Farm Management Using A Holistic Approach to Pig Production Without Antibiotics

The use of antibiotics and the problems associated with their use is an important topic. Veterinarians use antibiotics because they are necessary for the treatment of diseases. However, it should be acknowledged and accepted that antibiotics are used as a remedy for previous errors. Whenever antibiotics are used, there is a risk that antimicrobial resistance will increase, hence the rising levels of concern for human safety, food safety and environmental safety.

Experts, including veterinary pharmacologists and animal health practitioners, are looking for practical solutions for converting the theory of reduction or removal of antibiotics from animal production into a future reality. This will only be achieved with an adaptation of the strategies currently used on farms and in farming systems, including making new considerations around biosecurity, health management, housing, feeding, and genetics.

Current situation = a big challenge

Drug resistant antimicrobials present a huge challenge. Antibiotic usage has contributed to this problem, but veterinary medicine is not the main reason for this disaster. Globally, there are reports that 700,000 people have died due to infection with drug-resistant pathogens, 50,000 of these deaths were from the European Union. The challenge is already huge, which has fueled public awareness and increasing levels of concern.

Looking back to move forward

In order to reduce the use of antibiotics, previous experience can help. In 2006, antibiotic growth promoters (AGPs) were banned from animal feeds in European countries. At that time, few were prepared for the change. AGP usage did go down, but at the cost of severely destabilizing animal gut health, leading to a dramatic increase in the therapeutic use of antibiotics. So, in the end, there was no change in the overall amounts of antimicrobials administered.

Denmark’s yellow card system

The ban on AGPs in Denmark specifically provides a good case study. It took Denmark ten years of development to recover to the same production and economic levels achieved before the AGP ban. When the Danish government saw the rise in therapeutic use of antibiotics, they introduced a ‘Yellow Card’ system. Danish pig farmers who were using more than double the average amount of antibiotics compared to other farmers in the country were given a yellow card. The yellow card was also given to the veterinarian consulting on the farm. And both the farmer and the veterinarian were listed publically on the internet. They had a period of six months, under close inspection, to reduce their use of antibiotics. If, after the allotted time, the level of antibiotic usage had not fallen to an acceptable level, they were banned from working in food animal production. This is an extreme example, but it is reality for Danish farmers.

Critically important antimicrobials (CIAs)

Critically important antimicrobials (CIAs) are those reserved exclusively for human use. If used in animal feed, resistance could develop, threatening human health. These antimicrobials are mainly the fluoroquinolones, third and fourth generation cephalosporins, macrolides and glycopeptides. All European farmers and veterinarians are now required by law to prove, using antibiograms and laboratory research, that resistance has not developed and that pathogens are still sensitive to the antimicrobials, before a CIA is used.

Antibiotics and life cycle stage

In the near future, it is highly likely that antibiotics will be banned from use in finishing barns for pigs and cattle. This means that antibiotics will not be permitted for administration via feed or water during the final three or four months of the animal’s life. A ban on the use of antibiotics for the treatment of individual animals who are sick is highly unlikely as this would raise an animal welfare issue. If sick animals are not treated, they would have to be euthanized immediately. Individual treatment using antibiotics administered by injection will be possible, but group treatment of finishing animals by applying antibiotics to the feed or water supply will likely be banned.

In order to maintain animal health and productivity, new strategies must be developed. If there is a problem on a farm that is solved with the use of antibiotics, they should be administered as early as possible. This means early identification of disease, monitoring the health status of all animals on the whole farm, and eliminating all causes of disease.

Different countries, same problems

There are different farms in different countries on every continent, but the main difference between them is the language spoken. The size of the farm and the animals may be different, but the problems faced and the management behavior are largely the same. Most farmers are, in principle, not willing to pay for knowledge. The farmer would not pay an expert to visit their farm to share advice and knowledge. Instead, the feeding companies, genetic companies, pharmaceutical companies, or any other organization will be paying for this education. This should change in the future, farmers should be more prepared to pay for knowledge and advice. The comparison and evaluation of situations from different farms around the world, and the ability to demonstrate case studies to others, is another very important tool.

