4 factors to consider when raising antibiotic-free pigs

4 factors to consider when raising antibiotic-free pigs

Is it possible to produce antibiotic-free pigs successfully? LeAnn Peters, Maple Leaf Foods, Manitoba, Canada, says they have been successfully doing it for about four years. It does fail at times, but not as often as you would think.

What used to be niche products are now becoming mainstream, and the demand for antibiotic-free pigs and pork is steadily on the rise. With issues of food safety, animal welfare and antibiotic resistance being raised, consumers start to demand transparency on how the animal products they consume are grown, driving industry growth. Among other things, production cost and certification as antibiotic-free should be considered.

Antibiotic-free pig production cost
At the recent Banff Pork Seminar in Alberta, Canada, Peters highlighted a study done in 2011 by Rodger Main from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University. Main estimated that the cost of antibiotic-free production was $11 per pig. This can rapidly increase to $15.50 per pig if you consider the risk that only 70% of the herd survives the production system. This is because the total cost of production in that system will have to be absorbed by the pigs that are marketed as an antibiotic-free-pigs niche product.

Antibiotic-free pig product certification
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency website states: “In order to display the claim raised without the use of antibiotics, the animal or fish must not have received antibiotics from birth to harvest. In addition, no antibiotics can be administered to the mother of the animal in question in any manner which would result in antibiotic residue in the animal. Vitamins and minerals given to the animal may only be given at the level of physiological action for dietary supplement, not for antimicrobial effect.”

Peters enumerates several ways to claim antibiotic-free in a product label. These include:

  • external audit by an approved third-party auditor
  • internal audit of paper documentation and substantiation
  • participation in nongovernment certification programs

Farms and the feed mill they work with should have well-written standard operating procedures and protocols to prove the antibiotic-free claim during audits. The feed mill records should be kept meticulously to prove that all ingredients are antibiotic-free and that sequencing and flushing protocols for manufacturing and transportation are in place.

On the farm, bins, augers, feeders and feed lines should be cleaned, inspected and approved before the farm begins antibiotic-free production. Farm protocols should cover farrowing to finishing, and should be specifically written for each section of the production cycle. Adequate staff training should be considered, and everybody needs to be clear on what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.

Transitioning a herd into an antibiotic-free production system
Peters discusses factors to consider when transitioning a herd into antibiotic-free production, and these include:

  • Contract growing: There is a need to build strong relationships with raisers to make them understand what’s in it for everyone. SOPs should be well-established, especially when dealing with people who are not direct employees. Existing programs should be continuously reviewed. Continuous education and researching for external best practices may help improve performance.
  • Genetics: Good genetics will not outweigh poor management. Hardier animals may be incorporated in the antibiotic-free program as a sire line.
  • Health status: Herds with a known health status are much easier to transition into an antibiotic-free program. Working with a veterinarian for regular sampling protocols will help design a vaccination program that matches the pathogens that are in the farm.
  • Biosecurity: Modification needs to be done. Producers will need to lock doors, select sites with true working Danish showers, have solid rodent control, define staff downtime schedules and establish disinfection protocols for incoming supplies.
  • Physical barn environment and equipment: Operation should be all-in, all-out. The barn should be made out of concrete, metal and PVC, with no wood used. It should have a good working ventilation system.
  • Staff capabilities: Farm managers in antibiotic-free operations should be detail-oriented and should keep impeccable records. They will be audited by an external certifying body at least once a year, and they should be able to show all records requested. They should be able to make good decisions on the spot, i.e. to treat animals and take them out of the program now or wait until tomorrow and re-evaluate.

Boosting antibiotic-free performance
Peters acknowledges the reality that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. One key is to reduce as many stressors to the pigs as possible. Strategies include:

  • Weaning age: Pigs weaned after 20 days seem to do better in an antibiotic-free system, possibly due to a more mature gut. Space availability may be an issue though.
  • Nursery diet: Diets with oat hulls, potato starch and barley seem to be more palatable than wheat- and corn-based diets. Reducing the protein level to 17% to 18% can help reduce scouring. Restrict feeding to 3% of body weight for the first five days after weaning.
  • Stocking density: Review stocking density and allow for more floor space, considering ample access to feeders and water.
  • Sanitation program: Consider using hot water with soaps and sanitizers. Allow the barns to dry properly, and consider using drying agents. Post when the wash inspections will be done.
  • Rodent and bird control: Rodents and birds are vectors of disease. Write down what has to be done and how often you will inspect.
  • Sick pigs and removal: Always remove sick pigs as they shed pathogens and infect other animals. Place them as far away as possible. Tag sick animals to identify pigs that cannot be sold as antibiotic-free product.

Antibiotic-free pigs and other niche products may be a lucrative business, but careful planning should be done before jumping in to it. Once started, producers must focus on continuous improvement. Producers must be prepared to lose premium occasionally as barn outbreaks can and do occur, and pigs will have to be sold as commercial animals.    

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