“Antimicrobial-free organic pigs are within reach”

03-11-2017 | | |
Organic pigs usually have outdoor space at their disposal. Photo: Vincent ter Beek
Organic pigs usually have outdoor space at their disposal. Photo: Vincent ter Beek

A new report from Danish researchers is suggesting that pig and dairy production without the use of antimicrobials can be within reach for many organic farms with a targeted health-promoting effort.

Dr Mette Vaarst, senior researcher at the university’s department of Animal Science, wrote the report together with her colleague Prof Jan Tind Sørensen. The Danish report, which translates as Possibilities of organic pork and dairy production in Denmark without using antimicrobials, describes strategies to change these production conditions.

The report has been examining the possibilities of establishing organic production concepts for pig and dairy farming without using antimicrobials, a news article explained on the website of Aarhus University, Denmark. The report also mentions the importance of rethinking the way of using antimicrobial medicine.

Antimicrobial treatments

Currently, swine and dairy farmers are using antimicrobial treatments in conventional and organic production when the animals are infected with a bacterial disease.

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Studies show that the number of antimicrobial treatments is significantly lower in organic pig herds than in conventional herds. Some organic dairy cattle herds are productive even with a minimum use of antimicrobials. In 2015, the use of veterinary antimicrobials in Denmark was a little more than 108 tonnes, the article described.

According to figures from the Danish Integrated Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring and Research Programme (Danmap), about 75% of these were used in pig production. According to 2014 surveys from the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, conventional pigs received between 2 (finisher pigs) and 14 (weaner pigs) times as much antimicrobial medicine as organic pigs.

Huge potential for pigs without antimicrobials

The new report indicates that the antimicrobial consumption in several Danish organic herds is relatively modest and provides an excellent starting point when aiming to achieve a production without using antimicrobials.

Dr Vaarst: “It is important to emphasise that a low antimicrobial consumption should be based on a low disease level; however, promotion of animal health and disease prevention require major efforts. Many producers still need to change their production conditions.”

Rethinking antimicrobial consumption

In the report, the researchers emphasise that organic farmers should realise that even though it may be possible to establish a herd with zero use of antimicrobials, they will never succeed in establishing a 100% disease-free herd.

Dr Vaarst commented in the news article: “We must realise that there is a need to rethink the use of antimicrobials in many cases where antimicrobial medicine has been applied as a standard treatment and considered as ‘the safe treatment under the given circumstances’. Actually, it is often possible to improve ‘the given circumstances’, and it is both possible and highly relevant to nurse sick animals and provide other types of treatment instead of simply administering antimicrobials. This just requires more time as well as more knowledge and experience.”

Extending the suckling period for piglets

In order to avoid using antimicrobials, one of the focus areas is to extend the suckling period for piglets, as that could help reduce problems with weaning diarrhoea.

Breeding material is another focus area in order to ensure that sows have fewer and more robust piglets. In relation to dairy cattle, animal robustness and immunity may be strengthened by ensuring plenty of space, fresh air and hygiene as well as focusing on breeding material, i.e. cattle with strong legs, excellent calving performance and other ‘robustness’ goals.

If producers wish to avoid antimicrobial treatments in a herd, it is important to have a plan for handling sick animals. They can either apply alternative treatments, such as pain-relief, or, in more severe cases, euthanasia of the animal or move it to another farm.

Different models for production without using antimicrobials

According to the Aarhus University news article, the report describes 2 different models for organic production without the use of antimicrobials. One model comprises only the individual animal. The report draws heavily on experience from existing pig farms where the animals are ‘reared without the use of antimicrobials’, which means that the animal will never receive antimicrobial treatment.

However, it may have been exposed indirectly to antimicrobial treatment via the sow’s milk. Many Danish organic herds can have this type of production, comprising the individual animal, with relatively minor effort compared to their existing practice.

The other model comprises the entire herd. Dr Vaarst commented, “If the model comprises a consistent phasing out of antimicrobials from the entire herd, only a few farms would be able to adopt this model right away. We expect that most herds will need significant preparation periods.”

A number of experts contributed to the report and they point out the relevance of examining a ‘hybrid model’ combining the two types of production without the use of antimicrobials.

Good husbandry is paramount

An antimicrobial-free production places extra demands with regard to animal husbandry, farmer alertness and timely action. This means that more time is needed for management on farms seeking to reduce the use of antimicrobials.

The report was published by the Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture (DCA), and was commissioned by the Danish Agricultural Agency as part of Aarhus University’s agreement on research-based policy advice.

ter Beek
Vincent ter Beek Editor of Pig Progress / Topic: Pigs around the world