Many farmers still rely on antibiotics as a working tool. They make mistakes and cover them up using antibiotics. In reality, this happens on many, many farms and in many, many situations. And in many cases, the legal situation is being ignored. There is a lot of smuggling. There is a lot of usage of pure substances from places without any controls or regulations. When producing food for human consumption, such illegal practices cannot continue. The steady and constant use of antibiotics on a farm indicates that there is an underlying problem. This problem will be causing problems that hinder performance and efficiency.

In the future, veterinarians and other farm consultants will be employed to keep clients competitive, not only in terms of the best possible performance numbers, but also in terms of consumer acceptance. Food products with proof of sustainable animal husbandry practices, the health status of the animals and a guarantee of zero-risk to consumers will have a commercial advantage.

Who makes the rules?

There are many international groups working on the problem of antibiotic use in food animals including the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC), the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Action on Antibiotic Resistance (ReAct) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). These organizations decide what kind of drugs can be registered, the rules around drug administration and withdrawal periods, and which drugs are banned from use.

Transparent information

Use of antibiotics in European countries is very easy to analyze. By law, all pharmaceutical companies must provide their national government with an annual report on antibiotic sales to individual veterinary clinics working in the food animal industry. In addition, the veterinarians must send a similar sales report to the national government detailing the amount of antibiotics each farmer customer has purchased during the year. At the end of the year, a definitive evaluation of the use of antibiotics can be made across the different member states or member countries of the European Union.

Antibiotic use is recorded in milligrams per population corrected unit (PCU). This means the milligrams of antibiotic consumed or sold for every one kilogram of the entire population, including slaughtered animals. This method ensures all livestock and all antibiotic activity in the country are included in the calculations.

Antibiotic use varies around the world

Governments have asked for a 50% reduction in the use of antibiotics in food animals. This may seem reasonable, but in reality, antibiotic use varies greatly between different countries [13:35]. In Cyprus for example, average antibiotic use is 400 milligrams/PCU. By comparison, average antibiotic use in Austria is only 57 milligrams/PCU. If Cyprus decrease their usage by 50% they will still be using 200 milligrams/PCU, the equivalent of four times the amount of the Austrians. If the 50% reduction is implemented in Austria, 28 milligrams/PCU would not be enough antibiotic activity to treat sick animals, raising questions and concerns associated with animal welfare. Instead of implementing the same rules in all European countries, an alternative approach would be to raise awareness of the problem and take sensible steps towards reducing antibiotic usage in places where it makes the most sense.

Challenging previous models

Up to now, veterinarians have been striving towards a goal of very, very healthy animals on farms. The health status production pyramid illustrates this system [17:00]. In pork production, it is commonly accepted that the animals with the highest health status are the boars and grandparents. Gilts, piglets, weaners, growers, and finally finishers all have a lower health status. Consumer acceptance for the use of antibiotics totally contradicts this model because consumer interest is focused on the final three months of life, and not with the boar or grandparent stock. As a result, the health status pyramid has become completely inverted. The closer towards the consumer end of the production process, the more important it will be to reduce the use of antibiotics in order to ensure consumer acceptance.

The sooner the better

The earlier in the pig’s life an antibiotic can be administered, the less amount is required. For example, when treating a 3 or 4 kg piglet in the lactation unit, the quantity of antibiotic used during the course of a typical five-day treatment will be significantly less compared to that used to treat a 70 kg animal with the same disease. Delaying treatment means using 20 to 30 times more antibiotic to treat the same disease, and is likely to mean that productivity losses have already occurred. But, in order to carry out early treatment, detailed knowledge and close farm management are required, especially in terms of health and disease management.

