University of Guelph researchers at Ontario, Canada have discovered one reason why piglets often become ill and sometimes die at weaning.

A gut enzyme involved in digesting phosphate and fighting off harmful bacteria is significantly compromised during the early-weaning process.

“We found that the early weaning of piglets reduced the level and performance of alkaline phosphatase in the gut, which can lead to decreased growth development and illness,” says Dale Lackeyram, a Ph.D. student who worked on the study with animal and poultry science professor Ming Fan. “These study results have benefits for the pork industry. Early weaning is critical for farmers when it comes to maximizing production, but it’s also the time when a majority of piglets die or their quality of health suffers.”

In the research published recently in The Journal of Nutrition, the researchers weaned piglets at 10 days old and placed them on a corn-soybean meal-based diet for 12 days. A second group of piglets was allowed to continue nursing during the 12-day study.

Researchers then examined intestinal tissue from the two groups and found the piglets that were switched from sow’s milk to feed had reduced levels of alkaline phosphatase and reduced function in the remaining enzymes.

Reducing the effectiveness of alkaline phosphatase has two major implications for a weaned animal, says Lackeyram.

“From a nutritional standpoint, this enzyme plays a key role in making phosphorus available for bone growth and development,” he says. “Currently, piglets are given supplements in their feed to make phosphorus more digestible, but this study shows that the animals don’t express high enough levels of the enzyme needed to digest and make nutritional use of it.”

Alkaline phosphatase is also part of the body’s natural defense system, he says.

“This enzyme is capable of acting on the toxic components of bacterial cells such as E. coli. The impacting of weaning on this enzyme is likely one of the contributing reasons why piglets often get sick, suffer from chronic bacterial-induced diarrhea and have trouble gaining weight when switched over to solids,” Lackeyram says.

A novel way to defend against bacteria and enhance phosphorus nutrition during the weaning transition may be to supplement encapsulated alkaline phosphatase.

“Because this enzyme plays a similar role in humans as in pigs, this study provides a basis to further investigate the role of supplementing alkaline phosphatase during periods of digestive illness,” he notes.