Dr. David Wicker, live operations vice president, Fieldale Farms, said, “I hear a lot that the growers are the major problem with ABF (antibiotic-free) production. No, they are not.”

He told the attendees at a panel discussion on antibiotic-free poultry and livestock production at the Alltech Symposium in Lexington, Kentucky, that the real problem starts with executives and managers at integrated companies who are stubborn and can’t see another way to do things.

“It starts out here right in this room. We have to change a lot of thinking and develop a can-do attitude,” he said.

Fieldale started antibiotic-free broiler production in the 1996-97 timeframe, according to Wicker. He said Fieldale now raises all of its broilers in the antibiotic-free program.

“It is best to start at a small level, because the first three years there is a steep learning curve,” Wicker said. “You can easily lose five to 10 points of feed conversion and most companies will have trouble maintaining flock mortality rates at 10 percent or less.”

Antibiotic-free production is humane, efficient and sustainable

“Is antibiotic-free production doable? The answer is yes, we have been doing it for 18 years,” he said. “We have very few treated flocks, and we are American Humane Association approved. For your first few years, you will have to treat lots of flocks. Later on, you will treat fewer of them.”

Wicker said McDonald’s announcement of the company’s intention to only purchase chicken that has not been treated with antibiotics used in human medicine has really changed the landscape for broiler production in the U.S. He said that if a company wants to get into antibiotic-free production then it better have “extremely good feed quality and consistency.”

“Are we sustainable? The answer is yes,” Wicker said. “We recently moved to Category A in the Global Reporting Initiative.” The Global Reporting Initiative is an internationally recognized sustainability initiative.

“Can antibiotic-free production be done efficiently, can it be done humanely? The answer to both is yes. I will remind everyone that all animals were raised antibiotic-free prior to the 1950s, because they were not around,” he said.

Pork producer addressing customer requests

Commenting on antibiotic-free and other specialty pork production alternatives, Doug Clemens, CEO, Clemens Family Corporation, said, “The requests keep coming in from our customer group every day. We take the approach of learning, testing and verifying.” Clemens Family Corporation owns Hatfield Quality Meats, a pork processor, and Country View Family Farms, a swine production company.

Clemens was asked by a member of the audience what would happen to producers if they “caved in” to every consumer/customer request? Clemens replied, “We aren’t caving in to what the consumer/customer says they want. We start out by asking, 'Can we do it in a way that is different from the way we have done it in the past, while keeping animal welfare at the top of the pyramid?' If we don’t think we can do something, we have to ask why.”

“We have been asked to do a lot of things by customers that we haven’t done,” Clemens said. “We will not do it until we can prove that it is sustainable.”

Hatfield processes 5,000 head of swine per week in the Never Ever 3 program. Never Ever 3 is a marketing claim for livestock and meat products that is part of USDA’s Process Verified program. For meat to be sold with Never Ever 3 on the product label it has to come from animals that have never received antibiotics, growth promoters or animal byproducts.