The objective of this article is to critically assess the use of probiotics in the post-weaning phase,  and provide few suggestions to improve results when using probiotics in weanlings.

A nutritional strategy that has received increasing attention during the last few years to overcome handicaps of early weaning is the use of probiotics. Still, research so far has been characterized as being inconsistent and with low reproducibility from farm to farm; which in turn is probably one of the main reasons preventing these products from being widespread in the swine industry.

This article is a summary of a recent review (Barba-Vidal et al. 2018; Review: Are we using probiotics correctly in post-weaning piglets?) that examines the limitations on the actual use of probiotics at this stage, focusing on their use on a sanitary challenge situation, and discusses how these results can be improved.

Limits of using probiotics against pathogens

Generally speaking, the main limitations on probiotic usage in this context are:

Discrete therapeutic results,  High variability of their effects and Potential risks in challenge situations

How to improve the use of probiotics in early life stages

Improving the use of probiotics in the swine industry relies on a drift from an empirical use to a more knowledge-based strategy. The following paragraphs provide some recommendations in view of the scientific evidence published up until today:

Probiotics are much more powerful and valuable when we use them as ‘preventive’ health promoters and gut microbiota stabilizers. Hence, we should stop looking to probiotics as direct replacements for antibiotics in gastrointestinal infections, and we should combine them with other feed and/or management strategies with a more holistic approach.

In addition, probiotic strategies should be more focused. Strains should be selected depending on the objectives being looked for, and not as if probiotics were beneficial for everything.

Another point to take into account is the variability in the response to a probiotic. It has been described how a probiotic strategy may have ‘responder’ and ‘non-responder’ individuals in a homogenous group of animals. Nowadays, emerging ‘-omic’ technologies clearly open a window to refine our approach and understand better the interactions between a probiotic strain and the ecosystem in which it is going to be introduced, limiting this variability and assessing the possible risks of using a probiotic in a disease context.

Finally, there are various ways to potentiate probiotic effects and make them more durable. On one side, one can use strategies such as combining probiotics with complementary actions or adding specific prebiotic substrates (symbiotic concept) to selectively improve the growth of the introduced strain. On the other side, early dosing of probiotics in the pre-weaning period should be considered and sows should be given more importance here, as many studies have exposed how introducing probiotics in the sow diet is an effective way to modify the gut ecosystem and the health of piglets.