Episode 22

Dr. Daniel Columbus  – Prairie Swine Centre

In this appisode, we’re going to be visiting with Dr. Daniel Columbus with the Prairie Swine Centre up in Canada.  He does a lot of applied nutrition work and he just published a paper on mycotoxins and on the long-term impacts of DON (Deoxynivalenol). Very interesting findings, but he’s also been working in the area of looking at different disease challenge models and what that does for nutrition and also nitrogen sustainability, so we have some things in common.  And I think it’s really interesting to hear his perspectives and how we look at solutions for our production systems from a nutritional perspective.

So, stay tuned.

Hello there.  This is Dr. Casey Bradley and you’re listening to The Real P3 podcast, a podcast dedicated to the real pork producers around the world. I hope you enjoy.



Casey: Hello, Daniel.  How are you doin’ today?

Daniel: I’m good, thanks, how are you?

C: Good. Would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about what you do for the audience?

D: Sure. I’m Daniel Columbus, and I am a research scientist at the Prairie Swine Centre in Saskatchewan and also an adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan, here in Saskatoon.  I run the Nutrition Research Program at the Prairie Swine Centre, so I basically do everything with all aspects of the research from getting the grants to supervising grad students to writing the papers and also involved quite a bit in getting the messaging out to producers, and extension type work.

C: So how often do you get on the farm?

D: I very rarely get on the farm. I guess that’s a little bit of a failing.  It’s a little bit more difficult to do, especially cause we have to work on security with our own farm as well.  A lot of my research I have not been involved in a lot of producer or commercial level trials, [02:00] but I do want to get into more of those as the program advances.

C: Everybody doesn’t realize all the components that it takes to do research.  So, kind of explain the history and why Prairie Swine Centre exists.  I think it’s kinda unique.

D: So, Prairie Swine Centre started about 30 years ago, actually this year is the 30th anniversary.  About 30 years ago, the swine producers kind of all got together and said, “You know, we want more applied research that we can use.” So, they decided to provide funding through the check-off program to develop a swine research center that was going to be focused on near-market research.  So that’s where Prairie Swine had started, to do that research that could be used; whether that was ingredient evaluation or enzyme evaluation.  We also do ethology work and engineering work as well.  Those have been our three pillars and have remained our pillars throughout our history, including nutrition obviously.  We’ve evolved over the years to really get involved with industry and then also to collaborate a lot more with researchers on campus and researchers in other institutions to really create a robust research program.

C: That’s pretty awesome and I would like to commend you – from following you on LinkedIn and things and reading your papers – that I think you do a great balance between applied and nutrition research that we need to have for our industry. Talk about how you connect those dots, I guess, through your research and what you’ve been working on, because I think it’s really important with what producers face, in nutritional and environmental decisions that we have to take into account today.

D: Yeah, especially when developing my research program, we do a lot of consultation with industry and that includes producers as well as all of those support industries within the pork value chain, to see where [04:00] they see a need for research or for information.  And we do that quite a bit throughout the year.  We’ll use that to develop our grant proposals that we end up putting forward.  For me personally, I like to do a mix of the more basic or proof of concept type studies and work my way up to the applied near-market work, within the same grant, because I think it is very necessary to provide something to the pork value chain that they can use tomorrow, you know, to improve their pockets or to improve the sustainability of pork production.  But also, to provide the information as to why things happen the way they do within the pig, so that we can advance nutrition science providing more information also to the academic and research community. So, I try to blend those in a lot of the work that I do, and I hope that comes across when we do publish the research, that there’s not so much the what happened as well as the why it happened.

C: I think a lot of times when we look at data and we run trials in the field, it doesn’t work, and I think it’s a lot of times we haven’t studied the why.  Right? I think every enzyme works, listeners, but the why is important to make it work.

D: Yeah, and that’s one of the things.  It brings me way back to when I was doing my master’s program and I was working on phytase, and if you talk to anybody, they’d say phytase works, just throw it in and whatever.  Well, my study it didn’t do anything.  We had low phosphorous diets.  We were doing weaner pigs, and it didn’t do anything. So, it’s, now your stuck with ok, what’s the situation and why did it not work in that situation.  So, I think we do need to know behind the scenes what’s going on to really understand and develop these products and to move forward.