Applied knowledge

There is no doubt that there should be a reduction in antibiotic use, but the solution should not destabilize farms. The basic parameters of the production system including biosecurity and farm management should be scrutinized. However, everybody claims to already know everything there is to know about these basic parameters. But knowledge alone is not enough. This knowledge has to be applied to the day-by-day tasks carried out on farms. In practice, this means focusing on the timing of production, using antimicrobials strategically, and reducing the use of antimicrobials in the final part of the animals’ lives.

Batch farrowing helps everyone

Typically, the bigger the farm, the lower the use of the batch farrowing system. Larger farms usually have labor available all the time so farm owners need to make sure employees are working every day. One example farm near Bucharest has 12500 sows. They carry out insemination each day during the week (not on the weekends). If inseminations are carried out daily, this will result in daily farrowing. Farrowing every day means piglets of different ages. Nobody is available 365 days/year and 24 hours/day. Instead, we need to implement perfect production. In order to exert real control in all production steps, we have to have motivated people.

Empower staff

One way to motivate staff is through empowerment. Reducing the number of staff might seem counterintuitive, but this will give more responsibility to those in employment, as well as a higher salary. European farms use cheaper labor from the East. Farms in Thailand use cheaper labor from Cambodia. In these examples, workers are usually not educated, and work seven days per week for a very poor salary. Expecting such workers to have the necessary skills and to be motivated enough to implement best practices is highly unlikely. Making manpower as effective as possible is the best strategy.

Health management

In order to treat diseases early, staff must be trained to look for early signs and symptoms, including changes in behavior, to evaluate the situation each day and to record all necessary data. In addition, farmers have to be willing to invest money in health monitoring and not wait until it is too late for the animals. For example, regular blood samples, post-mortem examinations and taking swabs will require investment, but they will deliver important information on which to base decisions about production. A declaration about the health status of the farm can only be made with a detailed level of information, gathered over a certain period of time. Having this level of information allows the veterinarian to properly diagnose the problem and to set up effective vaccination strategies and therapeutic plans, which may or may not include the use of antibiotics. Data gathering is very important and should be carried out daily on farms. Recognizing that health management is the future is the first step to gaining complete control of the system. Precise and ongoing health management is the only way to reduce antibiotic use on farms without suffering any negative economic effects.

Feeding and sow condition

The condition of the sow when it is brought to the farrowing cage is very important. All actions leading up to this time, including vaccination, feeding strategies, genetic selection and insemination will all impact the condition of the sow. Any change in the composition of the feed will change its specific weight, impacting feed intake and ultimately the nutritional intake of the animal. Nutrition plays an important role in stabilizing fertility and big litter sizes. Encouraging a large number of fertilized eggs to implant after insemination can be achieved by supplying a relatively high level of energy to the sow.

As soon as eggs have implanted, feed intake should be reduced. After the ultrasound check for pregnancy, the appearance of the sow should be improving. A lot of body mass will have been lost after weaning and the sows may look slim, but after 28 days, body condition should have begun to recover so feed intake levels can be reduced.

One size does not fit all

It is important to remember that each farm should be treated differently; comparing one farm to another is not helpful since they will all differ in terms of genetics, housing systems, management systems, diet compositions and many other factors. Each farm will have different ventilation systems, different housing conditions and configurations, different management styles, and to some extent, different genetics. Systems should be adapted to the specific needs of the individual farm.

After the first half of gestation, from day 85 onwards, the fetuses really start to grow and feed intake should be increased accordingly. Sows should not eat too much and become fat, especially during the last phase of gestation, but feed intake should be sufficient to bring sows into a good condition. Variations in piglet birth size and weights, or piglets born underweight, cannot be corrected through changes to sow feed intake. Implementing a good feeding strategy will stabilize the system, but it will not solve real problems.

