Supplemental milk replacer and creep feed can help get nursery pigs off to a healthy start.
Supplemental milk replacer and creep feed can help get nursery pigs off to a healthy start.

Editor's note: The following article was featured in the July/August issue of PorkNetwork magazine.

Producers in Denmark and The Netherlands have had a ban on subtherapeutic antibiotic use for a number of years. While the transition was not necessarily smooth, producers and researchers there have learned how manage health and production without antibiotics (except under the direction of a veterinarian).

Dr. Theo van Kempen, who is originally from The Netherlands and is an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University, spoke at the 2014 Iowa Swine Day. He shared research and experiences on the development of feeding programs when antibiotic growth promoters are not allowed, and discussed what U.S. producers can learn from Europe’s experience, should the same regulations be put in place here.

After the antibiotic ban, van Kempen says initially there was an increase in antibiotics, but then there was a steady decline. He says, “The solution is ‘simple’ – biosecurity optimization, health, vaccination, production management – “If we have everything in place, we can deal with the issue [of raising pigs without antibiotics].”

Start at the Beginning
Basically, Dutch producers had to rebuild the industry from the foundation up, notes van Kempen. “Facilities are five to six times more expensive than those in the United States,” he says. “I fully realize this is not practical for the U.S. industry and it’s not practical in many parts of Europe either.”

Key health problems in Europe include E. coli, Strep. suis and ear necrosis. “All these pieces of the puzzle have to be in place to keep animals healthy,” says van Kempen.

The first priority is to get newborn pigs to eat. “If you offer supplemental milk replacement, you can still have full-value pigs,” says van Kempen. “Many producers start supplementation on day 7, but our research says to start it on the day of birth. Supplemental milk for large litters is an important aid. Creep feed is an important tool for teaching piglets to eat post-weaning, too. We don’t see a big change in farrowing but the difference is in the nursery – those pigs are better adapted to eat a feed-based diet.”

Weaning Age: Later is Better
In Denmark, antimicrobial use is most common in the nursery, and weaning age is very important. Dr. van Kempen says weaning age is an important determining factor for the health of the pig. In Europe, weaning age is regulated: pigs must be at 4 weeks or greater in most countries. “Delayed weaning reduces disease risk,” says van Kempen. “In addition, research has shown that feed intake in the first week post-weaning determines 40 percent of the variation in feed intake and growth during the entire nursery phase.”

The first 24 hours are especially critical, he says, but it’s not a “one size fits all” scenario, because according to van Kempen, pigs have “bizarre eating habits.”

“Within 5 hours after weaning, just about every pig stuck its head in the feeder. We defined 10 grams of feed as a meal for the pigs (in the first days after weaning, they consume about 10 grams of feed each time they visit the feeder). At night, they’re not eating any feed. Before weaning, all these pigs were eating 24 hours a day. The light is on 24 hours a day, but after they’re weaned they’re not eating at night.”

Change the Diet
Newly-weaned pigs will sample food and subsequently, if they don’t get sick, they go back and eat it. If they do get sick, some animals absolutely refuse to consume feed for 5 or 6 days. “When we change the diet, they will start eating,” says van Kempen.

Palatability also is important. Ingredients at the bottom of the list were raw corn, oats and sorghum. Researchers looked at the glycemic index of the diets and saw a nice correlation between glycemic index and palatability.

Regarding feed ingredients, van Kempen says, “Plasma is hard to beat, but not impossible. There are options – you may sacrifice a little bit but not much.” Regarding additives, van Kempen says the first question to ask is: What does it do to palatability of the diet?

“Companies (including ours) are looking a plant extracts (AGP). In nature, there are a lot of interesting compounds. Nature contains very nice molecules that we can work with. However, we’re not circumventing the needs of people.”

Plant extracts, probiotics and essential oils are also potential ingredients, though van Kempen says there is less consistency and to date, there aren’t a lot of studies. Vitamin, including coated, slow-release vitamins show potential as well.

Back to Basic Animal Husbandry
Raising pigs without antibiotics is not simple, but it can be done, says van Kempen. “You have to get your animal husbandry skills together,” he says. “If you’re not weaning 30 pigs per sow per year, you’re behind the average. It’s important to focus on health and palatability.”

The researcher says that Mother Nature has many of the answers to better pig health “but when you’re looking for products, look at where they’re absorbed and their palatability.

“Learn from the mistakes Europe has made,” he adds, “but also learn from Europe’s successes.”

For more articles and features from the July/August issue of PorkNetwork, click here.