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No antibiotic growth promoters – Where next?

The ban on antibiotic growth promoters (AGP) is forcing pig producers to look at alternatives. Before choosing an AGP replacer one should consider improved management practises and compare the Return on the Extra Outlay (REO), and backed up by MTF (Meat per Tonne of Food).

Extra feeding space at a trough pays off

By John Gadd

Across the world the restricted use of AGPs is causing pig producers a headache. Many governments have already legislated against their use or are about to do so. Bemused by the number of alternative growth enhancers now being marketed (I have listed 39 at the last count and must have missed several) producers are finding it difficult to make a choice. This article attempts to take a step back and look at the situation with what I hope are some pragmatic suggestions.

Separating the men from the boys
Easier said than done! It takes patience and some pertinent questions asked of those companies enthusiastically promoting their products. It may not be possible for every manufacturer to provide full answers to the seven questions in the ‘Seven useful questions’ box, as it takes time and money for them to be acquired, especially if the product is new to the scene. But the salesperson or sales literature should be able to respond honestly (in either a positive or negative way) to the reasons for the questions given in the reference above. If not, (i.e. there are too many “We have insufficient information yet” replies), then pass on – I find most dedicated pig producers are quite capable of making such a judgement from the way the questions are answered.

A comparative target
Whatever alternative we choose to buy, we need to consider how cost-effective a good, proven long-established AGP is, or has been. Results for them are available from dose-response trials on both research and commercial pig farms. I have filed dozens of such trials over the years and analysed them on a commercial return basis using REO (Return on the Extra Outlay needed). The best of them yielded a 5 or 6:1 return at slaughter weight. That is a tough one to follow and so far very few, if any of the suggested AGP replacers can match it. However, a 5:1 payback seems a good benchmark for an AGP replacer.

A suggestion
Maybe this is a good time to step back from all this talk of comparisons and consider whether it is more profitable to examine spending your time, effort and money on what management practices we can look at again to help promote lean growth. I am not saying you shouldn’t try out AGP replacers, but have a look at some management practices which could have got a bit rusty over the years. Some tables to follow suggest that such an approach could yield economic benefits which together easily exceed any 5:1 return.

As we are ‘producers of good-quality meat’ the most practical performance yardstick to use is lean growth – not live weight growth or food conversion or even cost/kg gain. Lean Meat per Tonne of Food needed, called MTF, is a more pragmatic measurement of slaughter pig performance for two reasons.

First because it combines physical performance with a large amount of likely return. FCR and ADG do not, and cost/kg liveweight gain only deals with cost and doesn’t cover return. Secondly because MTF can be established from
office records – no need to go out on the farm and measure things. Here are some areas of management you could well examine:

1 FSD diets
My first one is to recommend you adopt the Farm Specific Diet concept. It is not onerous to carry out. No farm is the same as any other in dozens of ways and circumstances change from month to month anyway. By providing your feed supplier’s nutritionist with some easily recorded sample figures from your office records every few weeks, he can design a diet which will better suit your farm circumstances than the current system of ordering off his price list which has always had to be a be a compromise to accommodate large groups of producers. Table 1 shows how valuable this can be.

2 Incorrect stocking density
Still a global failing as decent housing now costs so much. I cite figures from five farms which were persuaded to adjust their stocking densities to published guidelines by allowing an average of 15% more space (31-105 kg). Again the extra cost of the accommodation has been taken into account, see again Table 1.

3 Better feeder management
There is now plenty of evidence on how this seemingly simple management factor slips past busy stockpersons and their managers over a period of time. Table 2 shows that adjusting feeder space allowance pays off. Note the significant effect by slaughter weight – in older pigs caused by oversupply/ wastage and in younger pigs, inadequacy and slower growth. To this end the advantage of offering newly-weaned pigs extra trough space for 10-14 days gave a REO of 2.9:1 at slaughter. Although the REO shows quite a low figure, due to the cost of the extra and expensive nursery floor space and more troughs needed, the investment is still worthwhile.

4 Ventilation & thermoregulation
Measured by the length of time and degree of failing to keep growing pigs within their thermal comfort zone, i.e. keeping them below LCT or above ECT/UCT. Results from nine farms (9-105 kg) showed that MTF was 18 kg/tonne higher when pigs were kept within their comfort zone. The cost of rectifying the ventilation and structural thermal properties came to an estimated equivalent 4.5 MTF/ tonne by slaughter, which has been allowed for in the above figure.

5 Feeding creep feeds earlier
Modern sophistication in design and manufacture allows such creep feeds to be fed much earlier – three to five days from birth. Again deducting the cost of these very much more expensive creep feeds and the extra cost of careful creep management and hygiene to go with them, the MTF at slaughter provided an average of 29 kg/ tonne more MTF compared to conventional standard creep feeds. This gave an REO of 2.8:1 due to high early-life costs.

This, including the encouraging MTF success by slaughter, supports the makers’ claims that despite the increased cost of modern sophisticated creep feeding, it does pay – in this case nearly three times over in REO terms alone. REO and MTF figures are available from results on ‘Better sanitation’ and ‘The Value of Off-farm Training’. Each alone bettered the 5:1 REO target.

Attending to a variety of past and present management techniques can pay handsomely even when compared to the 5:1 paybacks from the excellent AGPs we are being prevented from using in future, and which, so far, AGP replacer products are struggling to match.

So it is not all doom and gloom!

Seven useful questions
What to ask the feed or feed additive salesperson? And as importantly – what kind of answers to expect?
1. How many properly controlled feeding tests do you have on your product?
Two or three seems too few. Statisticians advise 20 as a minimum, but this takes time and money.

2. How many of these tests have no negative controls?
Every performance trial should have a negative control.

3. Can you provide a list of references to support these first two questions?
Some unpublished company results can be suspect.

4. How many times out of ten did the product improve performance?
Statisticians advise 70% or more positives. No negative responses at all can be suspect.

5. How wide was the variation in these responses? Can you supply coefficients of variation (CV) with them?
CV reveals the change between the variation of certain factors, usually expressed as a percentage. The lower the percentage, the more close together the data points are to each other, and vice versa. I’m told variations of around 50% should be acceptable.

6. What dosage of the product should maximise my return on my investment?
Ask the company what would be the return on half, and again double, their recommended level. Dose response is a good test of a new product or system.

7. Can you supply performance models so as to predict a likely response under my particular conditions?
Not an essential question but useful if the answer is ‘Yes’. This allows the buyer to put the likely economic performance advantages alongside other options, such as housing improvement, equipment replacement, extra nutrients, better genetics etc., so as to compare the added value potential of each option.

Special thanks to Dr Gordon Rosen for his advice.