Raising pigs without antibiotics offers niche market but with limitations



Markets for pork produced without antibiotics continue to grow. But this method of production is not for every farm, cautions Michael Pierdon, VMD, veterinarian with Four Star Veterinary Service, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

“A lot of clients do ask questions about it…They see it as a business opportunity,” Pierdon said. “But first of all, is your herd really a good candidate? Meaning, what’s your disease profile? Is your current pig-farm setup and pig flow appropriate for antibiotic free or would you have to consider reworking that in order to have good success?”

Additional costs

Producers interested in this method of pork production should expect higher production costs.

“Often producers ask about it because they’ve been offered more money for their pigs if they create antibiotic-free pigs,” Pierdon said. “Creating those pigs will also cost more money because there’s more cost in vaccines, facilities, some inefficiencies in flow, and other demands nutritionally that are going to be required.”

In some cases, the expected premium evaporates with the higher cost of production.

Being profitable

Pierdon works with many producers who stay profitable in this niche market. But it’s not just about profits for them.

“Especially for smaller operations and owner/operators, this is a niche that they can get into that finds them a home in the modern industry,” he explained. “They’re able to do something that may be a little more intensive than the bigger players.”

The keys to success start with what Pierdon calls a “multi-faceted approach,” starting with good, healthy breeding stock to minimize endemic disease. This helps baby pigs start healthy, free of disease and able to fight off minor health challenges on their own.

The proper environment and management also are required to keep the pigs as healthy as possible throughout their lives. Pierdon maintains that all-in, all-out production gives producers an edge when antibiotics are not available.

“All-in, all-out gives you the ability to eradicate disease when it happens,” he explained. “Sometime the animals will become sick, and when you have all-in, all-out, you never have to have the disease for more than one group of pigs.”

Ventilation and temperature controls must be correct. Feed and water systems must work properly.

“All those things contribute to animal health by increasing or decreasing stress,” Pierdon said. “Managing the environment really helps, especially with what I call the standard bacterial diseases…If you can put pigs in the right environment, they have a lot better chance of resisting those challenges.”

Vaccinations important

Producers raising pigs without antibiotics need vaccinations to control many disease challenges or pathogens.

“We probably use more vaccine technology in antibiotic-free production because that’s one of the biggest tools in the toolbox,” Pierdon said. “And without the ability to treat disease when it occurs, prevention is just a lot more important.

“For instance, ileitis is a disease that can be controlled effectively through medication in the feed in commercial flows,” he continued. “But in antibiotic-free production, you’ve really got to use vaccines to control it.”

Growing demand

Pierdon expects consumer demand for all types of pork production without the use of antibiotics will continue to grow. These include niche markets that also add housing, nutritional and management restrictions.

“Increasingly, big purchasers of commercial pork in the US will want [pork] to be produced without antibiotics,” he said. “As we transition more and more of our commercial industry today to that, we need to embrace and develop new technologies that will allow us to manage the health of the animals without antibiotics.”


Tools for managing pigs without antibiotics

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Raising pigs without antibiotics requires extra management and different tools compared to traditional commercial hog production, reports Laura Carroll, DVM, veterinarian with Four Star Veterinary Service, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Carroll works with many hog producers who raise pigs without antibiotics for specialty markets.

“We’ve found with antibiotic-free production that the basics are much more important — feed, water and air,” she explained. Things like proper ventilation, access to feed, an adequate supply of water, the right number of nipples for pigs in the pen all become very important.

“Vaccination is another component,” Carroll said. “Commercial and autogenous vaccinations are utilized quite a bit to make sure we’re preventing these disease challenges from occurring.”

Veterinary oversight

While Carroll believes it’s important for all producers to work with their veterinarians, hog farms not using antibiotics will need a little more veterinary oversight.

“We certainly want to make sure we’re on top of any disease challenges as they arise, just because we are limited in the tools in our toolbox that we can utilize,” she explained.

“We have to be a little bit creative in terms of managing pig health and figuring out ways to produce high-quality pigs,” she added.

Adding acidifiers

One tool Carroll and her associates rely on to help baby pigs get a good start is acidifiers. The product is fed on creep feed in the farrowing house.

“We use acidifiers mostly to reduce the pH in the GI (gastrointestinal) tract to make it a more acidic environment,” she said. “Some of the harmful bacteria we deal with like to live in more alkaline, more basic environments. If we can provide an acidic environment to the pigs, then we’re reducing the growth of this potentially harmful bacteria.”

Acidifiers also help newly weaned pigs break down feed in their gut because they lack the ability to produce enough acid to do it themselves.

“If we can provide some acidifiers to the diet or through water, then we’re making digestion a lot easier on that pig,” she explained. “Weaning can be somewhat stressful, and this really helps get these pigs started.”

Prebiotics and probiotics

Carroll uses prebiotics and probiotics to maintain a balance of good and bad bacteria in the GI tract.

“Prebiotics are used to help promote the growth of that good bacteria, almost like fertilizer for the good bacteria in the GI tract,” she explained. “Probiotics are the good bacteria themselves. Lots of times these are live culture or live organisms that we are utilizing.”

Both products are used in times of stress, including enteric disease challenges and weaning, when there’s a disruption in the gut microflora.

Nutritional supplements

“We utilize nutritional supplements in many cases when pigs just aren’t feeling well,” Carroll said. “It could be from the stress of weaning, for example, or when they’re undergoing disease challenges.”

