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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.”
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.
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.
“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.