While raising pigs completely antibioticfree is possible it can often be a challenge for producers

While raising pigs completely antibiotic-free is possible, it can often be a challenge for producers

Transitioning to antibiotic-free pig production: Change your expectations

For more than 65 years, the use of antibiotics in feed has been an extraordinary tool for agriculture, as their inclusion allowed animals to grow more intensively, with fewer wasted nutrients, and to produce nourishing food the world needs safely and economically. Today, the discussion is not on the benefits of antibiotics in the animal health industry, but how to use them in a more precise and judicious manner due to regulatory and customer pressures.

A recent study from Princeton University shows that global use of antibiotics is poised to increase by 60% between 2010 and 2030 in developing countries such as China, Brazil, India and Russia. Disease attributed to antibiotic resistance is estimated to reduce global gross domestic product by $100 trillion by 2050.

“Globally, regulators are concerned and increasingly putting legislation and restrictions in place and have already done so in 47 countries around the world,” says Aidan Connolly, chief innovation officer at Alltech. “Whether agriculture feels this is its responsibility or not, it is clear that agriculture is in the crosshairs of legislators who find this politically easier to tackle, perhaps, than human-mediated resistance.”

In addition to legislation, Connolly says the industry is now listening to the “prosumer.” Formerly known as “professional consumers,” prosumers have become product and brand advocates.

“Rather than simply consuming products, people are becoming the voices of those products and significantly impacting the success or failure of companies, products and brands, particularly through their involvement on social networks,” says Connolly. “We are now future-proofing agriculture for consumer parameters we have never had to respond to before: what we do with diets, what we feed the animals, how we treat animals and treat the workers on our farm, water use on the farm and in processing the food.”

Tom Gillespie, a veterinarian with Rensselaer Swine Services, says the movement has not only impacted consumer choices in grocery stores, but also affected swine production strategies.

“Ultimately, the societal change has given the opportunity for independent producers and even integrators to respond by raising antibiotic-free pigs to meet this new demand,” Gillespie says.

While raising pigs completely antibiotic-free is possible, Gillespie said it can often be a challenge for producers to get the same production performance and profitability due to:

  • Increased risk for exposure to bacterial and viral pathogens.
  • Susceptibility to stress.
  • Increased treatment cost.
  • Reduced feed consumption.
  • Increased variability and days to market.
  • Increased mortality.
  • Reduced water intake.
  • Lower gut integrity, leading to an increased risk to the health of individual animals and the population as a whole.

“There are numerous risks that can lead to a higher cost of production,” Gillespie says. “In order to address these issues, the producer has to reinforce their biosecurity and implement a nutritional program that is designed to strengthen the animals’ natural immunity.”

Bob Ruth, president of Country View Family Farms, was instrumental in developing the Farm Promise line of Clemens Food Group pork products. All Farm Promise Pork is USDA Process Verified, guaranteeing that antibiotics, growth promotants and animal byproducts are never-ever used, and all pigs are born and raised on rural, family-owned farms in free-to-roam environments.

Prior to joining Clemens Food Group, Ruth gained experience raising pigs in North Carolina, South Carolina and the Midwest, as well as building a few hog operations on his own. Once Ruth relocated to Pennsylvania in 1996, he found that the state offered a more geographical dispersion of animals than other areas of the country.

“The first thing I noticed was that the health status of animals was much, much better than anywhere else I lived,” Ruth says. “It was because there wasn’t a density of animals, like there was in other parts of the country. As we continued to build operations, we became more deliberate on how to develop our farms and how to maintain high-health status herds. We discovered another model: spread our animals out.”

Country View strives to keep as much distance as possible between sow farms and finishing floors. Ruth says that while their farms may not have the low cost advantage of having a feed mill on-site, the operation is making up for it through higher performance from their animals.

With this system in place, Country View found that herd health status improved and the farms didn’t have a dire need for antibiotics. In 2007, the company began moving farms to an antibiotic-free program and after several years of success started branding to consumers in 2014 with their Farm Promise line.

Today the operation has nearly 20,000 sows that are on the antibiotic-free program, which is about 30% of Country View’s flow. Around 12% of the total Clemens Food Group harvest is antibiotic-free.

Ruth says production numbers haven’t changed at all.

“Our antibiotic-free production is better than our conventional,” says Ruth. “Cost is higher because of our veg-fed diet, but with average daily gain, feed conversation and mortalities, it is not unusual for our Farm Promise animals to do better than our conventional high-health status pigs.”

Country View’s biggest constraint has been in the nursery due to an enteric issue; however, the operation has been working with companies such as Alltech on different mineral programs, acids and probiotics to encourage gut health and improve throughput.

“I was very fortunate to see the difference between low cost and best cost,” says Ruth. “There is a difference between trying to take every cost out of the system versus trying to have a system based on quality. We may have some higher costs, but we make that up on having higher performance in our animals.”

According to Gillespie, any facility that plans to convert to completely antibiotic-free needs to recognize that production costs and health challenges are going to be different than those for conventionally raised animals.

“One’s expectations need to be open to different types of challenges when raising antibiotic-free animals,” Gillespie says. “When antibiotics are removed, there are many obstacles that can challenge the animal’s health and eat away at the producer’s profitability.” 

Connolly echoes Gillespie and also advises integrators to heed caution when making the transition to antibiotic-free.

“The most important thing about this is that we feel we need to move beyond simply trying to imagine that one ingredient or one product is going to solve this problem,” says Connolly. “It is possible from an antibiotic point of view that maybe we can get away with changing just one thing; but why not make lots of changes with the intent to maximize pig performance and not simply try to solve the immediacy of a problem we are faced with from a regulatory or customer point of view?”

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