Improving the Understanding of Factors Driving Rumen Fermentation
Ruminant livestock maintain an important role in meeting the nutrient requirements of the global population through their unique ability to convert plant fiber into human-edible meat and milk products. Volatile fatty acids (VFA) produced by rumen microbial fermentation of feed substrates represent around 70% of the ruminant animal's metabolic energy supply. Rumen fermentation profiles may directly impact productivity because the types of VFA produced are utilized at differing efficiencies by the animal. Improving our understanding of factors that control these fermentative outcomes would therefore aid in optimizing the productive efficiency of ruminant livestock. Improvements in animal efficiency are now more important than ever as the livestock industry must adapt to continue meeting the nutritional needs of a growing global population in the context of increased resource restrictions and requirements to lower the environmental impact of production. The relationship between diet and VFA ultimately supplied to the animal is complex and poorly understood due to the influence of numerous nutritional, biochemical, and microbial variables. The central aim of this body of work was therefore to explore and characterize how fermentation dynamics, rumen environmental characteristics, and the rumen microbiome behave in response to variations in the supply of fermentative substrate. The objective of our first experiment was to describe a novel in vitro laboratory technique to rank livestock feeds based on their starch degradability. This experiment also compared the starch degradation rates estimated by the in vitro method to the rates estimated by a traditional in situ method using sheep. A relationship between the degradation rates determined by these two procedures was observed, but only when feed nutrient content was accounted for. While this in vitro approach may not be able to reflect actual ruminal starch degradation rates, it holds potential as a useful laboratory technique for assessing relative differences in starch degradability between various feeds. Our second experiment aimed to measure changes in VFA dynamics, rumen environmental characteristics, and rumen epithelial gene expression levels in response to dietary sources of fiber and protein designed to differ in their rumen availabilities. Conducted in sheep, this study utilized beet pulp and timothy hay as the more and less available fiber source treatments, respectively, and soybean meal and heat-treated soybean meal as the more and less available protein source treatments, respectively. Results indicated that rumen environmental parameters and epithelial gene expression levels were not significantly altered by treatment. However, numerous shifts in response to both protein and fiber treatments were observed in fermentation dynamics, especially in interconversions of VFA. The objective of the third investigation was to assess whether the rumen microbiome can serve as an accurate predictor of beef and dairy cattle performance measurements and compare its predictive ability to that of diet explanatory variables. The available literature was assembled into a meta-analysis and models predicting dry matter intake, feed efficiency, average daily gain, and milk yield were derived using microbial and diet explanatory variables. Comparison of model quality revealed that the microbiome-based predictions may have comparable accuracy to diet-based predictions and that microbial variables may be used in combination with diet to improve predictions. In our fourth experiment, the objective was to investigate rumen microbial responses to the fiber and protein diet treatments detailed in Experiment 2. Responses of interest included relative abundances of bacterial populations at three taxonomic levels (phylum, family, and genus) in addition to estimations of community richness and diversity. Numerous population shifts were observed in response to fiber treatment. Prominent fibrolytic population abundances as well as richness and diversity estimations were found to be greater with timothy hay treatment and lower with beet pulp whereas pectin degraders increased in abundance on beet pulp. Microbial responses associated with protein treatment were not as numerous but appeared to reflect taxa with roles in protein metabolism. These four investigations revealed that significant changes can occur in VFA fermentation and rumen microbial populations when sources of nutrient substrates provided in a ruminant animal's diet are altered and that a new approach may be useful in investigating degradation of another important substrate for fermentation (starch) in a laboratory setting. Our findings also determined that animal performance can be predicted to a certain extent by rumen microbial characteristics. Collectively, these investigations offer an improved understanding of factors that influence the process of converting feed to energy sources in the ruminant animal.