Producers looking to raise pigs with little or no antibiotics should consider nutritional strategies that help pigs build more immunity, according to Mike Tokach, PhD, a professor and swine nutrition specialist at Kansas State University.
“We get the biggest benefit from using antibiotics, and there’s the biggest need shortly after weaning,” Tokach told Pig Health Today.
Nevertheless, there are opportunities to build immunity and minimize their need. Together with some pork producers, Tokach and his colleagues have been exploring a mix of nutritional, environmental and production methods that could meet that goal.
Strategies for boosting health include maximizing colostrum production, working aggressively to eliminate the presence of disease and feeding pigs highly digestible diets, Tokach said.
A low disease presence and an adequate diet
A key starting point for producing healthier pigs is to have a low disease presence.
“If you start with a low disease presence, and especially the bacterial diseases, you reduce the need for antibiotics in the first place,” he said. “It’s really difficult to start with a high level of disease and try to raise pigs without antibiotics.”
Just as important is what happens before the pig is born, said Tokach, who spoke on this topic at the 2018 American Association of Swine Veterinarians conference.
He said research suggests that the amount of food the sow is fed 2 or 3 days before it farrows makes a big difference.
“If we could increase the amount of consumption shortly before she farrows, we increase the amount of nutrients that are coming from that diet, going to the colostrum, versus if she’s fed below her requirements,” he said.
“Sometimes producers tend to back off consumption — maybe a little bit too much — before the sow farrows, worried that they’re going to have constipation if they have too much feed in the system. [But] by reducing their consumption, they reduce the amount of nutrients that are available and that decreases the amount of nutrients from the diet that go into the colostrum.”
Maximizing colostrum intake
Tokach said producers should ensure they have ample production of high-quality colostrum, which can yield lifelong benefits, he added.
“If a pig has low-level colostrum intake, we know that its chances of survival out of the farrowing house are greatly diminished and then its chances of having a disease problem in the nursery is also increased if it doesn’t have adequate colostrum consumption,” Tokach said.
He noted the ingredients in the diet should be highly digestible and that producers should not overlook simple details such as the sodium level in the diet because pigs have high sodium requirements. In addition, he continued, asking questions such as whether the diet reduces feed intake or produces any additional nutritional challenges is critical.
“We look at things like mycotoxins,” Tokach said. “We want to make sure that we don’t have mycotoxins present. We want to make sure that we have the right vitamins and trace minerals in the diet, and the right levels of the macro-minerals, and that our calcium level isn’t too high because of the buffering capacity, and what it takes for the pig to deal with producing too much acid to deal with excess calcium.”