C: What are some of the clear nutritional strategies today, that are some of the easy marks, that we can change to move us forward?


D: I don’t know if it’s easy or not, but I think especially with my program, where I’m going, is kind of getting a little bit away from just focusing on the growths, like nutrition and growth of the pig.  I think we’ve really gone far with that, with developing of the ideal protein concept and the feed evaluation, but I think to really start seeing more and more advances we’re going to have to focus more on what are these nutrients and what is the feed doing to support not just growth but the immune system, overall robustness, gut health is a big one, right?  So more of a holistic approach, I think, to production.

C: Explain some of your disease models, because you’ve done a lot of work with ideal protein and amino acid ratios in the sick pig model. Do we need to feed them differently, and if so, how?

D: Yeah, so a lot of our research, and then based on research of others, has really been looking at the amino acid requirements of disease.  We’ve evaluated specifically the requirement of threonine during the disease challenge, because it is very involved in a lot of the immune components as well as gut health through mucin production.  So, we did see an increaser in the estimated requirement for that.  And then, also because we want to know if its more than just LPS in the metabolism crate, we did do evaluate it through a salmonella challenge model.  We did expose these pigs to an inherent challenge to see if it actually improved growth, and it did; not to the level you would see in a healthy pig, but it did improve it over not supplementing at all.  Then, a lot of our more recent research has been looking at a blend of amino acids, specifically tryptophan, threonine and thiamine, which have all been shown independently by other researchers to have an increased requirement in the disease challenge state.  We’re seeing the same thing, that if you provide them even just those three amino acids, the pigs will grow more under [08:00] salmonella challenge than they would with just the regular diet.  So, I think we do really need to start looking at what are the requirements of nutrients during disease, and not just look at it that the pigs are eating less, so they’re gonna grow less.  It’s changing how the nutrients are being used.

C: So, what is the ratio that you would say for a diseased pig on threonine based on your data?

D: I can’t think of the ratio off the top of my head, but we did find that it was about .78 percent of the diet was required, which was about .1 unit higher than what NRC would dictate.  So, overall it’s not a huge increase, but enough that you get a very significant increase in growth.

C: Let’s talk about: you just published something really recent as well, so if you guys are looking out there, you’ve published some work on DON.  I think your findings go against what we would have thought.  So, kind of talk about that research on DON.

D: Yeah, so we really were interested in looking at the effects of mycotoxins in grower and finisher pigs.  That really came about because a lot of work that’s been done is in very young pigs; nursery, newly weaned.  Very little has been done in the older pig, and also in addition, very little has been done over a long term.  Most studies are 4 weeks long, approximately, and evaluating kind of the affects over that time.  We really wanted to see well, do older pigs respond the same way, and if you feed it over say 6 weeks to 12 weeks, do they adapt and do you see the same effects over that long term. So, we ran two studies. One in finisher pigs, starting about 75kg, and then the other one in 35kilo pigs all the way up to market and then fed them either 1, 3 or 5ppm DON.  And we saw that yes, DON resulted in [10:00] decrease in feed intake, and a decreasing growth almost immediately.  That response was a little bit more variable and not as extreme in the grower pigs as the finisher, but in both studies after about 3-4 weeks, the pigs adapted.  So, feed intake went back up; the growth performance was what you would expect for that weight or age of pig.  They never fully recovered the loss in the gain that they did, so they would have taken a little bit longer to get to full market weight, but overall, they do adapt.

And then what was a little surprising, especially if you look at the research, is that we didn’t really see any effect on the health of these pigs.  You know, we evaluated kidney and liver blood panel chemistry and we saw nothing. We looked at nutrient utilization, and really, they didn’t have that much an effect on nutrient utilization or feed efficiency.  So, we really think that a lot of the effects of what we’re seeing, at least in the older pigs, is due more to that reduction in feed intake, and not so much to what DON is doing inside the body.

C: That’s very interesting and in case anyone has done DON work, it’s not easy to get that trial to go right, so that’s why we picked young pigs, I think, is because they eat the least amount of feed.

