Producers know that if a pig has good gut health in the nursery, it’s more likely to get off to a good start in the grow-finish barn. But with increased pressure on antibiotic use, nutritionists are tasked with looking for effective alternatives, Jon De Jong, a nutritionist for the Pipestone Grow Finish Team, told Pig Health Today.
“Everyone is looking for that silver bullet, but we have yet to find it,” De Jong said. As a result, Pipestone is taking a multi-faceted approach. From the room environment and production set-up of the barns, to herd health and nutrition, these combined factors help alleviate the effect of limited antibiotic use. However, “I don’t think there ever will be a replacement for antibiotics. That’s not the goal,” he said.
Assessing the microbiome
Human nutrition has taught those in animal nutrition a lot about the microbiome (the population of organisms in the gut), De Jong said. The work in Crohn’s disease and clostridium has led to a process called fecal transplantation, which involves taking fecal material from a healthy person and implanting it into another person to help “restart” the biome in that person’s intestinal tract.
“We’re taking a note from human medicine and trying to implement that on the swine side,” De Jong said. “Are we there today? Absolutely not…but this is one of the new frontiers.”
People are excited about what could be coming in the future, he said, as researchers learn how different feed-grade antibiotics or feed ingredients interact with the microbiome of the pig.
Zinc, copper and other alternatives
Feeding zinc and copper at pharmaceutical levels has been shown to have an antibiotic-like effect in the pig gut, De Jong explained, but that approach may have limited use in the future. Due to environmental regulations, Europe has lowered the levels of zinc and copper allowed in nursery diets compared to the US.
The most effective alternatives De Jong has seen are organic acid in nursery diets, direct-fed microbials, or probiotics and prebiotics, as well as zinc and copper. But again, none of them is a silver bullet.
“As an industry, we need to understand there will be situations where these feed additives do and don’t succeed, [but] we’re going to give [them] the best chance to succeed in the pig.”Those additives may only be successful 70% of the time, he said, so there’s a shift in how producers, veterinarians and nutritionists need to evaluate alternative products compared to antibiotics.
What to look for
De Jong said when company representatives tell him about an additive they’re selling, he wants to see mortality and morbidity results in their research, noting “it’s easy to pay for products that can improve the health of those pigs.”
He also expects honesty and transparency in the companies who offer products. “The folks who are doing research and developing these products need to be honest with us and be able to show us the data even when products don’t work,” De Jong said. “Understanding when products do and don’t work and having good data…is certainly key for us to make good decisions.”
Measure the outcome
Average daily gain, feed conversion and cost are a few of the parameters De Jong uses to determine whether or not to purchase a particular feed additive. The return on investment of a new product is critical, including adjustments to allow for variations in outcome.
“Don’t trip over a dollar to pick up a dime,” noted De Jong, adding that when producers and veterinarians consider how to reduce production costs, they can hurt themselves in the long run when they begin pulling ingredients out of a diet.
If a flow of pigs has a consistent health challenge, De Jong stressed the importance of using products that can help pigs cope with a stressful environment.
Maintain a healthy gut in the pig
Nutrition starts at the beginning of a pig’s life, De Jong said, but weaning is the first critical point in which pigs are stressed.
“They’re going away from the sow and transitioning from an entirely milk diet to a corn and soybean meal-based diet…so the first two weeks are key in the nursery,” he said. “We’re trying to get those pigs to consume as much feed as possible and keep their gut intact as they transition from diet to diet.”
Technologies like organic acids and probiotics have a place in some swine diets, De Jong said. But as producers and veterinarians look over the life of a pig, other technologies may have a positive effect on gut health.
“We need to make sure we’re not marginalizing how we are feeding pigs,” he added.
Feed biosecurity: a two-fold approach
Keeping feed safe from potential viruses, specifically African swine fever, is a top concern, and De Jong said Pipestone takes a two-fold approach.
“If we can source ingredients from countries not infected with African swine fever, we choose to make that decision, knowing it may cost more,” he said. If products are sourced from locations like China or Eastern Europe, Pipestone increases the time between when products are received and when they’re added to rations.
“The longer the time between when an ingredient could have been infected and when it enters the pig, the better chance you have of reducing the risk of disease transmission,” De Jong said.
He admitted it’s difficult to institute quarantine times, but the effort is important, not just to protect the Pipestone system but for the safety of the entire industry.