This is especially true for younger pigs who don’t have a lot of energy reserves to use when sick.

“In cases of diarrhea, there could be a lot of fluid loss,” she said. “We need to try to replace those electrolytes, replace the nutrition in these animals and keep them hydrated so we can keep them going. Nursing piglets and weaned pigs require a lot of energy to nurse and to get up to the feeder and drinker.”

Crossover to commercial

Depending on the situation, Carroll prescribes these products in commercial systems, too.

“We utilize a lot of these products, either to replace some antibiotics or in conjunction with antibiotics,” she explained. “They’re a nice supplement.

“And certainly, from an animal-welfare standpoint, I think it improves how we’re handling our pigs when they’re going through some stress.”

Veterinary oversight continues to be important to make sure these products are used correctly, Carroll added.





8 key factors drive success when raising pigs without antibiotics

A cluster of hog farms raising pigs without antibiotics developed in southeast Pennsylvania where hog operations tend to be small and expansion limited. The producers here recognized that this was a way to stay viable raising hogs without getting bigger.

Helping many of these operations make the switch to producing hogs without antibiotics is Michael Pierdon, VMD, veterinarian with Four Star Veterinary Service, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

Pierdon says the decision to enter into hog production without the use of antibiotics should not be made lightly. Producers need to recognize there will always be health challenges. The goal is to resolve those challenges as they arise and not let them become a “gradual increase of endemic disease that makes antibiotic-free production untenable,” he added.

Based on his experiences, Pierdon recommends eight key factors that drive success in hog production when not using antibiotics.

1. High health status

Breeding stock and pig flow should be negative for these diseases: porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus/porcine delta coronavirus, actinobacillus pleuropneumonia and swine dysentery.

Other disease such as Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae (M. hyo) and influenza A (IAV) are ideally excluded from pig flow but are more easily managed with vaccination than other diseases.

2. Strict biosecurity

Excellent biosecurity is needed to prevent disease introduction.  If the most severe diseases are kept out, other endemic diseases are more easily managed through a combination of appropriate gilt acclimation, vaccination protocol, pig flow and husbandry.

3. Gilt acclimation

When possible, use replacement stock from the same source used to originally populate the barn.

Gilt facilities on breeding farms should allow a 2- to 4-month acclimation period when diseases like IAV and M. hyo are present.

Internal development of replacement animals is a good way to manage exposure and acclimation of replacement stock, as long as external disease introduction is minimized.

4. Vaccination

A vaccination program that creates a diverse, robust immunity is key to preventing the emergence of disease. Vaccinations should address all endemic diseases present in the breeding herd and pig flow, as well as diseases that the pigs will likely encounter downstream.

Breeding herd vaccinations should include porcine circovirus type 2 (PCV2), M. hyo, influenza, parvovirus/leptospirosis/erysipelas, Haemophilus parasuis and Salmonella.

Growing pigs should be vaccinated against PCV2 and M. hyo along with ileitis. Additional vaccinations frequently are necessary to control Salmonella, E. coli, erysipelas, Pasteurella/Bordetella and IAV.

Vaccination protocols should maximize immune response. This means vaccinating at the correct age with full doses and using two-dose protocols when necessary and recommended.

5. All-in, all-out pig flow

Pierdon suggests using batch farrowing on sow farms and all-in, all-out pig flows on grow-out sites to allow the elimination of diseases that emerge in the normal course of production.

Large populations impact health, too. He recommends setting up systems to minimize the number of pigs at one site without sacrificing the economies of scale needed to be sustainable.

He recommends keeping sow farms at 1,400 head or less and on a 4- or 5-week batch system with each group flowing to distinct grow-out sites that are emptied after each turn.

6. Barns designed for comfort

Barns used for raising pigs without antibiotics must allow for optimal husbandry conditions. Proper ventilation and temperature regulation are critical in preventing environmental stressors that can predispose pigs to disease.

Use zone heating, mats, hovers, etc., to manage the microenvironment for pig comfort. Water systems should allow routine use of oral vaccines and supplements. Water treatment systems may be needed in some areas to control pH and bacteria.

Smaller, conventional penning with 20 to 30 pigs per pen is better than large pen designs.

In hospital pens, create a separate drinking system to provide oral antibiotic treatment. An individual, moveable, gate-mounted, gravity-fed drinking system is recommended.

7. Producer engagement

“Producer engagement is key to the success of the growing pigs, particularly in the nursery phase,” Pierdon said. “Careful attention to requirements for environmental management and for individual pig care are required in order to optimize success.”

He also recommends making the training of animal caretakers take high priority. The time and resources invested in training will help keep caretakers engaged and motivated.

8. Veterinary oversight

Veterinarians have a key role to play in hog systems not using antibiotics. “Prompt, accurate diagnosis of disease challenges and timely, targeted treatment can often prevent the need for mass medication,” Pierdon said.

“Responsibility for this oversight cannot rely on lay staff,” he added. “Veterinarians have training and expertise that allows them to view the ‘big picture’ and identify not just the disease challenges present but also the factors that predispose those diseases.”

In addition, regular veterinary visits to the production sites help ensure proper medical care of all animals when necessary.

“Our responsibility is to advocate for the animals under our care,” he explained. “This includes promptly initiating antibiotic treatment when necessary and broadly enough to prevent disease outbreaks that compromise animal welfare.”