D: [laughter] Yeah, it had its own challenges to get it going and to actually get diets where we needed hem to be, but we did finish and we got it at the end of the day, but it is very challenging work.

C: It is.  And it’s very important work.  I mean, what is your thoughts.  I’ve always had this mindset.  You looked specifically at DON.  Did you analyze for any other mycotoxins in those diets?

D: We did, just because we wanted to make sure we didn’t have any others at a significant level, so we did a full mycotoxin panel, and none of the other ones were anywhere near any kind of limit.  Most of them were not detectable, so we didn’t have that confound of another mycotoxin in there or whatever, yeah.

C: What is your thoughts on… you know, conversations I’ve had around mycotoxins sometimes is not that single one, but the multiple mycotoxins, even if they’re, you see DONs at 2ppm, aflatoxin 200ppb, things and even though we’re not meeting those maxims where we know they’re detrimental, what is your thoughts as you’ve done this type of work of the combinations at lower levels?  Are they more prone for challenges, or how do we kind of evaluate mycotoxins or do we focus on single ones for the year?

D: Yeah, I’m not sure if that work has been done, and you can imagine how difficult that would be to start looking at [12:30] blends.  It’s impossible.  Especially a lot of times because you will get critiqued if you don’t add the mycotoxin and its natural contaminating.  You try to take an exogenis source and add it into the diets, you’ll get critiqued on that.  So how do you find a naturally contaminated diet with the two mycotoxins that you want at the levels that you want and then evaluate that? So, I think it’s really important work, or would be, to know what’s going on when we have those multiple mycotoxins in the diet, or even if they’re below the level, but you have three or four of them, right? If you have that, an increased effect; we wanted to evaluate two and we weren’t able to in this study, because you can make the argument that ok, DON didn’t have an effect on growth and they seemed healthy, but obviously I was in research pigs with no other stressors.  So, if you took DON at the levels that we fed and, you know, added heat stress or some other type of challenge or something like that, well, wouldn’t they have been, would the result in reduction in performance be even that much more because you kind of set them up for failure by having that initial stressor there.

C: I think that’s some of the challenge, so I’ve… my early work, I guess when I was at Kalmbach, we ran some DON challenge in the nursery pigs, and of course, I thought I found the perfect source of corn, right?  Until we made the diets, and we were half the level, but… so we didn’t quite hit that 2ppm threshold that we wanted, but we [14:00] still saw the reduction in feed intake, so we had you know, maybe not efficiency, but since they weren’t eating as much, they didn’t grow as fast, so we were able to capture that, so… The other things I’ve worked in mycotoxins and kind of talked to different people out there on is, especially in sows, zearalenone contamination for instance, and or DON or any mycotoxins we see the sow go off feed, finisher pigs go off feed, we assume it’s the feed, we take a sample, nothing there. Right?  So, I think you’re probably one of the first that’s done long-term effects, but I’m curious on understanding, especially from a reproductive standpoint, intermittent contaminations.  Especially as that animal ages, because you didn’t see anything.  I guess you, what were the levels in the liver and kidneys?  Were there any toxins you could pick up on there in those organs?  Or were they clearing it?

D: We didn’t actually analyze any organ or tissues, just because the majority of research out there showed that it’s not deposited or kept in tissues, so we didn’t see a point in that.  We did measure plasma DON, and we also measured urinary DON excretion in those pigs, and it was highly correlated to what they were eating, but it’s cleared fairly quickly. So even though we’d measured it in DON, we knew we had to do it between 3-4 hours after a meal because that’s when it keeps and then it’s cleared.  So, it doesn’t seem to be retained within the pig.  And then, like I said, we didn’t have any effect on actual liver or kidney health that a typical blood panel would pick up, so it doesn’t seem like it was having that negative effect that was kind of, if you read the literature would be expected.

C: And that’s chasing this rabbit or idea, because when we look at estrogen, so zearalenone impacts estrogen, and we look at that. Then we go in the human literature and we look at female athletes, and there’s certain [16:00] points of their menstruational cycle that they have tendency to have more ACL/MCL tears, so estrogen is really impactful on elastin and collagen, and so that’s kinda where I was chasing that rabbit hole.  What is intermittent zearalenone – preferably – contamination doing to some of our reproductive sows and is that, you know, correlating to some of that prolapse issues we’re having?

