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Distillers grains are good for livestock gut health

The yeast in distillers grains feeds bacteria called prebiotics, 
and they may promote health and improve feed efficiency

Wade Abbott
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Bingeing on baked goods and beer may actually be a boon for your belly, suggests a study recently completed by a team of international researchers.

“Yeast, which has become a component of the human diet, is degraded by bacteria that live in the intestines of humans,” said Wade Abbott, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge.

“The bacteria that live in our intestines that are dynamically involved in the digestion of food can use the sugars very selectively as a nutrient source.”

And while that’s good news for bread lovers, it’s even better news for livestock feeders who are looking for ways to improve gut health in their animals.

“Pigs that were fed distillers grains actually started to display profiles of bacteria in their intestines that were similar, in the sense that bacteria that digests yeast sugars were starting to show up in pig intestines as well,” said Abbott.

The research — a collaboration between Abbott, Harry Gilbert of Newcastle University, and Eric Martens of the University of Michigan — began in 2008 as a way to “improve intestinal health” in both humans and livestock. As part of the study, the pigs were fed distillers grains, a common feed, which is enriched with yeast.

“As a byproduct of fermentation, the yeast is still a component of these grains, so when the pigs and potentially other livestock are eating distillers grains, their bacteria in their intestines are becoming attuned to degrading those yeast sugars,” said Abbott.

These bacteria, called prebiotics, have important applications in food safety, he said.

“They’re believed to prevent the binding of pathogens to the intestinal surface of the host,” he said. “They can competitively exclude pathogens from binding and colonizing within the intestine.”

Prebiotics are also under “extensive research” as a growth promoter, as they help animals extract more nutrients from their feed.

“There’s a number of labs that are actually exploring the use of yeast as an alternative to antibiotics for growth promotion.”

Right now, Abbott’s team is working on producing a refined prebiotic feed additive that should offer better results than simply feeding distillers grains to livestock.

“What we’re looking at doing is trying to harness the enzymes involved in metabolizing the yeast sugars and generate more potent forms of prebiotics,” said Abbott, adding that results are a few years away.

The “big challenge,” he said, is cost effectiveness.

“Say you took an agricultural residue, such as distillers grains, and you fed it directly to livestock. That’s a lot easier to get your hands on and it’s a lot easier to produce because it’s just a byproduct of another process.”

Refining those residues and making them “more potent” requires more processing, which increases the cost of production and, ultimately, the feed.

“If the producer’s not going to be making money, there won’t be uptake in the industry of that technology,” said Abbott. “The challenge is to find efficient ways that are actually going to save the farmer money and are really going to make a difference in the health of the animal as well.”

Abbott won’t hazard a guess as to what this might mean for a producer’s bottom line — the research is still in the early stages — but in the meantime, producers could see some health benefits to feeding their livestock distillers grains.

“The potential is there in distillers grains, and studies are currently underway to see if those types of health benefits are actually getting translated into the animal.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.



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