Pelleted-hay alfalfa feed increases sheep wether weight gain and rumen bacterial richness over loose-hay alfalfa feed.

Ruminants, like sheep, goats, cows, deer, moose, etc.,  have a four-chambered stomach, the largest of which is called the rumen.  The rumen houses symbiotic microorganisms which break down plant fibers that the animal can’t digest on its own.  It’s estimated that up to 80% of a ruminant’s energy need is met from the volatile fatty acids (also called short-chain fatty acids) that bacteria produce from digesting fiber, and that up to 85% of a ruminant’s protein need is met from microbial proteins.

A lot of factors can be manipulated to help get the most out of one’s diet, including adjusting ingredients for water content, palatability, ease of chewing, and how easy the ingredients are to digest.  For example, highly fibrous foods with larger particles/pieces require more chewing, as well as a longer time spent in the rumen digesting so that microorganisms have plenty of time to break the chemical bonds of large molecules.  Smaller food particles can reduce the time and effort spent chewing, allow for more surface area on plant fibers for microorganisms to attach to and digest faster, and speed up the movement of food through the digestive tract.  On the other hand, moving food too quickly could reduce the amount of time microorganisms can spend digesting, or time the ruminant can absorb nutrients across their GI tract lumen, or cause slow-growing microbial species to wash out.

Surprisingly, almost no work has investigated the effect of diet particle size on the community, despite knowing that microbial digestion is contingent on the ability to attach to and process complex nutrient structures.  In this study, we observed the effect of particle size on rumen bacteria, by feeding long-stem (loose) alfalfa hay compared to a ground and pelleted version of the same alfalfa in yearling sheep wethers. 

The pelleted-hay diet group had a greater increase in bacterial richness, including common fibrolytic rumen inhabitants, which may explain the increase in average daily gain and feed efficiency in this group.

Fig 2. Observed bacterial richness (A) and Shannon diversity (B) in the rumen of wethers on loose-hay or pelleted-hay alfalfa diets. Significance was determined at p < 0.05, by linear mixed model for observed SVs and Conover test for Shannon diversity, with sheep ID as a fixed effect.
Fig 5. Discriminatory rumen bacterial sequence variance by treatment group for wethers receiving loose-hay or pelleted-hay alfalfa diet treatments.Significance (p < 0.05) determined by binomial test. 

Ishaq SL, Lachman MM, Wenner BA, Baeza A, Butler M, Gates E, et al. (2019) Pelleted-hay alfalfa feed increases sheep wether weight gain and rumen bacterial richness over loose-hay alfalfa feed. PLoS ONE 14(6): e0215797. Article.

Abstract

Diet composed of smaller particles can improve feed intake, digestibility, and animal growth or health, but in ruminant species can reduce rumination and buffering–the loss of which may inhibit fermentation and digestibility. However, the explicit effect of particle size on the rumen microbiota remains untested, despite their crucial role in digestion. We evaluated the effects of reduced particle size on rumen microbiota by feeding long-stem (loose) alfalfa hay compared to a ground and pelleted version of the same alfalfa in yearling sheep wethers during a two-week experimental period. In situ digestibility of the pelleted diet was greater at 48 h compared with loose hay; however, distribution of residual fecal particle sizes in sheep did not differ between the dietary treatments at any time point (day 7 or 14). Both average daily gain and feed efficiency were greater for the wethers consuming the pelleted diet. Observed bacterial richness was very low at the end of the adaptation period and increased over the course of the study, suggesting the rumen bacterial community was still in flux after two weeks of adaptation. The pelleted-hay diet group had a greater increase in bacterial richness, including common fibrolytic rumen inhabitants. The pelleted diet was positively associated with several Succiniclasticum, a Prevotella, and uncultured taxa in the Ruminococcaceae and Rickenellaceae families and Bacteroidales order. Pelleting an alfalfa hay diet for sheep does shift the rumen microbiome, though the interplay of diet particle size, retention and gastrointestinal transit time, microbial fermentative and hydrolytic activity, and host growth or health is still largely unexplored.

Feature image credit: Pellet Mill

Zinc amino acid supplementation alters yearling ram rumen bacterial communities but zinc sulfate supplementation does not.

Zinc is an important mineral in your diet; it’s required by many of your enzymes and having too much or too little can cause health problems. We know quite a bit about how important zinc is to sheep, in particular for their growth, immune system, and fertility.  We also know that organically- versus inorganically-sourced zinc differs in its bio-availability, or how easy it is for cells to access and use it.  Surprisingly, we know nothing about how different zinc formulations might affect gut microbiota, despite the knowledge that microorganisms may also need zinc.

This collaborative study was led by Dr. Whit Stewart and his then-graduate student, Chad Page, while they were at Montana State University (they are now both at the University of Wyoming).   Chad’s work focused on how different sources of zinc affected sheep growth and performance (previously presented, publication forthcoming), and I put together this  companion paper examining the effects on rumen bacteria. Unfortunately, the article is not currently open-access.


Ishaq, S.L., Page, C.M., Yeoman, C.J., Murphy, T.W., Van Emon, M.L., Stewart, W.C. 2019. Zinc amino acid supplementation alters yearling ram rumen bacterial communities but zinc sulfate supplementation does not. Journal of Animal Science 97(2):687–697. Article.

Abstract

Despite the body of research into Zn for human and animal health and productivity, very little work has been done to discern whether this benefit is exerted solely on the host organism, or whether there is some effect of dietary Zn upon the gastrointestinal microbiota, particularly in ruminants. We hypothesized that 1) supplementation with Zn would alter the rumen bacterial community in yearling rams, but that 2) supplementation with either inorganically-sourced ZnSO4, or a chelated Zn amino acid complex, which was more bioavailable, would affect the rumen bacterial community differently. Sixteen purebred Targhee yearling rams were utilized in an 84 d completely-randomized design, and allocated to one of three pelleted dietary treatments: control diet without fortified Zn (~1 x NRC), a diet fortified with a Zn amino acid complex (~2 x NRC), and a diet fortified with ZnSO4 (~2 x NRC). Rumen bacterial community was assessed using Illumina MiSeq of the V4-V6 region of the 16S rRNA gene. One hundred and eleven OTUs were found with > 1% abundance across all samples. The genera PrevotellaSolobacteriumRuminococcusButyrivibrioOlsenellaAtopobium, and the candidate genus Saccharimonas were abundant in all samples. Total rumen bacterial evenness and diversity in rams were reduced by supplementation with a Zn-amino-acid complex, but not in rams supplemented with an equal concentration of ZnSO4, likely due to differences in bioavailability between organic and inorganically-sourced supplement formulations. A number of bacterial genera were altered by Zn supplementation, but only the phylum Tenericutes was significantly reduced by ZnSO4 supplementation, suggesting that either Zn supplementation formulation could be utilized without causing a high-level shift in the rumen bacterial community which could have negative consequences for digestion and animal health.

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