A decade from now, farmers and vets will have a whole new arsenal of medicines at their disposal to counter pig sector health and disease issues, Professor Richard Ducatelle of Ghent University, Belgium told delegates at Huvepharma®'s seminar in Bulgaria last month.
He urged the gathering of vets and scientists to adopt new attitudes to pig gut health and the role that good microbes can play in enhancing the health, wellbeing and productivity of farm animals.
"Life in the past was relatively simple in that the industry developed broad spectrum antibiotics that killed the bad microbes," he said. "At the same time, we killed all the good microbes as well, of course. We have been looking at microbes for a long time as if all of them were our enemies when, in reality, 99% of pig gut microbes are good for the health of the animal. We need to learn about how to use the good bugs that exist in the pig intestine more in the future than we've done in the past."
Prof Ducatelle's vision for livestock gut health includes a firm belief that farmers will one day be able to raise pigs safely and efficiently without the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics.
"While targeted narrow-spectrum antibiotics will continue to be needed, I'm confident we can hit zero for classical broad-spectrum product usage," he said. "Narrow-spectrum antibiotics are very different, in that they will target just the one microbe in the gut that's causing a problem. Developing these new narrow-spectrum drugs will be very expensive, of course, especially as we're going to require a huge battery of such products in the future. Alongside this process, vets will need to be able to make an exact diagnosis of on-farm health issues if they're to use narrow-spectrum antibiotics effectively.
"We need to focus afresh on the actual requirements of the target animal"
"We will get there, however, with Europe's step-by-step phased approach to antibiotic reduction helping to make it all possible. We've already had some experience of this with the EU's banning of antibiotics as growth promoters in 2006. Although many people said that the decision came too early, it proved to be achievable, even helping to boost research of alternatives and stimulating general on-farm attention to hygiene and production skills.
"The European approach is in sharp contrast to the USA way, or what we saw in Indonesia in January this year with their complete block on antibiotics in livestock. You have to give the industry the chance to adjust."
Diet rethink needed
Dutch feed research specialist Meike Bouwhuis spoke about the relationship between feed formulation, animal health and growth performance, and stressed the need for whole-industry collaboration in relation to the pig sector's battle to adjust farming systems to the new world of ever-reducing antibiotic usage.
"The elimination of antibiotics as growth promoters in 2006 and the pressure now to reduce antibiotic use even further is changing the way we approach diet formulations," said Dr. Bouwhuis of Schothorst Feed Research. "This requires the industry to rethink energy and protein levels in feed, while also demanding new levels of communication and collaboration between farmers, vets, nutritionists and feed producers."
As a result, she told delegates, increased attention needs to be applied to the role of amino acids in diets, fibre content and nutrient digestibility, all against a production landscape where farmers no longer have antibiotics sorting out all the 'background noise'.
"We need to focus afresh on the actual requirements of the target animal, concentrating on the nutrient composition of feedstuffs and arriving at an optimal diet for optimal growth," she said.
Dr. Roberto Bardini, Nutreco's species manager for swine in Italy, also commented on feed content and composition during his presentation, which was directed mainly towards the impact of enteric diseases in pigs.
He said: "It's important to consider the potential influence that feed components may be having, such as raw material composition, diet formulation, the physical form of the feed, frequency of feeding and the general environment."
Think out of the box
Dr. Bardini challenged delegates to be innovative when treating enteric infections - both in seeking to reach a diagnosis and when planning appropriate treatment. In dealing with scours, for example, he urged vets not to categorise what they were seeing based solely on colour and smell but to use such signs to drive greater accuracy.
"You should also make good use of labs, or specific devices, to establish the cause of what you're seeing," he said. "In addition, don't overlook the possibility that other co-infections may be involved, such as neonatal porcine diarrhoea (NNPD). It is important to think out of the box in terms of treatments, avoiding the exclusive antibiotic approach but using them instead in a responsible way. Ultimately, of course, vets may need to carry out a necropsy to make sure they know exactly what's going on."
Good vs bad
The need to maximise the use of all available good bacteria in the gut, allowing them to contribute positively to pig health, was a constant theme of the two-day event; a mood captured by Veerle Hautekiet, Huvepharma®'s global product manager for feed additives, in her overview of the role of enzymes and probiotics in pig production.
"Optimising gut health with enzymes and probiotics is all about promoting good bacteria levels and reducing the impact of bad bacteria," she said. "When you get the balance right, the end result is better pig health, leading to higher levels of performance."
"For example, trials with our enzyme Hostazym® X, which is designed to feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut, has resulted in lower levels of viscosity and a freeing of nutrient availability to the pigs concerned.
"Similarly, using the probiotic Miya-Gold® to reduce the impact of pathogenic bacteria in the gut resulted in improved levels of general health alongside a lower of the need to use treatment antibiotics."
UK delegate Richard Pearson, Pig Veterinary Society vice president, called for a change in mindset - to an approach that feeds the good bugs in the pig's gut. He encouraged a 'back-to-basics approach with increasing importance being given to good food and the promotion of a healthy microbiome'.
He said: "Pig vets also need to keep an open mind diagnostically on what they see in this post-antibiotics era, particularly in relation to weaner and grower scours, including in our list of differentials some of the slightly more left-field infections, such as protozoa.
"We also need the pharma companies to keep bringing novel solutions to the market."
Research shows worm infection levels are under-estimated
Worm infection levels in pigs can cost producers as much as £4.75 per animal in lost income, according to parasitology specialist Prof Peter Geldhof of Ghent University. He also warned delegates attending the Huvepharma® seminar that the extent of the industry's worm problem is generally underestimated.
"Cost assessments of the impact of worm infections in pigs range from £1 to £4.75 per animal," he said, adding that losses were due to a combination of rejected livers, decreased growth rates, increased feed conversion, reduced lean meat percentage, higher mortality and an undermining of vaccine efficacy. "Whether actual losses are nearer the top or bottom of this cost range, it's a problem which the industry clearly needs to address," he said.
He added that worm issues can be under-estimated due to problems such as liver white spots which are caused by infections that heal and disappear over time. Prof Geldhof added: "This means that problems which occur early in the fattening period can easily be missed. To interfere effectively in the life cycle of the worm requires treatment every six weeks, even when there is no sign of current worm activity."
This article originally appeared in Pig World, July 2018.