Antibiotics are an important tool for many pork producers. But as more of you work toward using fewer subtherapeutic antibiotics, you will have to enhance your overall management skills.

If you’re thinking about eliminating antibiotics all together, you also will endure increased production costs.

These are the ideas behind a new booklet written by Iowa State researchers, “Minimizing the Use of Antibiotics in Pork Production.” The booklet, funded by the Iowa Pork Producers Association, examines four antibiotic-use options and outlines several management practices to enhance the operation’s efficiency.

“The key to minimizing antibiotic use within a herd, is adopting a whole-farm concept,” says John Carr, DVM, Iowa State University. “You have to apply science to the problem and ask why animals are getting sick; not automatically think sick animals need treatment.”

This means evaluating your entire production system. For instance, Carr says if pigs are coughing, the air might be dusty or the water dirty. Clean up those areas and you’re on your way to healthier pigs.

Plus, you need high-level stockmanship, the right genetics and nutrition programs, along with proper housing. These management skills are necessary for all of the different antibiotic-use programs. The Iowa State researchers outline them as follows:

1. Regular use.

This system allows complete use of subtherapeutic and treatment antibiotics, while following label recommendations for appropriate withdrawal times before slaughter.

2. Subtherapeutic use in pigs up to 40 pounds to 100 pounds, and treatment use.

“Right now, most good stockmen could fall within this category,” says Palmer Holden, Iowa State swine nutritionist. “Pigs weighing 100 pounds are in the finishing stage and you get little response to subtherapeutics at this point. Whereas, there is some response among 40-pound pigs.”

3. No subtherapeutic use, but treatment use.

Holden contends this type of program will be a tough one for most producers. By not using any subtherapeutic antibiotics, herds run a higher risk of baby-pig diarrhea, inconsistent growth rates and as much as a 10 percent increase in nursery mortality.

This program requires high management skills, especially in terms of biosecurity and developing herd immunity.

4. No antibiotics.

This system involves raising pigs without exposure to antibiotics for any reason. Because producers risk higher animal mortality rates, these antibiotic-free pork products cost everyone more.

While no antibiotics are used to raise pigs within this fourth system, a producer must treat sick pigs for ethical and animal well-being reasons, notes Holden. It’s then up to the producer to segregate treated pigs from the rest of the group. The producer also would need alternative marketing arrangements for the treated pigs.

To assist producers using any of these four antibiotic-use programs the Iowa State booklet outlines a wide range of best management practices for producers operating pork units of all sizes.

They address topics such as the needs of various production systems; basic management skills, such as stockmanship and how to handle pig introductions; management skills to reduce stress on pigs of all ages; environmental and housing issues; nutrition and genetic programs; and economic factors.

“In my experience, producers that operate with no subtherapeutic antibiotics have a more holistic approach to their production system,” says Carr.

He contends that you can produce pork successfully without subtherapeutic antibiotics, but you must have excellent management. You have to start by addressing any diseases within the herd. That means treating sick animals with medication and then determining the causes, cleanup and prevention needed.

Another area you must address is weaning, and helping pigs make a smooth transition. This requires attention to stockmanship – monitoring feed and water intake, and taking quick treatment actions as necessary.

By putting these management protocols in place, Carr’s clients in Great Britain reduced their overall antibiotic use by 70 percent. He says those British producers were “average farmers” who were forced to reduce subtherapeutic
antibiotic use once growth promotants were banned in the United Kingdom.

“Plus, we reduced post-weaning mortality by 4 percent, cut the number of days to finish by 14 percent to 20 days, improved overall output and reduced veterinary bills,” adds Carr. “It’s a win/win situation for everyone involved.”

Now the question is, how do you get started if you’re trying to reduce or eliminate the use of subtherapeutic or therapeutic antibiotics from your management scheme? The Iowa State researchers recommend the following steps:

1. Maximize your understanding – and practice – of biosecurity measures to prevent or reduce the introduction of new pathogens into your herd.

2. Understand social and environmental management to minimize stressors for various age pigs.

3. Control pig flow to create uniform groups of pigs. You will have to commit to maintaining the integrity of that pig flow.

4. Separate sick or injured pigs into isolated accommodations before medicating them. Develop a strategy to market them separate from your regular program.

5. Hire and train your staff with an emphasis on stockmanship, including observing and responding to pigs.

6. Ensure the absence of certain diseases and parasites. Of particular importance are postweaning multi-systemic wasting syndrome, porcine respiratory and reproductive syndrome, swine dysentery, ileitis, progressive atrophic rhinitis.

7. Establish a marketing plan to recoup the added value and higher production costs of raising pigs with no or minimal antibiotics.

By reducing the amount of pathogens that infect your herd, you also will minimize the need for antibiotics. The researchers say you can accomplish this by:

1. Maintaining stringent controls on cleanliness and sanitation in and around your operation. Control animals entering the farm, animal movement within the farm and feed quality. Also focus on social and environmental conditions to prevent or reduce animal stress (including during transportation).

2. Eradicate specific diseases, such as PMWS, PRRS, swine dysentery, ileitis and progressive atrophic rhinitis.

3. Optimize nutrition to enhance the animal’s natural immunity. Make sure that you’re feeding nutritionally adequate diets with the proper amounts of vitamins and minerals. For very young pigs, feed diets with highly digestible proteins, such as milk byproducts and spray-dried plasma. The spray-dried plasma tends to stimulate immune responses. You also can optimize nutrition with the potential use of enzymes or acidifiers.

4. Breed disease-resistant animals. Research is currently underway to select pigs that provide a stronger immune response to infectious agents. This, however, will take some time.

5. Use acceptable alternative antimicrobials. This also includes copper sulfate, zinc oxide and botanicals such as echinacia or oregano.

Anyone in pork production can adopt these methods, contends Holden. He admits adopting these procedures is easier to do if you’re raising your hogs in a confinement system, but it’s not impossible in other structures. 

“All of these things outlined here are things producers should be doing anyway,” contends Carr. “I don’t see a need to use as many antibiotics as we do. We certainly shouldn’t use them as a crutch for poor management.”

For more information or to obtain a copy of the booklet, contact the Iowa Pork Industry Center at (515) 294-2240.