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Measuring success and changing behaviors to reduce antibiotics use on hog farms

By Georgina Crayford, PhD
Senior Policy Advisor
National Pig Association, UK


Pig industries around the world are waking up to the fact that the way in which antibiotics are used in pig farming has to change.

Some countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, are already ahead of the game. Others still have a long way to go.

In 2017, the UK government asked each livestock sector to agree specific targets for reducing antibiotic use.

Rather ambitiously, the country’s pig industry committed to reducing its antibiotic use by 62% over five years, aiming for a national average of 99 mg/kg PCU (Population Corrected Unit) by 2020.

Gathering the necessary data to set an informed reduction target was no mean feat, but delivering against the target is going to be a great deal harder.

Having been awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship to look at antibiotic use in pig production and how reductions might be achieved, I spent much of 2017 meeting pig farmers, veterinarians, industry organizations and academics around the world in search of best practice.

Fortunately, the discussions I had have given me plenty of ideas for how to achieve more responsible use of antibiotics on pig farms.

To measure is to know

My first recommendation, to pig farmers and policymakers, is to begin with measuring.

To measure is to know, and if you don’t know what you’re dealing with then how can you expect to know what’s the best way forward?

Quantifying the amount of antibiotics administered to pigs on farm is a crucial first step towards using these life-saving drugs more responsibly. Identifying current levels of use sets a baseline, against which progress can be measured.

Ideally all farms should record usage in a standardized way, as this will enable farmers to benchmark themselves against others – there’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition to get things moving.

Measuring herd health

As well as measuring antibiotic usage, it’s also important to measure herd health. If you can’t be sure which diseases and health problems you’re up against then how can you know whether the treatment regime is appropriate?

The owner of a farm I visited in Ontario, Canada, explained how understanding the health challenges his herd was dealing with drastically reduced antibiotic use, while helping his pigs grow to their full potential.

The farm had a really good understanding of its health status, thanks to regular visits from its vet and free disease diagnostics from the local veterinary college in return for taking part in their trials.

As a result, when it experienced problems with post-weaning scour, they knew exactly which bacteria was the culprit and they started vaccinating against it.

To measure is to know — if you don’t know what you’re dealing with then how can you expect to know what’s the best way forward?
Prior to vaccinating they were having to use a lot of antibiotics to control the scour, but afterwards they required much less.

Improving disease knowledge

There are a wide range of tests and results that can be used to determine a pig farm’s health status, from on-farm diagnostic tests to meat inspection data collected at the slaughterhouse.
Improved knowledge about which diseases are affecting the pigs enables farmers and vets to pay more attention to controlling those diseases, and to preventing new ones from getting onto a farm.

On a farm I visited in Australia, for example, they were previously heavy users of ceftiofur, yet were still experiencing lots of problems with piglet scours.
It was only when a new vet encouraged them to run diagnostics that they realized they weren’t dealing with E. coli as expected — the problem was a Clostridium infection, which can be exacerbated by continued use of antibiotics.

They followed their vet’s advice and now use a probiotic to manage and ultimately prevent the Clostridium infection, and their antibiotic use in the pre-weaning stage has dropped as a result.

In Denmark and Finland I also saw excellent examples of national pig health control programs, which involved regular testing of pigs on -arm to determine the diseases present.
Sustainable reductions in antibiotic use on pig farms will only be achieved if endemic production diseases like porcine respiratory and reproductive disease and enzootic pneumonia are dealt with.

Undoubtedly, this will require collaboration between farmers and their vets, coordination by industry organizations, and support from the supply chain, government and the pharmaceutical industry.

The good versus the bad

Of course, getting on top of these diseases is a key component of overall disease prevention.

We’ve all heard the age-old expression “prevention is better than cure,” but how much do we actually live by it? Farmers need to start being proactive, instead of reactive, when it comes to pig health.

UK swine veterinarian Fiona Lovatt, DVM, cleverly explained how farmers can achieve this by considering ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ spending when it comes to veterinary services.

For example, ‘bad vet spend’ by a pig farmer might include large volumes of antibiotics to treat poorly controlled disease, or investigations of sudden death of finishers due to enteric disease.

On the other hand, ‘good vet spend’ might include vaccines, analysis of production figures, diagnostic tests and biosecurity advice.

In other words, good pig health doesn’t come cheap, but isn’t it better to spend money on protecting it in the first place, rather than on trying to mask recurrent health problems?

Prevention through management

When I visited Australia, I met a pig vet who is a big advocate of disease prevention, as many vets are.

This particular vet encourages his clients to take a close look at their pig management practices and employ strategies for improving hygiene, and the result is often substantial reductions in antibiotic use.

The management strategies that he recommends are not groundbreaking; they are practices that were recommended by the French veterinary epidemiologist Francois Madec, in what has popularly become known as the Madec 20-point plan.

The plan was developed to help pig producers and veterinarians control porcine circovirus type 2 (PCV2), which devastated pig industries worldwide in the late 1990s.

The measures outlined in the 20-point plan center around limiting pig-to-pig contact, minimizing pig stress, implementing good hygiene and ensuring good nutrition.

A key recommendation in the Madec plan is that farmers should apply a strict, all-in-all-out policy along with stringent cleaning and disinfection procedures.

Time and profit pressures

Since the development of effective PCV2 vaccines and the widespread adoption of piglet vaccination for porcine circovirus associated diseases, one could argue that the pressure on pig farmers to keep up with such management and biosecurity practices has eased off.

However, old habits have crept back in, and as farmers get further embroiled in red tape and succumb to tight profit margins, there isn’t the time, energy or cash to maintain such stringent practices.

The question, then, is how can pig keepers be incentivized to tighten up their husbandry and hygiene standards?

The majority of the advice needed to reduce antibiotic use is already out there, but it’s only any good if farmers and vets actually implement it
Clearly the economic damage associated with PCV2 was a strong enough incentive, but is the threat of antimicrobial resistance enough?

This is the trickiest obstacle to overcome in the journey towards more judicious use of antibiotics.

Changing behaviors

I believe the majority of advice and research needed to reduce antibiotic use is already out there, but it’s only any good if farmers and vets actually implement it.

Somehow we need to make prudent antibiotic use and disease prevention a priority. For this, it’s important to turn to social and behavioral science.
According to social scientists, people are more likely to change their behavior if they think something was their idea.

So instead of top-down policy and knowledge-transfer, perhaps we should ask farmers how they think they could deliver antibiotic use reduction on their farm.

Going through this process will hopefully engage them with the issue and encourage them to take greater responsibility for it.

Posted on July 2, 2018

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