Biotechnology is correctly defined as "the application for industrial purposes (in our case pig production) of scientific biological processes - biology being the scientific study of living organisms."

Genetic engineering is a part of this and so is cloning. The public is understandably leery of these developments. But with nutritional biotechnology, we are on much safer ground as the vast proportion of the nutrients used come from natural sources. The food consumer is crying out for more natural ingredients in the human food chain. That brings me to my first point, a simple one - nutritional biotechnology is a good thing because it is user-friendly.

The public always has had at the back of its mind that natural food ingredients like milk, honey, eggs, yeast, mushrooms, seaweed and herbs, etc. are in some way good for you. The new biotech nutrients stem from many of these.

They also favor the probiotic (for life) approach rather than the antibiotic (against life). Yes, the public can get into the wrong track, too. Public opinion, media-led or not, is a powerful force and even while attempting to educate it along correct scientific lines, hog producers must listen to those of our more rational critics, and try to put in our feeds what they'd prefer us to use. The consumer is king and is also our our customer.

Vitamins In The 1920s It seems to me that nutritional biotechnology today is in a similar position to that of vitamins in the 1920's. Then our grandparents were discovering that tiny amounts of a nutrient added to the diet could make a great difference to the well-being of both humans and animals. And look where vitamins are today.

Nutritional biotechnology today is doing exactly the same. Organic nutrients (derived from living organisms) often used in tiny amounts (c.f. organic chromium added at 200 parts per billion of the diet; organic selenium at 0.3 ppm/ton; natural acids at 0.2%) can make a substantial difference to the pig's performance where the case for them arises. All these nutrients are made directly from natural, living sources, and a very little seems to go a long way.

Shaky Start Nutritional biotechnology got off to a shaky start. Even today some scientists look askance at the subject. Since the 1960s, probiotics haven't helped. They were promoted as alternatives to antibiotic growth promoters rather than where they work best - for discrete (spot) treatment when the digestive system is stressed or under pathogenic threat. Also, many probiotics weren't stable, and could never work because they weren't there by the time the pig ate the food. Still more were the wrong ones and sold just because they were easy and cheap to culture.

We've moved on a lot since then. Nutritional biotechnology has come of age, even if it is still but a stripling. Reputable research scientists and well-respected nutritionists are discovering more and more about how they work.

For example, one of the most interesting developments involves herbs. We know how certain Chinese herbs are reputed to have curative or preventative properties. But are the stories true?

Serious investment is taking place to test the claims about herbs and then to take the herbs apart chemically and molecularly to see what causes the benefits if they exist.

We are much further down the road with nutritional biological products. Following, I summarize some of the scientifically established findings and possible areas for future exploration.

Nutritional Biotechnology Oligosaccharides (yeast sugars) - Capture hostile bacteria and ignore beneficials. Similar (if slightly less) results compared to antibiotic growth promoters but without the public disapproval. They are, after all nutrients i.e. sugars.

Organic Chromium (from yeast cell wall) - The copper of the 1990s has produced remarkable improvements in litter size and improvements in farrowing rate in those breeding stock performing modestly, which we all have one or two in the herd. For grow-outs, it may repartition energy into less fat/more lean like PST, but without PST's "hormone" fear of the consumer.

Organic Selenium (from yeast) - Much better and safer than the traditional inorganic sodium selenite. Soils and plants are becoming increasingly selenium-deficient. Vitamin E needs of pigs are increasing as we use more lipid (fat) energy. A deficiency is puzzlingly often not helped by just increasing expensive vitamin E in the diet. But a little organic selenium seems to remove many of these won't-go-away problems associated with the vitamin, I've found.

Organic Acids (from various natural sources, including fruit) - Acidifying creep and post-weaner diets and water will control many gut pathogens. Young pigs need help especially in high calcium/meat/fishmeal diets.

Probiotic inoculants (cultures from beneficial bacteria) - Here the idea is to seed wet (soaked) feed especially for young pigs. This helps the fermentative beneficial organisms multiply; helps create enzyme action; helps pre-digest the food to avoid post-weaning gut indigestion and a detriment to growth.

Plus, it raises acid levels to a state where no acid-sensitive pathogen can exist. The wet feed equipment already exists.

Bioplexes (linking trace elements to amino acids) - A generic name for a whole crop of these products principally involving zinc, copper, manganese and iron. The amino acid "tows" the trace element through the gut wall at the correct absorption site, so less is required in the feed and much less is excreted as a pollutant. Several of these also seem to raise immune protection and one (manganese proteinate) could improve grading.

* Bioplexed iron is particularly interesting as there is evidence that the same process tows the iron through another membrane, the placenta, into the unborn fetus. If the same action can be developed to cross the third and final membrane, the mammary gland, then maybe, just maybe, iron injections may be redundant. Much too early to say yet.

* Mycotoxin absorbents (alcohol-treated sugars from yeast) Mycotoxins, (fungal poisons) are prevalent even in tiny amounts and are insidious causes of a variety of pig disorders. They seem to reduce the immune barrier, too. Adding mold inhibitors to food is wise, but despite this mycotoxin build-up can still occur over time if bulk bins are not regularly steam-cleaned, a most difficult/dangerous job, usually shirked.

New mycotoxin absorbents in the food are a much better line of defense than the old-fashioned clays used previously. More powerful, more particulate.

What You Might Do

* Keep an open mind.

* Try a few out in your feed and see how you progress.

* Listen to when it is the right time to use them.

* Do careful paybacks (REO = return to extra outlay) as many are not expensive and can give remarkable returns (Table 1) especially where the pigs are stressed and challenged.

Nutritional biotechnology is definitely substance - not myth.