The pig industry is making great strides to reduce antibiotic usage. Angela Calvert reports on progress so far and the challenges ahead.
Commercial pig production is acknowledged as being the biggest user of antibiotics in the world, but the UK is leading the way in tackling this.
In the last two years the sector has halved its usage from a starting point of 263.5mg per population control unit (PCU - the standardised unit for comparison as defined by the European Medicines Agency) in 2015 to 131mg/PCU in 2017 and it is well on track to meet its target of 99mg/PCU by 2020.
National Pig Association chairman Richard Lister says: “The O’Neill report definitely put pressure on the pig industry, but it has responded well to it with the RUMA Target Task Force showing good leadership.
“Putting data on antibiotic use onto the pig E medicine book has been key to this.
"It really focuses the mind and enables you to see exactly what antibiotics you are using.
“It has been well received in the industry and is quick and easy to use once you are used to it. Prior to this we did not have the data to argue our corner and we need individual data to know where we are. Now we have figures to back up what we are doing.
“Much of the historic use of antibiotics was blanket coverage in feed and water and was being used as a ‘just in case’ scenario. You have to take a leap of faith to make the decision to manage without this with the focus on efficient management and biosecurity.
“If we have a problem we need to be able to treat sick pigs even if this gives a temporary spike in antibiotic use, but the less we use them the more effective they will be and the longer we will have to use them.
“It does require a change in mindset. Producers would sometimes give medication after a journey or at other times of stress, but you just need to trust in the system and management and 99 per cent of time they are fine.
“Sometimes it requires a change to infrastructure, such as in the case of medicating water where systems have to be altered so medication can be added strategically, i.e. just to treat certain batches of pigs at appropriate times, avoiding the need to treat the whole batch but responding quickly with medication if needed.
“There is more pressure to come on antibiotic use. Retailers have been following this closely and some have published their own supply chain figures.
A good relationship with your vet, herd health planning and taking a ‘prevention rather than cure’ approach all contribute towards reducing antibiotic use.
“Using less antibiotics forces you to look at the bigger picture, biosecurity, health planning and housing. Some regions, such as East Anglia, are looking at whole area vaccinations.”
A big challenge for the industry will be the removal of zinc oxide, which is used to control diarrhoea in piglets post-weaning, from diets as of June 2022. It is doing a valuable job and the concern is if it is removed it will result in a shift back to more antibiotic use.
“But the pig industry is innovative and feed companies are developing other products with some success. I am confident we will find a solution.
“We are also going to need more vaccination and already there is a big increase in the use of autogenous vaccines. These are vaccines which are developed specifically for a particular unit using bacteria obtained from it. It is not a cure all as some bugs are not straightforward but it is a big growth area.
“PPRS and pig flu are big viral challenges on most units and the real danger of these is secondary bacterial infections, such as respiratory disease.
"To tackle this we rely on increasing the immunity of sows. A big focus on our own units has been on increasing sow herd immunity which is passed onto piglets by vaccine administered to the sow.
“Going forward, one concern is that, with such a small UK pig industry, pharmaceutical companies may withdraw product licences from the UK if we are using less medication.”
Brothers David and Richard Lister, trade as J.C. Lister Farms, a mixed farming business set up by father John in 1958.
It includes of 2,226 hectares of arable land, 220 suckler cows and 600 ewes, as well as 3,300 breeding sows, with all progeny finished to bacon weight across 14 sites from North Yorkshire to Nottinghamshire, selling 2,000 pigs every week.
There are four breeding herds producing replacements using a criss-cross system where the dam line is changed every third parity between Large White and Landrace. Only artificial insemination is used, so only semen is brought onto the units.
There is a mill and mix on site which produces the pig diets, apart from starter pellets for weaners, using 60 per cent home-grown cereals.
Richard Lister says: “The different enterprises work well together. The aim is to convert home-grown grain into pigmeat as efficiently as possible and return the nutrients to the land. It is a mixed farm model, the same as we have always had, it just got bigger.”
In recent years an additional 8,500 finishing spaces have been created with new and improved buildings, plus 350 farrowing places have been replaced with emphasis on looking after the piglet.
Mr Lister says: “We are constantly trying to invest in improving facilities. Air quality control is particularly important and pigs need a constant temperature.
"We are also much more proactive about monitoring health and doing more sampling and testing for antibody levels using blood tests and saliva ropes and, of course, biosecurity is a priority.”
The business also contract rears pigs ‘raised without antibiotics’ for the US market. These come on-farm at 15kg and are finished to obtain a premium price.
Mr Lister explains: “This does not mean we cannot treat the pigs if necessary as not doing so would be a welfare issue. But any which do need antibiotics have individual treatment and are then tagged and separated for processing via a different route.”
Georgina Crayford, the National Pig Association’s senior policy adviser also agrees the E-medicine book, developed by AHDB, has been a real driver for change in the industry.
She says: “It has been a wake-up call for many producers who were routinely using antibiotics out of habit. Some have really risen to the challenge and others not so much.
"I think these producers ought to be identified and offered additional support otherwise they will hold back reductions in the industry’s average use figure. Producers who have made good progress also need ongoing support as it only takes one disease outbreak to uplift antibiotic use again.
“Key areas we need to focus on to maintain pig health without excessive use of antibiotics are water quality, improved husbandry, limiting mixing of pigs and improving pig flow.
“We also need more effective vaccines and better diagnostics, particularly pen side, which could deliver quick results enabling more targeted treatment.
“But in order to really reduce antibiotic use much further we have to tackle endemic disease, especially PPRS which is not a problem some other European countries have.
“I would like to see a national disease control plan or group set up to help achieve this. Agricultural policy post-Brexit may also offer opportunities. Many producers are operating in old buildings which are far from ideal. I would argue financial support to improve buildings and infrastructure constitutes ‘public money for public goods’ if it leads to a reduction in antibiotic use and a healthier pig herd.”