Health setbacks in the finishing phase can be costly. Any illness or infection that leads to reduced appetite or feed conversion in pigs can quickly add up to lost market weight and revenue.

The biggest enteric threat is usually ileitis, which continues to be a prominent bacterial disease challenge among finishing pigs. Controlling ileitis to significantly reduce the clinical signs and performance impact is possible, especially when the guesswork is removed through observation, diagnostics and proper placement of antibiotic therapy.

Progressive finishing operations, like Synergy LLC, based in Sully, Iowa, have cracked the code on ileitis and present an excellent model for reducing — if not eliminating — clinical disease. By taking a proactive approach to pinpointing the high-risk periods in its 70,000 feeder-to-finish spaces, Synergy has neutralized the most common enteric disease and recorded significant performance gains in the process. 

The driving force behind the system’s success is a commitment to using laboratory diagnostics to determine precisely when pigs are exposed to Lawsonia intracellularis, the bacteria causing clinical and subclinical ileitis. Armed with that knowledge, Synergy has been able to time its therapeutic intervention program to effectively stop disease outbreaks before they occur.

There are other critical success factors for Synergy, including regular team communication, education, bio-security, sanitation and a uniform process in each of its facilities. To truly appreciate the value of a science-based ileitis-control program like Synergy’s, it’s important to review the prevalence of ileitis and the financial toll it can take on finishing operations.

Ileitis Prevalence and Impact

In the United States, about 75 percent of large herds harbor Lawsonia intracellularis and almost 100 percent of herds have been exposed to the bacteria.

Depending on when pigs are exposed and the length of exposure, ileitis can cause diarrhea, poor feed efficiency and growth rate and, ultimately, lightweight pigs at market time. Severe cases can even cause mortality. The disease most commonly affects grow/finish pigs after being placed on the finishing floor, with pigs 50 pounds or heavier the most likely to develop clinical signs.

Estimates suggest that ileitis costs the U.S. pork industry several hundred-million dollars annually. Costs within an individual operation are variable, depending on the level and time of exposure. But experts suggest the cost of lost productivity due to ileitis can be as much as $5 per pig, so it can quickly add up to a hefty price tag.

A Proactive Approach

When it comes to animal health and closeout performance, Synergy finishing manager Verlan Van Wyk prefers not to leave anything to chance. Working in close collaboration with system veterinarians, consultants and other Synergy managers, Van Wyk has coordinated the program’s development.

The team’s philosophy is simple and factually grounded. The key to preventing health challenges is being proactive rather than reactive. For Synergy, that starts with knowledge and a clear understanding of what disease-causing organisms are present and when they are most likely to affect pigs.    

“We focus on acting ahead of time,” Van Wyk says. “A preventative action is always cheaper and more effective than a reaction to a problem that’s already surfaced.”

Working with Grinnell Veterinary Services and Novartis Animal Health, Synergy conducted serology testing for Lawsonia intracellularis in animals ranging from 9 to 24 weeks of age to determine the exact points in the grow/finish cycle that pigs are most likely to test positive for ileitis.

The group then worked to design an intermittent antibiotic therapy program that allows animals to be exposed to Lawsonia intracellularis, and then be treated before clinical disease occurs.

By allowing some level of natural exposure to Lawsonia intracellularis, pigs are developing long-term immunological protection once the short-term therapeutic medication is discontinued. This approach also can decrease the risk of pathogen shedding and help prevent the disease from spreading before clinical signs are present.

“Historically, the testing showed seroconversion to ileitis occurred at 20 weeks of age,” Van Wyk says. “So that told us we need to intervene with therapy earlier.  That way we reduce the challenge to an insignificant level so the animal doesn’t suffer from it clinically, while helping the animal build its own immune system.”

Intermittent Therapy Program

The therapeutic program begins with diets that contain tiamulin as one component of a medicated feed ration. The first ration that includes tiamulin is fed for 14 days when pigs are 7 weeks of age. That’s followed by a second pulse at 13 weeks of age. The final therapeutic treatment is tiamulin alone at 19 weeks of age for 14 days.

This strategically timed, therapeutic pulse intervention not only protects pigs at their highest points of vulnerability, but also builds their natural immune system. Consequently, the risk of clinical ileitis in the critical last weeks of feeding is significantly reduced.

In 2010 Synergy’s commitment to serology testing paid off again. At that time, it showed a slight change in the seroconversion timing for ileitis. It meant the time at which pigs were having a clinical challenge had moved up to 15 weeks, rather than 20. At the same time, Synergy began noticing clinical evidence of ileitis in about one-third of its closeouts. So the veterinary recommendation was to increase the duration of the second treatment with tiamulin an additional four to five days.

“At that point, we needed to be a little more aggressive because the target had moved up,” Van Wyk says, “and by slightly changing our protocol, we eliminated the clinical symptoms we were seeing at closeout. Later on, we did another round of diagnostic testing and found that seroconversion went back to 20 weeks.”

Despite the change back to the original seroconversion period, Synergy has stayed with the modified program. “The animals have performed so well, the return on our investment of about 25 cents per pig has been well worth it,” Van Wyk says. “I’ve completely turned all 70,000 spaces at one time and didn’t have a single report of clinical ileitis.”

Performance data comparison between 2010 and 2011 supports the program’s added value. In July and August of 2010, average start weights were 41 pounds and average market weights were 268 pounds. For the same months in 2011, start weights were 29 pounds and market weights were 279 pounds. Average daily gain was nearly identical during both time periods.

Teamwork, Communication and Sanitation

Communication plays a major role in the Synergy program. The finishing team meets on a weekly basis to review management practices, health and performance records, and business situations.  They’re constantly looking at ways to make the system successful.

Education also is a focal point. Ensuring everybody in the barns and throughout the system understands the importance of biosecurity and sanitation increases compliance and attention to detail.

The Synergy system is PRRS-negative and each location follows a strict biosecurity plan. Van Wyk’s team has reemphasized the importance of sanitation to remove all organic matter in between finishing groups. The goal is to have consistency throughout all locations so they have a common starting point and, in turn, more predictable, consistent results. 

According to Van Wyk, the commitment to sanitation, diagnostics and proactive intervention has paid off handsomely for Synergy. “We’ve reduced our overall medication costs tremendously,” he says. “And we’re just not seeing clinical ileitis anymore.” 

Reduced medication costs, improved health status and improved finishing performance are a solid “Gold Standard” program all producers strive to achieve and it looks like this group is implementing it well.