Bedding down the pig herd could mean bedding down with mycotoxins. That is the caution from ACMC pig specialist James Hall, who warns that this year has been a truly awful one for straw in Western Europe — and pigs that nibble on bedding could be ingesting harmful contaminants.

Mycotoxins in cereals

"Because of the late, wet harvest, it's been both in short supply and of poor quality. While many producers are aware of mycotoxins in cereals, the danger from mouldy straw can be easily overlooked," he warns. The problem often manifests itself in breeding-related issues. The first alarm signal could be an increase in the number of returns to service, extended weaning-to-service intervals and late-to-mid-term abortions, he notes. Hall advises producers seeing any such symptoms to seek advice from their veterinarians and nutritionists without delay.

The effects upon the breeding herd are likely to be the most serious and the disruption caused to breeding routines can be costly, he points out.

Attempts to cut costs only magnify the potential for problems. Hall says he hopes that those who have had to buy straw will have obtained the best quality that is available, since it would cost more in the long run to buy lesser-quality bedding that can pose a threat to herd health. Barley straw generally has been of better quality as the later wheats tended to catch the worst of the weather, notes Hall. He says barley straw is more expensive but lasts twice as long.

With the late season, many arable farmers chopped their straw directly behind the combine, to avoid holding up their autumn cultivations, so there was often not a lot of choice, he concedes.

"On some farms I've seen wheat straw that's so grey it looks like oilseed rape straw," says Hall. "Obviously the aim is for a nice golden colour, so if the straw looks to be poor quality, don't use it for the breeding herd, particularly if it is showing signs of mould!"

Steps on the farm

But Hall says there are practical steps that can be taken on the farm. The sensible approach, he says, is to use the best straw for the breeding herd and young pigs. It is not so critical with finishing pigs which have a short life anyway. But mycotoxin-contaminated straw can pose a real threat to the health and production of the breeding herd.

Producers who mill and mix their own feed would be well-advised to use a mycotoxin binding agent if they are not already doing so, he adds. Several products are available and, at £5 to £10 per metric ton, they represent a relatively inexpensive form of insurance.

Those who purchase compounds should check with their feed supplier if such additives are available. Compound feed does not necessarily contain these products. But the benefits that can be gained from these additives in feeds need to be kept in perspective, Hall reminds. It is important to note, he points out, that feed additive binders will not protect against mycotoxins which are later ingested when pigs eat infected straw.