut of the animal, where it can be utilized?
• What peer-reviewed research trials has the company selling the probiotic conducted?
• Is there research showing the positive influence on the immune system of the animal?
• What peer-reviewed research on the “mode of action” of the live probiotic is available?
• Has the live probiotic been shown to have an influence on the entire digestive tract, not just in the rumen or the lower digestive tract?
Measuring the impact that live probiotics can have on a herd can be difficult, but knowing there is research showing the live probiotic is influencing the digestive system in a measurable way will give you confidence in your choice and the long-term benefits of selecting the right live probiotic for your herd.
5) How does the feedlot industry use the particular probiotic?
It may seem strange to look to the feedlot industry when talking about feeding dairy cows, but with feed conversion being the primary source of income, the feedlot industry has been further ahead of the dairy industry in feeding systems, technologies and management practices. A good indicator of whether or not to select a probiotic can be its presence in the feedlot industry. If the probiotic is being used successfully by beef producers, the probability is higher that it can impact digestive health in dairy cattle.
If you choose to invest in probiotics, keep in mind employee education and monitoring. Management tools are only productive if they are implemented correctly and in the case of live probiotics this can include storage, handling and application on farm.
• Dr. Kevin Martens is a veterinarian and technical services consultant with Nutrition Physiology Company. Contact him via phone: (208) 670-5462 or email: email@example.com.