Keeping your pigs healthy takes more than antibiotics

Keeping pigs healthy is more than just filling the cabinet with pharmaceuticals and having the veterinarian on speed dial. It involves constructing a well-planned, complete animal health plan that is constantly under scrutiny and adjustment.

February 22, 2017

9 Min Read
Keeping your pigs healthy takes more than antibiotics
National Pork Board

Animal health and animal welfare on the farm require more than using antibiotics responsibly. The nation’s attention on curbing antibiotic resistance and the new rules for the use of antibiotics in feed and water for livestock in effect as of Jan. 1 certainly keep antibiotics at the center of discussion. Yet, this also serves as a good time for hog farmers to step back, refocus on the entire animal health picture and take the opportunity to share the many ways they take good care of pigs on their farm.

Healthy pigs produce safe pork. Healthy pigs also repay farmers over and over through enhanced pig performance and less money spent on actual treatment on the back side. Still, keeping pigs healthy is more than just filling the cabinet with pharmaceuticals and having the veterinarian on speed dial. It involves constructing a well-planned, complete animal health plan that is constantly under scrutiny and adjustment.

Understand the why

Despite the size of the farm or the management style, all farms can foster healthy, productive pigs with some careful planning. An effective, comprehensive animal health program includes many components beyond antibiotic use, says Eva Jablonski, Zoetis Pork Technical Services veterinarian.

Often, on the farm, an animal health plan is taken for granted. Falling back on the way things have always been done can stifle improvement and prevent farms from doing things better. It keeps businesses or individuals from moving forward.

Each farm is unique. Animal health protocols for a farm need to be customized for each operation to be successful. A good starting point is to take a health snapshot of the farm in consultation with your herd veterinarian. “You have to understand the health dynamics of that farm. To do so, you need a background on how that farm is performing and a diagnostic baseline for each stage of production. Once you have this health snapshot, you should prioritize health challenges and focus on developing strategies to improve,” explains Jablonski.

Jablonski reminds pork producers that creating an animal health strategy begins with a good relationship with a veterinarian. Developing a close and trusted relationship with a veterinarian is essential and necessary, especially as changing regulations require more veterinary oversight. A veterinarian can assist in capturing an accurate health snapshot of the farm and build a robust animal health strategy program that is workable and practical for the farm.

In working with the herd veterinarian, Jablonski encourages hog farmers to ask questions. While the relationship between producer and veterinarian should be built on mutual trust, it is not wrong to speak up and ask why. It is hard to fully evaluate each degree of a program if you do not understand why a veterinarian recommends a certain management practice or why an individual vaccine is being administered. Open dialogue only improves the success of any herd health plan.

While planning the animal health strategy may be tedious and time-consuming, it is important in keeping pigs healthy and growing.

Regardless of the size of the operation, the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and the National Pork Board recommend these fundamentals for keeping pigs healthy.

■ Prevent the introduction of viruses and bacteria into a pig farm. This practice is commonly referred to as biosecurity and involves good management, barn design, washing and disinfection, and controlling traffic of pigs, people, vehicles and other items that could carry diseases.

The proper procedure to keep out the bugs you do not have is money well spent. Research has confirmed that people, animals, equipment, feed and vehicles can be excellent transporters of pathogens. So establishing an appropriate level of biosecurity can lower the risk of pathogens being transferred from farm to farm. The pork checkoff provides a biosecurity guide for pork producers, allowing individuals to evaluate the weaknesses and strengths of a farm’s program by answering a series of questions. A checklist of considerations for developing a biosecurity plan is also available.

An honest look at the current management practices can detect challenges and areas for improvement. Each action on the farm is highly integrated from sanitation practices to the entry of people to pig flow. Each step must be carefully evaluated, and it is important to ask “why” certain practices are performed. For instance, different production models generate a diverse set of obstacles. A continuous flow production model is more challenging because multiple agents are present at all times. Each farm needs to decide if an all-in, all-out production model — known to prevent the transmission of disease pig to pig — is more advantageous.

■ Understand the bacterial and viral disease threats that can affect the herd. This can be accomplished through diagnostic tools, which can help veterinarians recommend the best prevention or treatment option.

■ Enhance the herd’s immunity to diseases by appropriately timed vaccination. While preventive health measures are estimated at 1.7% of total costs, the real cost of disease outbreak is an unknown until it occurs. Vaccination is critical in protecting the health of the herd. Working with the veterinarian to develop a strong vaccination regimen can not only reduce the overall use of the antibiotics, but also establish a strong health foundation for the farm. Jablonski recommends understanding why a vaccine is being used and why it is administered at particular time.

