April 2023

University of Alberta researcher says using probiotics to prevent infection could reduce disease and lower antibiotic use


Researchers say dairy cows given a probiotic developed at the University of Alberta experienced an increased milk yield of four to six litres per day during the first 50 days after calving.


A breakthrough probiotic shown to boost milk production and the reproductive health of dairy cows is an example of an approach that could help beef cattle and other livestock, said a researcher.

The use of probiotics to prevent infections could help lower the incidence of diseases, potentially reducing the need for treatment with expensive antibiotics, said Burim Ametaj, who is a professor of physiology and nutritional immunology at the University of Alberta. “And this will save antibiotics for dangerous situations when you have life or death situations.”

It could also potentially help limit the spread of antibiotic drugs in the environment, he said. The global evolution of resistance to such drugs by harmful microbes in places ranging from farms to hospitals is making diseases increasingly difficult to treat with conventional methods.

Although people are familiar with foods such as probiotic yogurt that are often promoted as having health benefits, Ametaj said they contain a much lower concentration of beneficial bacteria than the product he developed. He said yogurt consists of many compounds and potentially even some pathogenic bacteria, making it significantly less pure than his probiotic.

The product was developed over a 10-year period from three native bacterial strains taken from the reproductive tract of healthy cows, said a university statement.

“It works by supplying beneficial bacteria to the microbiome, the collection of micro-organisms that live in the reproductive system of the animal, including the uterus, vagina, cervix, fallopian tubes and ovaries.”

The idea is to improve the health of dairy cattle by strengthening this microbiome, helping ward off infections of the reproductive system by pathogenic bacteria, said Ametaj. The probiotic has been shown to contribute to a 50 percent decline in post-calving uterine infections, said the university statement.

It has also been found to lower the rate of milk fever by half, as well as reducing the incidence of placenta retention.

“All of these conditions are costly to dairy producers and sometimes deadly. The probiotic also reduced inflammation causing lameness,” said the statement.

Dairy cows given the probiotic also experienced an increased milk yield of four to six litres per day during the first 50 days after calving, it said.

“Along with that, their calves also benefited, showing higher weight and better immunity four weeks after birth.”

A further advantage of the probiotic is that it has no side effects, said Ametaj. Its benefits have been confirmed by other dairy scientists around the world, which speaks to the power of probiotics, he said in the university statement.

“Bacteria are a major contributor to many animal diseases, and we’ve now shown that using probiotics is an excellent way of treating disease.”

Dairy cows were treated with the probiotic once per week at 14 and seven days before calving, with researchers following the same frequency after the cattle gave birth, he said in an interview.

They were tested between 2008 and 2018 as part of three large projects involving dairy cows from the University of Alberta’s Dairy Research and Technology Centre, along with stock from four commercial dairy farms in the province.

The probiotic is being marketed under the trade name ProPreg by Healthy Cow Corp. The Canadian start-up company has launched sales at a small scale in the United States, with plans to make the product available to Canadian dairy farmers within two years, said the university statement.

Ametaj said the probiotic contains nutrients to help support the beneficial bacteria,and can be stored in a dormant state without refrigeration for as long as two years or more. After they are injected or infused into the vaginal tract of dairy cows, the bacteria “wake up, and then they have plenty of nutrients that we have provided there for them.”

The probiotic could also potentially be used to treat cows in the beef industry, he said.

“And we are not sure, we have not tested other animals, but certainly it might be beneficial. Research has to be conducted to test that in other animals, but probably in dogs, cats also, and in some livestock animals.”


By Doug Ferguson

The Western Producer