By Wanda Patsche

This is an intriguing and thought provoking question. As a pig farmer, there is nothing I would like to see more than to greatly reduce or eliminate the use of antibiotics. But, in the real world, is this possible? Can we raise pigs without antibiotics?

Current Antibiotic Use
As of January 1, 2017 (FDA Directive 209 and 213), antibiotics can only be used for therapeutic and sub-therapeutic use. What does this mean? Therapeutic means giving antibiotics for animals who are sick, and sub-therapeutic antibiotic use is for illness prevention. 
 
When antibiotics are used in livestock, drug withdrawals are strictly followed. Each drug is labeled with a specific withdrawal period mandated by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A withdrawal period is the time between the last antibiotic dosage and the time an animal goes to market. By following the withdrawal periods, animals sent to market are below the FDA residual mandated levels. 
 
On our farm, we keep records of each drug used, when it was administered, what animals received the antibiotic and the dosage. These records are required and helps us facilitate the process of following FDA requirements. 
 
Why Antibiotics are used in Livestock Animals
There are two reasons we use antibiotics on our farm. The first reason is to heal sick pigs. Unfortunately, even with all the preventive measures we use on our farm, our pigs do get sick. Depending on the illness, sometimes we give them an “aspirin,” which is not an antibiotic. As a last resort, the pigs do receive an antibiotic, but only after consulting with our veterinarian. Our veterinarian is our animal care expert.
 
The second reason is for prevention. One thing we know about raising pigs is stress equals sickness. So, if we know a pig has been stressed, there is a high chance it will become sick. At that time, we will give the pig an antibiotic to prevent an illness. Our reasoning is it’s easier to catch a sickness early than let the pig develop into a full-blow illness, which will then result in using more antibiotics than used in a preventive measure.
 
Issues to Consider when Going Antibiotic-Free
The American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV) Board of Directors addressed the issue of antibiotic-free production during their last meeting in March, 2016. What is perhaps the most important aspect of animal care, from an animal veterinarian’s perspective, is the timely treatment of sick animals. Their main concern is that some antibiotic-free systems incentivize the lack of antibiotic use and do not provide an alternative marketing strategy. If a farm chooses to go antibiotic-free, it’s important they have a way to separate the animals that received antibiotics so they can go to another market. Not treating a sick animal is not an option. 
 
The AASV position is: “any pork production system that is marketing pigs raised without the use of antibiotics should closely involve veterinarians in the management of herd health. If a pig is sick, it is the swine veterinarian’s responsibility to treat illness in a judicious manner to maintain animal health and welfare.” 
 
Real Life Experiences in Raising Antibiotic-Free Pigs
In researching a case study of  Country View Family Farms of Middletown, Pennsylvania, whose goal is to raise pigs that are antibiotic-free, here are some of the key management techniques to reach that goal:
 
  • All farms and contract growers need to be dedicated and detailed oriented. They scrutinize heavily the people that work for them and who have contract barns for them.
  • Use online maps that show swine site locations that show certain pig health statuses such as PRRSV and PED, which results in knowledge of health challenges in surrounding areas. You need to understand and address health challenges in the pig herd. 
  • Adhering to single stocking, sourcing, and all-in all-out production. What does this mean? When pigs are coming to a farm, all pigs need to come from one farm and not from multiple farms. This is single sourcing. All-in all-out means when pigs are delivered to a farm, they are delivered as one group. That group stays together until they reach market weight. When all pigs have been sold in that group, the barns are washed and sanitized. After washing and sanitizing, the next group can be delivered to the farm. This production method helps with keeping pigs healthy, which will reduce the need for antibiotics.
  • The farm’s emphasis is how to prevent health challenges and not necessarily raising pigs without antibiotics.
  • Veterinarians need to be involved during the start of early decisions regarding barn design, barn locations, pig flow placement, pig density, barn ventilation, water quality and nutrition. These decisions will have an impact on the continuous improvement of animal care.
  • A comprehensive vaccination program for the sow and young pigs with the goal of all vaccinations administered before weaning. 
  • Good nutrition plan. Feeding direct microbials are used to obtain the best quality colostrum. Continually focus on nutritional through the entire life cycle of the pig.
According to Country View Family Farms:
 
“To truly minimize the use of antibiotics throughout a system, it takes a large team from the sow farm technician attending farrowing, to the contract nursery and finisher grower, the veterinarian, the production manager, the program coordinator, the food safety quality assurance technician, the harvest operations technician, the marketing team and sales team. Success is not defined as pork production without antibiotics; it is created by focusing our strategies and resources on long term solutions to prevent health challenges, in order to reduce the administration of antibiotics to a select few individual hogs.”
 
In addition, a pig’s gut health is also key in raising a healthy pig. The gut contains 70% of his immune system, which makes it a crucial barrier to keep out pathogens and toxins, per the National Hog Farmer article, The Bugs stop here. The biggest challenges to gut health is stress, insufficient feed intake and insufficient water intake. These challenges need to be addressed comprehensively and put into a management plan.
 
Summary
Antibiotic usage is an issue that pig farmers continually address in their pig health management strategies. And as stated above, it really is about detailed management techniques focusing on improving herd health. On our farm, we have implemented numerous improvements to enhance the health of our pigs. And as in the past, we will continue to find new and better ways. 
 
The future looks bright. There is considerable research on finding and using alternative methods such as essential oils, probiotics, enzymes and nutritional additives. I can assure that when research shows promise on a consistent basis, pig farmers will embrace new methods for improving herd health. But until then, our ultimate responsibility will be to take care of our animals. And if that means, administering antibiotics, we will do that. We also know that following all FDA requirements and veterinarian recommendations, we are raising safe and healthy pork that is verified by the USDA inspections. This is a line we would NEVER cross.
 

To learn more from Wanda visit http://www.mnfarmliving.com/.

Wanda Patsche is part of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance's Digital Voices Council. To learn more about the program and bloggers who participate, click here.