■ Walk the pens daily to spot potential sick pigs. Regardless of whether a caretaker is walking a nursery, growing-finishing, or wean-to-finish barn, the facility needs to be walked at least once a day to identify problems, determine why the problem is occurring and take action to solve the problem. A resource from the U.S. Pork Center of Excellence suggests employees observe and evaluate from the individual pig, pen and barn levels. From the pig level, caretakers need to be trained to look at individual pigs, not groups of pigs. The pen evaluation should include looking for items within the pen that can detrimentally affect feed intake, growth, health and well-being of the animals. The environment factors — such as barn temperature or ventilation and equipment evaluations — should be included in the barn-level inspection. It is also important that the individual walking the pens documents the process.

■ Animals get sick, and a treatment guideline should be in place. Despite all the prevention care in the world, the fact is animals get sick. However, preventive measures can diminish the frequency and impact of a disease outbreak. If an animal is under the weather, caretakers need a solid strategy to treat the problem with confidence. Treatment guidelines need to guide the employee in the right direction. Is it time to reach for the phone and call the veterinarian, or is it a problem that has been seen before and has an established protocol? Accurately observing, proper diagnosis by a veterinarian, and reporting illness can ensure the right timing, right dose and the right medication is used.

Don’t skip the training

A well-established plan is only as good as the participants and their investment in the program. Communicating the plan and training all individuals is essential. Often compliance problems occur because an employee does not understand why something is done a certain way. It is important that management communicates the “why” along with the instructions.

In addition, training should not stop at orientation. Training should be continuous and performed on a routine basis. Once the basic training program is conducted, the frequency of ongoing training — if training happens monthly or quarterly — is up to the operation. Jablonski suggests picking an animal health topic each month and developing a combination of classroom discussion with hands-on learning to enhance the education process and gain buy-in on the overall program.

Jablonski explains that a two-step educational program works the best. There is value in seeing the information on the big screen in a classroom, but the best teaching tool is the three-dimensional pig. She says, “Honestly, the best questions often are posed in the barn as part of a follow-up session.”

Lead from the heart

For America’s pig farmers, public attention to antibiotics is an opportunity to tell the animal care story. There is more to animal health than antibiotics, and consumers need to hear that straight from the farmer. Christina Lood, Zoetis director of communications, says, “It can be hard to talk to others about what we are doing on farms to keep pigs healthy and how antibiotics are used responsibly, but sometimes an everyday activity [off the farm] can turn into an opportunity to share your story.”

Jablonski recalls her own recent opportunity to discuss antibiotic use with her daughter’s pediatrician. While the goal of the visit was to diagnosis her daughter’s illness, the interaction led to a discussion on how medical doctors and veterinarians determine when antibiotics are needed. It serves as an example that conversations about pig farming can be sparked anywhere.

Over the years, agriculture, in general, tends to be reactive rather than proactive, explains Jablonski. She also recommends describing the role of the veterinarian when discussing sick pigs. “We need to tell our story honestly and not make it sound as simple as pigs get sick, we put them on antibiotics, and they get better. Consumers need to understand the other components of confirming a diagnosis, working with a veterinarian and selecting an appropriate antibiotic when necessary,” Jablonski says.

One area the agriculture community and food companies can improve on is terminology, especially when discussing antibiotics. Using the term “antibiotic-free” to describe raising food animals without antibiotics ever needs to stop. Since all meat is antibiotic-free, the industry needs to use the term “no antibiotic ever” or Jablonski’s preference “raised without antibiotics” to describe this particular production model, notes Jablonski.

Furthermore, she suggests hog farmers need to be careful of terms when referring to different production models when comparing operations based on antibiotic use. Conventional is a collective term referring to a variety of production practices and is viewed as archaic at times. Jablonski says, “If we are comparing operations based on how they use antibiotics, we need to be more specific as in ‘antibiotics used responsibly.’”

One good example from the turkey industry, Lood says, is a label on Shady Brook Farms’ ground turkey that reads “antibiotics only used for treatment or prevention of illness.” It explains the story in a more detailed way beyond just saying traditional or conventional. Jablonski says “conventional” to a consumer often means inferior.

Lood and Jablonski both advise pig farmers to tell their side of the story honestly. Lood says it is necessary for pig farmers to “lead from the heart” when telling their stories. She further explains, “It is better to emphasize that as a producer we care about the animals, and we are doing it because it is the right thing to do rather than saying if we do not take good care of them they will not produce well.”

Clearly, farming is about the economics; however, to the consumer it is not. While it is easier to discuss the profit, it often sends the wrong message to the non-agriculture audience. “It is hard to measure compassion; it is easy to measure dollars,” stresses Jablonski.

Being a pig caretaker is not an easy job, and passion is the common attribute among individuals in the profession. Yet, it is often the last message communicated to the consumer.

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