Calcium at farrowing

One common problem on many farms, especially with older sows after their third or fourth litter, is that the sow starts to sleep during farrowing. This causes many piglets to be stillborn due to the prolonged time of farrowing. The problem is easily corrected by ensuring the sow has sufficient calcium during farrowing. Older sows are unable to mobilize skeletal calcium during farrowing. For any farm suffering with problems of stillborn piglets, administer a lot of calcium either intramuscularly or intravenously and within ten minutes farrowing should start as usual. Irrespective of genetics, the gestation diet should contain a maximum of seven grams per kilogram of calcium, or lower if possible. On farms where gilts also receive the gestation diet, adjustments must be made, as seven grams per kilogram is not enough for gilts to sustain adequate levels of skeletal growth.

Survival is not enough

Prolonged farrowing is not only a problem in terms of stillborn piglets. Some piglets may be starved of oxygen, causing them to be very weak when they are born. Weak piglets do not have enough power for the uptake of colostrum. Without colostrum, the viability of the piglet is greatly reduced. The amount and quality of the colostrum drunk in the first hours of life has a huge impact on the future lives of the animals. It is therefore important to look beyond statistics reviewing the number of live vs stillborn piglets. The animals must do more than survive; they must perform.

Feed supply at farrowing

During farrowing, sows should continue to be fed with very low levels of gestation feed. Intake can be as low as 1 to 1.5 kg. Feed levels at farrowing should be strictly monitored to check that sows are being offered feed. In some cases, feed is withdrawn when early farrowing signs are observed on day one, but farrowing might not take place until day two or even day three. In extreme cases, the sow might go three days without any feed. Farrowing should already be established before feed is removed. Sows consuming 1 to 1.5 kg of feed per day during farrowing will not cause any problems.

Increasing intake during lactation

A switch to lactation feed should be made from day three after farrowing, and the intake level increased by a maximum of 0.5 kg each day thereafter. On day 16 after farrowing, average energy intake should be 100 mega joules per sow. Increasing the amount of lactation feed offered to the sow too quickly will not make it possible to reach such high intake levels. On day five or six of lactation, the sows should all be up and waiting to be fed before the allotted time. This is an ideal situation to have in a farrowing barn. Young piglets do not drink too much milk so there is no need to oversupply energy to the sows.

Water supply

To support feed intake levels of 8 kg per day, a sow must drink between 25 and 28 liters of water. In some drinking systems, the flow rate is not high enough to deliver this amount of water. Without enough water, a sow will not eat as much and consequently performance will go down. When using level drinkers, the presence of feed will prevent water being delivered. If the sow has a temperature of 41 degrees, she is unlikely to eat. Without eating, she cannot drink because no water is delivered. The resulting situation is a sick animal with high fever without any access to water for six hours. The supply of fresh water to sows is of the utmost importance, and any disruption or compromise to this could result in the lactation being written off.

Temperature and feed intake

There is a negative correlation between temperature and feed intake. For this reason, many farms in countries with warmer climates use evaporation cooling and cooling pads [38:25], especially during lactation, to maintain feed intake levels. Sow feed intake during lactation is not only important to improve sow body condition after weaning, but it is also important for piglet health. When the vaccination for influenza resulted in the herd getting a fever, feed intake would reduce for two days. Consequently, the weaning weight of piglets dropped by 350 grams, confirming the importance of maintaining feed intake levels during lactation. In countries with cooler climates, the environment within the barn must be adjusted to the needs of the piglets and sows, and not those of the staff. Fresh air might make working conditions more comfortable for workers, but the temperature should not be allowed to drop too low so that the animals are in discomfort. If staff are working in the barn in coats, this is a good indicator that the temperature is too low for the pigs.

Genetic selection for the future

While it may be tempting to save money and buy cheaper animals, the progeny will be disadvantaged. Genetic selection of newborn animals should take place as early as possible. Gilts are the future of the farm so ensuring they are high quality is extremely important. The better the stock on the farm, the better the future results will be. When buying new animals in to the production unit, ensure they are quarantined. This will protect current animals from the new animals, and it will allow the new animals time to adjust to their new environment.