D: Yeah, I mean it could very well; I haven’t done any work in sows, and I think the recommendation overall is to not feed, if at all possible.  Understanding that it might come up in some of your diets, or like you’re saying intermittent, even though you tested and it shows up as zero.  I think for this overall, based on our studies, I would still say, avoid it in your sows, avoid it in the nursery pigs, even though that’s where all the work is being done is the nursery pigs, but those ones still seem to be a lot more susceptible to that mycotoxin intake.



We wanna take this break to thank our sponsors, The Sunswine Group, NutraSign, Swine Nutrition Management and Pig Progress.  But we also wanted to remind you of our new Facebook group, the Global Swine Professionals.  We’re gonna be doing something fun; some live interviews, some Q&A and we just wanna hear from our audience, so that’s a great place for you to take the time, leave us a comment, tell us what you wanna hear, or volunteer to be on our show, because we’re always looking for those awesome pork producers around the world.  Well, that’s all I had, so let’s get back to that appisode now.



C: So, what if we can’t avoid it?  What do we do?

D: Hope for the best. [Laughter]

C: [Laughter] I love it!  He’s not got an answer pullin’ off the shelf! I love the independent mind here.

D: And this is the issue, too, with a lot of mycotoxin research.  There’s been a focus on absorbance, but we know that they don’t work, for Deoxynivalenol at least.  They might work for aflatoxins.  We haven’t found anything really that works for ergot, and you can’t really get ergot down low enough to not have an effect, especially in sows.  I think it’s a little promising that we have more kind of blended products that are coming out that seem to have an effect and those are the ones where, you know, it’s a mix of yeast product and binders and antioxidants and amino acids and kind of just throwing everything at them to hopefully, you know I think, limit the negative effects, maybe biotransform the mycotoxins, but again I’ve only seen those evaluated in grow-finisher or nursery pigs.  So, whether or not they would work in sows, we don’t know.  One of the reasons we wanted to do this research is because we know that it’s going to become that much more difficult to avoid mycotoxin contamination in our diets, and I think as producers and feed manufacturers, we have the obligation to use those feed ingredients that can’t be used in human food as a means to make it more sustainable and maintain access to food by people.  So, we’re really going to have to look at options to get that in our diets.

C: So, I’m gonna take back to – because I think this is important work – why do you think we didn’t pack any long-term health on these animals.  We talked about some of those agents of detoxifying the mycotoxin once it’s in the system.  Does that pig seem to be balancing back and creating its own detoxification mechanisms?  Or what is your theory behind that?

D: I think we’d have to do more to kind of see what’s going on.  I don’t think they’re detoxifying, because we did measure the DON levels in the blood at the end of the study as well.  We were still picking up DON.  We’re not picking up its metabolites or whatever, we’re picking up what was in the diet.  So, they seem to be absorbing it, but they’re [20:00] adapting somehow, and think that’s the biggest thing, and that’s why I said it seemed to be more related to the feed intake, that whatever mechanism is going on that originally says “there’s a mycotoxin in this diet, don’t eat it” they get over and they start to eat, and that seems to be the biggest impact on them, and maybe that’s why it’s not having that effect, because the feed intake goes back up and they’re getting the nutrients that they need.

C: Well, that’s really interesting because, I mean, you’re looking at disease models and amino acids and DON in feed intake, and they’re seeming to recover or be able to excrete it better in an older animal.  So, let’s go into the disease and nitrogen amino acids.  Where’s the next frontier that we need to go with amino acid nutrition or precision feeding for sustainability purposes?

D: I think you just said it. Precision feeding is very interesting, I think, and a lot of good work has come out of that showing that we can really reduce the nitrogen excretion as well as feed cost in these animals, if we can feed every individual animal according to its requirements.  And as I alluded to before, I think we have to start looking at what are the different requirements in different disease or stress states.  And not just treating every pig as a growing pig and this is the requirements for growth.  How does that change?  And I think also we have an opportunity to blend those two concepts with precision feeders.  Do they have the ability to detect a sick animal and provide it a different feed based on what it needs when we notice that it has a disease challenge or some kind of stress.  So, you don’t necessarily have to go through the barn and see the one pig that’s not eating as much, the feeder’s already identified it and started feeding it something different to support its growth and immune response in that situation.

