GOS! Improving animal health through carbohydrates

There is a lot of discussion about the health of calves. Veal farmers, veterinarians and our regional managers have been working successfully for years to reduce diseases such as diarrhoea, pleural effusion and pneumonia. It shows! Our antibiotic use and calf mortality are at an historically low level. This does not however mean that we are done: we want to continue to improve. Each and every day. Eelke van der Wal, researcher at the VanDrie Group and researchers Myrthe Gilbert (Wageningen University & Research) and Saskia Braber (Utrecht University) can explain more about this.


As a researcher, Eelke took part in a research consortium, in which industry and knowledge and educational institutions joined forces. In this case, this is the so-called Carbohydrate Competence Centre Consortium (CCC Consortium). Over 50 companies and knowledge institutions work on various research projects under this umbrella. Eelke: “In the Research & Development team of the VanDrie Group, I work on optimising calf feed. We believe that we can make significant progress in the field of animal health with a suitable feed package. By participating in the CCC consortium, we were able to thoroughly research how we can reduce pneumonia through nutrition.”

Eelke was not alone in this challenging research; Myrthe Gilbert,Research lecturer at Wageningen University and Saskia Braber, Researcher at Utrecht University, also shared their expertise. Myrthe Gilbert explains: "To improve the health of calves and reduce the use of antibiotics, this project looked into the beneficial effects of carbohydrates added to calf feed."

Saccharides are another word for carbohydrates. There are four types of saccharides. From largest to smallest, these are polysaccharides, oligosaccharides, disaccharides and monosaccharides. A list of potentially interesting oligosaccharides provided by industrial partners was analysed in the CCC consortium. Examples of oligosaccharides are galacto-oligosaccharide (GOS), malto-oligosaccharide and fructo-oligosaccharide. These types of carbohydrates can be found in, for example, plants, grains and milk (products).

Saskia Braber explains: “We started a lab study with the list of oligosaccharides. We wanted to test the effect of these carbohydrates on cells of the lungs. To enable this lab research, we collected cells of the lungs from the meat processing companies of the VanDrie Group.” Saskia continues: “We isolated the cells of the lungs in the lab. We then used these cells in an experiment mimicking an infection. When we added oligosaccharides, we found that both infection and inflammation were reduced.” Based on these results, a list of the most promisingof oligosaccharideshas been drawn up that could have an effect on animal health, which the researchers further studied.  

"With studies like this, we are making a genuine difference to animal health and thus well-being.” – Eelke van der Wal

However, what works in the laboratory must, of course, also prove itself in practice. “That's why we conducted a study at our research centre, in which we fed groups of calves with different oligosaccharides, doses and mixtures,” says Eelke. During this study, the growth and health of calves were monitored continuously. For example, blood samples and cell tissues were collected. This enabled inflammation parameters to be determined.

After intensive research, Myrthe concludes: "We observed that calves given oligosaccharides did better in a number of inflammation and lung parameters. The most promising oligosaccharides turned out to be GOS.” Galacto-oligosaccharide (GOS) is produced from lactose. Because GOS cannot be digested by the body, it is a prebiotic. Prebiotics is a collective term for substances that promote the growth of certain types of bacteria in the body. Beneficial health effects are attributed to this. Myrthe continues: “I was amazed when I saw the effect of this intervention in the lungs of the calves. Beforehand, I was sceptical as to whether this was really possible.”

Asked whether oligosaccharides would be part of the VanDrie Group's feed package from now on, Eelke says: “Follow-up research is currently underway. We work with animals in our chain, which presents us with an important obligation! This research will allow us to better understand airway infections and hopefully reduce, or even prevent them in the future.”

Eelke is emphatic about the added value of this research: "With research like this, we are making a genuine difference to animal health. It will allow us to take targeted steps to prevent inflammation and further improve animal health.”


Curious about this and other studies by the CCC consortium? Read the full report here

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