Management of gilts of optimal performance

Bigger gilts can be offered gestation feed immediately, as long as the calcium level is adjusted accordingly. Caution should be taken not to feed gilts with too much protein. Encourage the buildup of some back fat to stabilize the animal for the future by reducing the protein content. The age of a gilt at the time of their first insemination is important and 240 days is commonly used as the target age. However, far more important is the live weight of the gilt at first insemination. The target live weight should be between 130 and 140 kilograms and not more. Gilts with 180 to 190 kilograms at first insemination will have problems with their legs and ligaments, problems regulating their body temperature, they will likely not fit into the farrowing cage, and they will face further problems for the rest of their lives. Production managers should ensure that gilts are brought into heat on time.

Gilt synchronization

Heat detection in gilts is not always easy. Gilts are very sensitive so it can be a challenge. Synchronizing the gilts means that the exact time, body mass and age of the animals are identified when they are on heat, and when they are pregnant. Synchronizing 100 gilts will ensure 95 of these animals are in the farrowing cage at the time you expect them. Insemination is very individual, just as sex is very individual and personal, so do not carry out the insemination in groups. Put the animals into individual cages so they can concentrate on the job. Batch systems are the only way to interrupt infection chains on the farm. Moreover, with big batches of animals (preferably whole rooms or even whole buildings), staff are better focused on the required tasks.

When the decision has been made to conduct batch farrowing, even with one-week batch farrowing on big farms, focus efforts into one day. This will result in one group per week. The productivity of batch farrowing has been shown on many occasions. For example, on one farm in Austria, a group of 146 animals were synchronized. The first insemination was followed by a second insemination 18 hours later. The pregnancy check showed 131 animals as pregnant.

Provide enough space

Batch farrowing can only be conducted within an adequate environment. Barns should have sufficient space and light, and be stimulating to the animal. Where possible, self-fixing cages should be used [46:29] so that when the sow goes in, they are safe and quiet. With self-fixing cages, you can expect the majority of the sows to be inside with only one or two animals outside. Sows will voluntarily stay in the cage because they do not want to fight with other animals.

It is very important to ensure that piglets get access to quality colostrum. In addition to colostrum, some production units also offer a pre-starter diet. Do not expect weaning weights to dramatically increase when using a pre-starter diet because that is not their aim. The main aim of a pre-starter diet is to train the piglets to eat and to train the digestive system to react. If a piglet does not eat for 75 hours after weaning, the blood sugar level will be far too low and in reality, this animal is lost.

The main concentration of the animal immune system is in the intestinal tract. Most antibodies are produced in the gut. Therefore, if we destabilize the gut, we also destabilize the immune system which destabilizes the immune response of our animals and, therefore, we reduce animal performance.

To improve feed digestibility, raw material quality, the presence of molds, germination, mycotoxin contamination and the overall composition of the feed should all be considered. Crude fiber is of very high importance. There are many different possibilities, different components or different parts of crude fiber. Certain parts of crude fiber are responsible for feeding the probiotics, the positive bacteria in the microbiome. These probiotics are very important for stabilizing the gut and therefore the overall health of the animal.

Air filtration for disease prevention

Another novel idea for the prevention of disease is using air filtration. A system of this type has been implemented on a farm with 120 sows. A filter system was established in the roof with air being blown out of the building at all times. Ventilators in the exhaust chimneys have been replaced with computer-controlled flaps to control airflow. In the Unites States, similar air filtration systems are used, but operating under low pressure. This means that whenever a door or window is opened or broken, unfiltered air is sucked into the building.

Before being blown into the barn, the air is filtered using several types of filter, and then cooled. Alternatively, the air could be disinfected with a plasma. On one facility for 750 piglets, they have successfully implemented the plasma system, which has enabled production of three linked batches without any antibiotics. The plasma system is currently very expensive, but it is a promising idea for the future.

In summary, visiting farms, looking at the facilities and the animals and using the gathered information will help improve production for the future. Staff should be educated so that they can evaluate the situation and combine the gathered data to set a structured, clear plan for improving future production.