C: Exactly. You’re speaking my language.  Blue sky.  It’s – as you said – not as easy to develop it though.


C: So, from an amino acid standpoint, when we look at low-crude protein, high-crude protein, where is that threshold as we look at even incorporating byproducts and fiber.  I think you’ve done some work on fiber and amino-acid digestibility, how does that come into play in your mind as we think about these concepts of pushing that envelope from a sustainability [22:30] perspective?

D: That’s something that my group is starting to look more and more into and develop.  Because I think the language around dietary protein needs to change to really start delving into that and specifically, it’s not just a high and low protein, it’s a high and low digestible protein, or high and low fermentable protein content, right?  And really looking at what’s going on, especially within the gut and when we start talking about fermentation of excess protein in that.  And why is it that some high-protein diets don’t cause the post-weaning diarrhea that we would expect, and some low diets do?  And I think it’s really going to come down to what are the ingredients being used, what’s the quality, and once we start changing that kind of terminology, I think we can delve a little bit deeper.  And it’s the same with the fiber story, too, right?. We’ve gone from crude fiber to ADF and NDF to now pushing total dietary insoluble and soluble, right, so that we can really start to look at what is in there, what’s being fermented and where, and what products are being produced that are either a negative or a positive to the animal’s health.

C: You made it a point, and one of my pet peeves, I’m gonna tell it since you’re in research and you’re doing a lot of work in phytase and had it not work in your diets somehow, but a lot of the time a lot of this research is not done with enzymes.  Where do you think enzymes fit in in the future of getting some of this right? Does it give us more buffer?  Do we have a totally different type of equation in nutrition when we look at enzymes?  How should we evaluate some of those? I use the example protease in North American diets: Corn-soy doesn’t seem to be as effective in other regions where maybe soybean meal is not as digestible.  Or they’re using, like you said, less-digestible proteins.

D: Yeah, and I think definitely enzymes are going to play a role moving into the future, but it relates back to, like we said at the very beginning of all this, you have to know what’s going on, why that’s happening, before you can start to really develop and look at these, and so a lot of the enzyme evaluation, and not poo-pooing on anybody’s enzyme research, but I mean just looking at an enzyme in different diets and seeing whether it works or not, ok… but if you really understand, ok, it’s working in this diet because there’s a high-fermentable protein content because we put [25:00] more plant-based ingredients vs animal-based ingredients, ok, now we have something to go on. Right?  And we can really start to evaluate those products better if we know why and how they’re working. Right? And it’s the same, I would also say, we need to come up with a framework – this is a little bit off, but – we need to come up with that framework of what are we measuring to determine whether or not it’s having a positive or negative effect.  A lot of times, we just look at growth, right?  Is it having a positive effect on the gut?  Is it something like a nutrient utilization?  Is it something else?  And then coming up with a these are the things that are all kind of interacting.

C: I looked at a piece of data this week that, like, has great promise – can’t say who, what, guys, sorry – [laughter] – but it totally changed the pattern feed efficiency in these pigs and it goes into that gut health and a lot of times when we look at some of this, especially, we look at the nursery pigs because it’s 6 weeks and they’re done. Right? And it’s cheap research and easy research.  But I think there is some carry-over effect, as you said, of setting that pig up, reformulating different of the hows and whys to success in the future too.

D: Yeah, definitely.  Especially – and I’m guilty of it, too , right – where we don’t look at the long term, and we look at: oh, yes, it has this great effect in the nursery, but what did that mean to the finished pig.  It’s expensive to do and it’s long to do it, but I think we need to start looking at more of those long-term and see what’s happening.  And maybe that’s what’s required to really start putting an emphasis in getting people to understand the importance of that gut development early on and immune development early on, you know, it may cause a slightly more expensive diet in that time, or a little bit less growth, but the pig will be better off in the end and you won’t have the effects of stressors in the future, or lost pigs that you normally would have.

