If the U.S. pork industry is forced to phase out the feeding of subtherapeutic antibiotics, it could affect you and other producers two ways:

Positive: It could improve perceptions among domestic consumers and those in foreign markets that U.S. pork is healthful and safe. This could strengthen pork’s position in the marketplace, and could financially benefit producers in the long run.

Negative: Reducing or eliminating antibiotic feeding would markedly change how you feed and manage animals. There are questions and debate about the ultimate impact on animal health production and increased costs.

Current consensus is that subtherapeutic antibiotics have a place in the nursery. However, the industry seems to be breaking ranks on the issue in the grow/finish stage. 

Researchers, veterinarians, allied industry and more are studying various possible steps that you might take if feeding antibiotics is no longer an option for you. A lot of answers are still needed, but its worth noting that research is underway.

Alan Mathew at the University of Tennessee is among those researchers. “Alternatives offer some promise, but currently they do not match the convenience or consistency of antibiotics,” he notes. Still, there are several steps that a producer can take to address the issue, and cope should he or she decide to eliminate subtherapeutic antibiotics, says Mathew.

Improve care of animals. “The first step in reducing reliance on feed-grade antibiotics,” says Mathew, “should be to step up the attention given to the care and management of animals, particularly during critical growth periods and times of stress.”

Provide optimum nutrition. “It is not likely that feed-based alternatives will be able to overcome serious management or health problems that have been minimized in the past by feeding therapeutic antibiotics,” says Mathew.

But some feed additives support the growth of beneficial microbes and help gut bacteria stimulate the pig’s immune system. They include organic acids, modifiers of gut bacteria and immune enhancers.

“So far, no compound has clearly proven to match antibiotics’ consistency in promoting performance, convenience and cost effectiveness,” he notes.

Because intestinal mucins protect the intestines from feedstuffs’ abrasive action, harsh digestive enzymes and from intestinal bacteria, Mathew recommends that pig-starter rations contain milk sugars or other ingredients that support a healthy mucin layer in the animal’s gut.

He emphasizes that as alternatives are evaluated, it’s important to maintain perspective and properly define expectations, “We need to identify products that offer at least partial benefits that subtherapeutic antibiotics offer. We are not likely to overcome significant pathogen loads or pre-existing problems,” he adds.

Sow nutrition and health. To promote large, strong piglets at farrowing – ones that are highly resistant to disease – check your gilt- and sow-feeding protocols, as well as your management to identify areas needing improvement. The pigs’ health and vigor are well worth extra attention.

Consider program management changes.  Proven management practices can reduce your herd’s dependence on antibiotics by breaking the cycles of infection and re-infection. “The best option is still the all-in/all-out production of market animals,” says Mathew. “Another is providing an appropriate quarantine period for any new animals brought into the operation.”

Review biosecurity. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” adds Mathew. To keep from introducing diseases into your herd, you must establish and honor biosecurity protocols. That includes attention to semen supplies.

“You may want  to tighten your rules concerning visitors, vehicles and other biosecurity precautions,” he says. Also, make sure that employees, managers and owners all understand and follow the operations’ biosecurity rules.

Practice strategic vaccination. Focused and thorough use of vaccines, as well as targeted use of injectable medications, encourages pig health and reduces the dependence on subtherapeutic antibiotics, says Mathew.

“A farm-specific approach may be needed to fit vaccines to certain pathogens and to optimize the timing of initial and booster inoculations,” he says.

A big part of effective vaccination programs is ensuring that the right dose is delivered in the right place on the animal at the right time. Do not overlook the importance of monitoring your vaccination programs.

Build resistance genetically. Selective breeding, according to Mathew, helps develop lines of swine that can perform well without feed-based antibiotics. This area will only grow more important in the future with gene mapping and focused selection.

For now, he suggests focusing on genetic lines that are more efficient in nutrient uptake, resistant to diseases and/or grow more rapidly.

“The ultimate goal for all of us,” says Mathew, “should be to provide consumers with pork that is widely accepted as healthful and nutritious, which will protect and hopefully enhance pork’s market share.”

Producers who are willing to utilize a variety of production-management tactics should benefit with or without subtherapeutic antibiotics. “They will certainly be better prepared for a successful transition away from the extensive use of growth-promoting antibiotics,” he concludes.