Over the past 25 years, U.S. pork production has fundamentally changed in order to efficiently meet a growing global population’s food demands while also dealing with a changing workforce. This led the industry to focus more on animal populations and, perhaps inadvertently, migrate away from individual animals. Many factors, including three-site production, larger herd sizes and labor issues, have contributed to the increased focus on population management.

While we have become efficient at producing pigs, there are reasons why pork producers and veterinarians should renew their attention to the needs of individual pigs that make up a population. For example, targeting only pigs that require treatment is cost effective. From the broader, social view, it ensures that we are doing the right things for both the animal and the group.

Given the fact that we sell individual animals, looking at the group average doesn’t always add up economically. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the maximum number of full-value individual animals hit our targets. The industry has new medicines that accommodate individual pig treatments and deliver a full course of therapy, making this goal much easier to achieve.

Managing a population with blanket, oral medication implies that some pigs do not receive adequate care when they are sick, while others might receive treatments that aren’t needed. It didn’t take long for advocacy groups to speculate that production practices that focus on averages, such as continuous in-feed use of antibiotics, might affect human health, food safety and the environment. We’ve all seen the YouTube videos, right? Taken together, these concerns could mean more regulation and higher costs for producers. 

The first rule of husbandry is to provide pigs with an environment to thrive — good food, clean water, fresh air and a dry place to sleep. This also includes giving them the vaccines they need to prevent disease. 

When it comes to sick pigs, there is no conclusive second rule for treatment, creating the vacuum for “averaging” practices that can take a toll on herd health and your bottom line.

Let’s face it, averaging means many sick pigs may be left behind. But what if you could train your people to quickly identify the sick pigs and treat them individually, thereby helping restore their health and slow or stop disease spread? Protocols developed for our Individual Pig Care Program are directed at such goals, and the initial results are promising both in terms of economics and social acceptance.

The first hurdle is providing employees and contract growers the education they need to identify sick pigs. Contract growers consistently make one thing clear — they don’t like to find sick or dead animals. We tell them if they are seeing “every pig, every day,” it will go a long way toward increasing the number of healthy animals they raise. That is a workable concept, but it takes time and discipline to prevent and treat disease.

“Every pig, every day” means teaching your people to walk through the pens, observe pig behavior and look for signs of illness by looking at each pig for just a few seconds. Try the ABC system — where an “A” pig is just starting to get sick, a “B” pig is visibly sick and a “C” pig is seriously ill. (See accompanying photos.)

Concentrate on treating an “A” pig before it turns into a “B” or “C” pig. Treating an “A” pig gives the caretaker the best opportunity to turn the pig around and reduce disease spread.  Waiting to treat or failing to find the “A” pig and allowing it to progress to a “B” or “C” pig drastically reduces potential success.

After identifying situations and animals needing attention, we train workers and growers to take action. This involves decisions about changes needed to ensure proper environmental conditions such as ventilation, feed and water systems. We also help caretakers better understand how to prioritize chores into those that require daily attention, such as assessing individual pig needs, and those that can be done weekly or monthly. We also need to educate growers and workers when it’s time to consult their supervisor or veterinarian to determine the best course of action.

This is the concept behind individual pig care — to put husbandry skills back into the daily routine. 

There are several reasons why individual pig care is a struggle, but a main hurdle is high employee turnover. With so many employees who didn’t grow up caring for animals, there’s a constant need to train and retrain employees to identify sick animals.

Treating the right pigs early in the disease process yields a higher response rate, and, of course, there are animal well-being advantages. The group encounters less stress when sick pigs are removed and treated early before the entire group breaks with a disease.

Other advantages to individual pig care include food safety, environmental quality and sustainability. In his best-selling book, The Triple Bottom Line, Andrew Savitz writes that businesses are held accountable not only for their economic performance but also for environmental and social actions. Today, air and water quality protection, energy use, labor practices, human rights and community impact are just as important to the public as profit, taxes paid and jobs created. With better employee and grower training, we can trust that animal-health products are used appropriately. By effectively preventing and treating swine diseases, the growers also have an improved quality of life.

Operations that focus on individual pigs can improve their credibility with consumers. Pfizer Animal Health conducted a consumer survey to better understand consumer attitudes about medicine use in food animals. It started with consumer interviews in four cities and followed with an Internet survey of 2,100 consumers. It showed that providing facts about pig care and proper medicine use can positively impact consumers’ perceptions of pork. For example, consumers feel much more confident about their pork if they know that a veterinarian provided care or oversight for the animals.

Once survey participants received some information about pig health, 70 percent believed that sick pigs should be treated with medicines like antibiotics, provided food-safety protections, such as proper withdrawal times, are upheld. The dilemma is that without providing some basic information, most people don’t even know that food-producing animals can get sick, and they don’t connect antibiotic use to treating illnesses.

To help inform the food chain about the proper use of medicines in pork production, as well as the safeguards that are in place to ensure safe food, we formed the Pfizer Animal Health Food Chain Outreach Program several years ago. This program is designed to give leadership in foodservice, restaurant and retail businesses facts about what pork producers do to ensure that the food they provide is safe for consumers.

Individual pig care is all about leaving averages behind and going back to animal husbandry basics, including targeting responsible medicine use. While the shift will take time, for so many reasons, it is the right thing to do.

Making the Grade

Early recognition of individual pigs that need medical attention is critical to economical, efficient and successful treatment.

Identifying a pig when it grades an “A” helps keep it from progressing into the more challenging “B” and “c” stages.