C: Now lets’ rewind it even further and say, what are we doing to our sows, people?


D: I tend to forget about the sows because I don’t focus on them, but definitely I think there is this, you know, we’re asking them to make more and more pigs and somehow make them still large and healthy and thrifty.  I’m just… there’s only so much room in that sow, so I don’t know…

C: Well, it sure sounds like I don’t think computers are gonna replace us any time soon.  So, I think there’ll be a need for us nutritionists and researchers out there.  Before we go, this is the time in the appisode where I turn the tables and allow you to ask me a question if you want, or we can just leave it at that, or any last-minute thoughts you have for the audience.

D: I guess because I ask ev… we go around and we ask the industry, I should ask you, what do you think is the net big thing?  What should we be focusing on in the research?  You know what I’ve been focusing on so far, [28:00] so… maybe that’s stealing some ideas from you. [laugh]

C: No, I think you’re on the right path.  The bigger question I have is – so I have been working in precision feeding.  I was developing a concept; it’s still there, looking at that.  I think what we have the ability to do compared to, like, the broilers, when we think of sustainability, block-chain, understanding exactly what went into that pork chop when you’re buying it in retail, is that we can probably take that to the individual animal.  We have the opportunity to feed them differently as an individual animal.  But we still as an industry have, this mindset that it’s a group.  We’re feeding to the average. I’ve never been a nutritionist that likes to feed to the average. I like to sort off my lights and sort off my heavies.  I like to look at how my research impacts my lights and heavies.  Where we have researchers today who, well, we’re just gonna do completely randomization, gate-cut, randomized block designs don’t matter anymore… the statistics, we can look at it… but yet they’re looking at a statistics standpoint of getting it published.  I’m looking at it as how can I impact my bottom 20% differently, right?  Or if I have a system that I’m not weaning that ideal pig.  That average I did my test on, do I need to consider feeding them differently.  So, I think that’s the next step I would say the industry needs to move to is… I don’t know if we’re going to be to where we can feed the pigs individually, but I think it’s possible, right, or I wouldn’t… I had a good concept going; it’s still there; it’s not gonna die hopefully, but in the short term, I think we do need to look at sub-populations of pigs, and I still think we need to go back to better management and say do we need to nutritionally feed them different because as you said the sick pigs.  And we could say it’s 20% of the pigs that are the sick pigs, right, that get pulled, but yet they’re just on the same diet. [30:00]  And what’s weird is they may be on, you know, 3 diets behind, because that feeder never got emptied out, for instance, right?  And do we need to feed them even a totally different diet. In my mind, moving forward, I like to work with broil pans and things like that on those pigs, but, yet we always feed to the average.  We pull off the challenged pigs, but we don’t look at what’s going to be my challenged pig going in.  Then we almost treat them differently after the fact, and it’s almost too late to save ‘em. I guess and so… Short-term benefits maybe that mindset change, where we can’t get exactly to that individual pig, but long-term, I think there could be a great opportunity from block-chain technology, feed efficiency, carbon emissions, if we really can hone in on the most efficient animals, then we can change how we select, and all that kind of stuff.  It’s maybe not tomorrow’s future, but hopefully sooner than later.

D: I see the same thing.  Every pig is different, and I think we’re gonna start to narrow in on those differences ,and that’s gonna be the future moving forward on how we feed these animals. I would agree.

C: That’s awesome.  So, I appreciate your time, and if the audience would like to reach out to you to learn more about your research, how do they do that?

D: The easiest is probably through my email, so it’s dan.columbus@usask.ca.  Or they can look me up on LinkedIn.  I’m quite active on there.

C: Dan does share all his articles on LinkedIn. He’s really open access.  We love it.  I read just about every paper.  So, thank you for your time and keep up the hard work that it takes to do great things.

D: Thank you, Casey. It’s been a pleasure.



Before we go, we wanna thank our sponsors again.  Swine Nutrition Management, NutraSign, Pig Progress and The Sunswine Group.  Don’t forget to join our Facebook the Global Swine Professionals.  And as always, if you get a chance, hug a pig for me today.

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