US pig industry sees move from antibiotics as opportunity

Pigs that were born after the veterinary feed directive (VFD) went into affect in January are now reaching market weight and giving the 60,000 pork producers in the U.S. a glimpse at how eliminating feed-grade antibiotics impacts the industry.

auremar | Adobe Stock Photo
auremar | Adobe Stock Photo

Pigs that were born after the veterinary feed directive (VFD) went into affect in January are now reaching market weight and giving the 60,000 pork producers in the U.S. a glimpse at how eliminating feed-grade antibiotics impacts the industry.

Veterinarians say that as of now there haven’t been any health scares due to the new VFD. They owe this to the transition over the past couple of years to using more preventative measures, like vaccines.

The U.S. pork industry has also invested time and money into making the transition successful with mock farm inspections, educational webinars and advice on preventative measures. In addition, the National Pork Board is allocating $1.4 million to research, education and awareness for both the swine industry and consumers.             

VFD aims to reduce use of antibiotics

The U.S. is actively trying to reduce the use of antibiotics in the animal industry and eliminate the use of feed-grade antibiotics for growth promotion. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 60 percent of the weight volume of drugs sold in 2015 were over-the-counter drugs for animal use that are also considered important for human use.

Under the new guidelines, veterinarians are required to document details such as the age of the animal and why it is being treated. The FDA is collecting this information to compare against existing sales data to better understand how antibiotics are used in the industry, and the role these play in drug resistance. The documentation will also be used to measure stewardship efforts from the industry.

If it isn’t written down it didn’t happen

Good record keeping is a crucial part to the new VFD. The pork producer, veterinarian and feed mill are all required to keep a copy of each prescription for two years. Keep in mind that a VFD prescription expires after six months — that means that if a pork producer receives a prescription for medicated feed, and the feed lasts longer than six months, than a new VFD prescription needs to be written for the remaining medicated feed.

Some states also require pork producers to have a veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR). While the majority of pork producers already work very closely with their veterinarians, the VCPR requires that they have written proof. For example: pork producers need to document when they communicate with their veterinarian, each time the vet visits the farm, as well as document the animals that the vet looked at during the visit. The FDA will compare the VCPR with the dates and the animals that are listed on the VFD to ensure compliance. If a VFD was written for nursery pigs in September, FDA inspectors will want to see documentation that shows the veterinarian visited the nursery barn in August or September.

Pay for health now or pay for treatment later

Veterinarians are optimistic that while there is no silver-bullet replacement to antibiotics, the benefits to better management will increase the number of healthy animals and provide more longterm benefits. Here is a dose of what veterinarians are prescribing:

  • Correct vaccinations
    Vaccinating can prevent a host of pathogens and diseases and save producers time and labor that would be spent treating a sick pig. More importantly, drug companies can build prescription vaccines that target the specific strains on farms. For vaccines to work, producers need to vaccinate properly: administer correct doses at the right time, store vaccines in a cool area away from the sun and use clean syringes. Syringes previously used for antibiotics can kill a vaccine.
  • All-in/all-out methods
    Moving pigs using the all-in/all-out method allows the producer to thoroughly sanitize and dry pens and feeders after each group of pigs leaves the barn. This eliminates the risk of spreading disease between pig groups or through co-mingling. While this method doesn’t allow producers to keep underweight pigs back until they reach heavier weights, it is highly recommended.
  • Gilts raised onsite
    Raising gilts versus purchasing them from a multiplier provides the producer with more biosecurity and control. While it may be more difficult to achieve genetic progress, raising them onsite greatly limits the number of pathogens brought onto the farm and lowers the risk of a disease outbreak. 
  • Heavier weaning weights
    Weaning pigs at heavier weights increases survivability and average daily gain (ADG) throughout the pigs’ life. Some studies show that weaning pigs at heavier weights also lowers the amount of time it takes to reach finishing weight by a week. While producers can achieve higher weaning weights by extending the lactation period to 28 days, it’s important to keep in mind that litter variation is more likely to increase the longer that the pigs are on milk. It helps to select sows that have a high milk production.
  • Additives, probiotics and enzymes
    Natural ingredients, such as probiotics, and enzymes capitalize on a pig’s natural ability to fight off pathogens. Additives are especially effective during the critical first few weeks of life when pigs have very little immunity and reserve. Some producers say that while the investment in additives is high, they calculate that it saves them more in the long run than the pig’s loss in growth and the time and labor to treat sick animals.

VFD clock starts ticking now

The VFD guidelines are a testament from the industry to show how they are working with consumers to be better stewards. Only time will tell how successful the VFD is for the industry. As of now, pork producers are in the honeymoon period; the FDA is focusing on education right now rather than penalizing farms that are not in compliance. And pigs that were born after the VFD went into affect are just now reaching market weight.

Only time will tell how successful the VFD is for the industry.

Nevertheless, the industry sees the move away from antibiotics as inevitable and as an opportunity to substitute feed-grade antibiotics with investments in better biosecurity, nutrition and genetics.

Read more: VFD compliance key to future of poultry, pork sectors


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