In biology classes in school we learn about “cell theory” – the fact that our bodies are made up of trillions of cells which turn on different parts of our human DNA in order to specialize in various bodily functions (nerves, veins, muscle, fat, bone…). We actually have at least as many cells in and on our bodies that aren’t human but which can also play desirable or undesirable roles. One negative example are the various bacteria that live on our skin and generate body odors we try to suppress. On the positive side there is a huge and diverse population of microbes that live in our digestive system, and if that “gut microbiome” is well populated with “good guy” strains we enjoy many health benefits from better digestion to improved mental function to a better immune response. Microbiome health is also very important for the animals that provide us with meat and eggs and dairy products.
Over the last several years there has been a steep change in our understanding of the complex dynamics of these microbial communities. This revolution has been enabled by the plummeting cost of DNA sequencing technology – a tool which allows us to identify these microbes quickly and precisely to the species level – something that was never possible just by culturing them in the lab.
Arm & Hammer Animal and Food Production has been involved with farm animals since the 1930s starting with the venerable Sodium Bicarbonate product we know as baking soda – and parent company, Church and Dwight, has a 178-year history spanning many industries. ARM & HAMMER moved into the cutting-edge realm of microbiomes through its acquisition of a company called Agro BioSciences™. They are using modern technologies to track animal “gut health” but also more broadly to understand what they call the “Microbial Terroir.” Similar to the concept of the Terroir in wine production which encompasses the environment in which grapes are raised, ARM & HAMMER evaluates the environment, feed and housing of animal systems to see what influences may be impacting the animals’ health and productivity. Additionally using manure and tissue samples they can see what is happening inside the animal.
At the ScienceHearted Center in Waukesha, Wisconsin, ARM & HAMMER offers lab analysis to dairy, beef, swine and poultry farmers to diagnose production or health issues with their animals. They can identify pathogens present and characterize the levels of key beneficial organisms. As an example, if there are several separate houses on a chicken farm and the growth rate in one house is lagging, it may be because of a microbial imbalance or the presence of pathogenic bacteria. Similarly, if milk production of certain dairy cows is substandard, there may be a microbiome issue.
Addressing microbiome issues is a matching game, finding the right strain or strains of bacilli that will inhibit the growth of the pathogens identified in the lab analysis. Over the years, ARM & HAMMER has identified and isolated over 30,000 Bacillus strains that they can tap into to find the right match of “good bacteria.”
This natural, non-antibiotic approach to pathogen control allows farmers to address the challenges without a veterinarian prescription.
ARM & HAMMER is not the only company looking to provide a natural, probiotic product for farmers, however few if any have the extensive library of Bacillus strains housed at the ScienceHearted Center. Coupling the Bacillus library with research and product development capabilities provides the ARM & HAMMER scientists with virtually unlimited combinations to find the “just right” level of colony forming units (CFUs) needed.
“Gut health” and “probiotics” are trendy topics for people today, but there is a long history behind those concepts. In the early 1900s, a Russian Nobel laureate named Elie Metchnikoff started documenting the human health benefits of the microbes used to make fermented foods like yogurt. The term “probiotic” was coined by a German scientist named Werner Kollath in 1953 and today there are many foods and supplements marketed based on various health and wellness benefits that can come from consuming live, beneficial organisms.
On a similar preventive front, ARM & HAMMER also has other feed supplements for which they have been able to document microbiome benefits. For instance, their CELMANAX™ product for livestock is based on yeast cell wall material which is digested to make specific sugars that act as a prebiotic. The unique structure of the cell wall also binds mycotoxins and gram negative (often pathogenic) organisms allowing them to be removed from the gut before they can cause health issues.
They have extended their product line from inside the cow to the bedding used in cattle housing. The current increase in adopting sustainability initiatives on dairy farms has created a bedding byproduct that helps with reducing environment impact but increases the possibility of health issues. Using beneficial bacteria in the bedding, much like in the gut, prevents the growth of pathogens.
A similar product is also available for use in poultry and swine barns to control pathogens, odor and to increase nitrogen retention in the manure.
Overall, this is an encouraging example of using advancing technology with naturally occurring solutions to enhance animal health and wellness in addition to efficient production and resource utilization.