Don’t jeopardize herd health in vitamin shortage, price increases

Though vitamins make up a small portion of a pig’s diet, they are necessary for the growth, health and life of the animal.

January 11, 2018

7 Min Read
Don’t jeopardize herd health in vitamin shortage, price increases
Producers should not cut back on vitamins in the diets of gestating or lactating sows even if the supply of vitamins tightens up or the price increases.

A fire on Halloween at BASF’s citral plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany, is disrupting the supply chain of Vitamin A, among other products, leaving hog producers fretting over an integral piece of the swine diet.

According to information on the BASF website, the citral plant is not expected to be back online before March at the earliest, and the “downstream products from BASF’s human and animal nutrition businesses (Vitamin A, E, several carotenoids) are expected to be available several months after the start-up of the citral plant.”

That delay is of concern as Vitamin A is an essential vitamin supplement in a pig’s diet, “at its basic, it’s necessary for growth, health and life, and if you eliminate it from the diet long enough, growth will cease, and ultimately life will cease,” says Paul Davis, American Feed Industry Association’s director of quality, animal food safety and education. “Now, those effects would come from a gross deficiency for an extended period of time.”

In short-term deficiencies of the vitamin, producers would likely see negative impacts on vision, bone growth, reproduction and overall epithelial health, such as “dry, scaly skin and untidy hair. … That’s what we would see first,” Davis says.

With a pig’s fast metabolism and generally short life span, Vitamin A deficiencies “will tell on you,” Davis says, more quickly than in an animal that has a longer life span, such as an elephant or rhinoceros.

“Vitamin deficiency in swine is nothing to play around with,” Davis says.

A saving grace is that though essential to a pig’s performance, Vitamin A’s requirement is met at a relatively low rate — 1,300 to 4,000 international units of Vitamin A activity per kilogram of the pig’s diet. “Most Vitamin A is added as a low-inclusion and high-potency supplement to the pig’s diet,” Davis says, with reproducing swine having the highest requirement.

Mark Whitney, Purina Animal Nutrition swine technical sales specialist, says “don’t cut vitamin levels in gestating or lactating sow diets, or in smaller pigs because they are growing so much faster. If you do need to cut back, do so in the end of the finishing period and work back from there. … If you cut back on vitamins in the reproduction phase you can have lasting negative impacts.”

Should producers decide to cut back on vitamins either to cut costs or due to lack of availability, Whitney says it won’t take long before they begin to notice pig performance dropping. “With trace minerals that are incorporated into skeletal tissues you’ve got a reservoir for some of that,” he says. “For vitamins, your best reservoirs are your fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E and K), you have some stored up in fat tissues, but all your other water-soluble vitamins (such as B vitamins) are something that you need to have on a continual basis because the body has limited ability to store.” Supplies of fat-stored vitamins are also depleted rather quickly in growing livestock.

Davis adds that Vitamin A has historically not been an expensive part of the diet, “so I think in our commercial operations we have tended to add a little extra, so perhaps nutritionists can pull back and try to hit the requirement more right on the nose rather than over-fortifying, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s typical because it’s not a big expense. We used to say it’s basically ‘cheap insurance’ in case an animal doesn’t eat enough one day.”

Sticker shock has been seen in some vitamin trace mineral products with a 75 to 100% increase in price over the past few months, or 25-35% increase in premixes, but “we feel at the level we have it fortified that it’s not only maintaining performance, but also animal health in those the pigs.” Those percentages parlay to what Whitney has heard from the field of increases of $4 to $6 per ton of full feed, or $1.50 to $2 per pig for a premix. “Is it a real cost? Yes, but you have to put it in perspective.”

Vitamin A exists naturally in green leafy plants, grasses and alfalfa, but since the majority of today’s commercial swine herds are raised inside barns, animals do not have access to these feedstuffs, thus producers must rely on synthetic Vitamin A supplements.

Davis says producers could theoretically use alfalfa products in swine diets, but it would not be the best way to supplement Vitamin A .Swine are monogastric, omnivorous and fairly adaptable to changes in diets, he says you will not want to drastically change up their rations. “Let’s just say that the only source of Vitamin A that we can find is alfalfa, which is completely unlikely, we would have to have a pretty high inclusion of alfalfa to fulfill the animal’s Vitamin A requirement. So, we would need to make a gross change in our [feed] formulation--maybe it would have to be 20% alfalfa meal or more to accomplish what we want it to do, whereas now it’s probably 0.01% or less synthetic Vitamin A supplement added. … The problem wouldn’t be in the Vitamin A source, it would be in the overall feed formulation — you’d have to push around the proportions of corn and soybean meal to make room for a less-concentrated source of Vitamin A, and that might cause temporary minor digestive upset and might not be economically or practically feasible.”

Whitney, who works with feed mill operators and feed salesmen, says Purina has been proactive by getting the word out about the price hikes and potential vitamin shortages through conference calls and meetings. “We want to get news out to the producers before they get the bill that their supplement has gone up in price.”

Whitney says his company may be better off than some others “in that a majority of our vitamins we had contracted through a different route that actually was not impacted by the fire (in Germany), so we’re in a fortunate spot there. Not that we have all of our vitamins covered, but we’ve got most of our vitamins spoken for.”

Whitney says for now Purina is holding steady on the swine pre-mixes and fortification levels, “and right now we think we can provide our producers with their vitamin needs through the short term. … We’re telling our producers to stand steady.”

Some producers may be forced to reduce vitamin levels, and he says that he’s heard of some companies reformulating diets right at or a little below NRC requirement levels, “and the challenge there is that NRC recommendations are set on research that is quite dated, 30, 40, 50 years ago, and when you think of today’s pig and how much faster and leaner it is in growth, and tissue growth is where you really use a lot of those vitamins, more recent research would indicate three to six times the amount of vitamins over the NRC is what would be needed to maximize growth performance and efficiency. … I think that we’ll have people cutting back on vitamins to the safety margin, but I’m not sure we had that much safety margin built in” under the current NRC recommendations.

Though Purina’s supply of vitamins is secure for now, Whitney says the company is exploring “Plan B and Plan C if necessary.”

Those alternative plans may be necessary if shortages exist past summer, because Whitney says the BASF plant fire is just one more obstacle in the vitamin supply chain. “We saw an increase in vitamin prices leading up to this, because two-thirds of feed grade vitamins are made or have been made in China, and that government is committed to reducing air pollution, so a lot of the plants are either closing or cutting back on production,” he says. Adding more insult to injury, there was a fire in late-November at a plant in India that produced Vitamin D.

“In the long term, at least from a price standpoint, it appears we’re going to have a new standard, primarily from what’s going on in China, we’re just going to have to pay more for vitamins,” Whitney says. In addition to higher prices, Whitney fears that this potential vitamin shortage could be hitting at a time when animal health cannot be jeopardized. “The worst case scenario is if PRRS or PEDV outbreaks are made that much worse by not being able to keep vitamin supplements at a suitable level to support the pigs’ immune system adequately.”

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