Forgoing antibiotics comes with a cost

Hog producers told they can expect higher piglet mortality and costs of production if they move to an antibiotics-free system

BANFF, Alta. — Hog producers who plan to convert to a raised-without-antibiotics production model can expect higher piglet mortality, higher costs of production and market premiums that will level off as more operations convert.

Given those factors, conversion might not seem overly attractive, but a push for meat from animals raised without antibiotics is increasing, so a market is there to be filled.

Clayton Johnson, director of health with Carthage Veterinary Services in Carthage, Illinois, told producers at the Banff Pork Seminar Jan. 10 that demand for reduced antibiotic use in food animals is not a fad.

Food companies are demanding it, and consumers say they want it, too.

What neither of those entities may realize is that raised without antibiotics (RWA) means a higher number of piglet deaths because antibiotics are not an option for animals in the program.

There are ways to mitigate death loss, Johnson said, but it is a reality that all producers on a RWA program will face.

“If you’re a producer that’s going to go to a raised without antibiotics program, it has to be your goal to do so without seeing an increase in mortality. You’ve got to make that a primary objective, is to, number one, look out for the well-being of the pig and do everything you can to set up the pig’s environment, their health program, their nutrition program, so that their mortality levels don’t change,” Johnson said in an interview.

“And if you can do that, you’re going to be a very successful producer and avoid concerns about, well, what’s the optimum? Is it eliminating antibiotic use or is it seeing some mortality impact? We’d love to have our cake and eat it at the same time. It’s not always possible.”

Johnson said studies on what it costs to convert to RWA are specific to each operation because every one is different. However, he referenced one paper that estimated a US$9 per head increase in cost of production based on today’s market price for pigs. That’s equivalent to an increase in costs of about $4.40 per hundredweight.

Higher piglet mortality is the main factor in those increased costs, Johnson said.

There are packers who offer a premium for RWA pork, which is an encouraging sign for conversion, but that premium will diminish as more operations convert to RWA.

“I think there will always be a premium there because people do appreciate that it’s a change in your production practices and you’re selling a value-added product at that point.

“So I think there will be a premium that’s there. I think we’ll see an erosion in that premium with time. I think there will always be a premium there, but I think the premiums that producers are achieving today are probably the nicest premiums we’ll ever see because that market will get saturated with time.”

Johnson said the poultry industry is an example. About one in every three broilers in the United States is now raised in some kind of an RWA program, but only 4.4 percent of those are sold at a premium.

“What they have done is saturated this market,” he said.

Poultry had the advantage of being able to sell the entire RWA bird for a premium if it is offered. Not so with a hog carcass.

“Let’s be honest. We’ve got a big portion of the carcass we can’t get paid a premium for.… Who is going to pay extra for the pigtails that are antibiotic free?”

Johnson encouraged producers to examine the economics when pondering conversion to RWA.

Among the benefits are a price premium, lower antibiotic costs and potentially fewer pigs to feed for the same revenue.

Among the costs are potentially more vaccine, different rations, lower feed conversion and more feed needed per pound of gain, plus higher mortality.

“Don’t let yourself get into a situation where you’ve signed up to deliver a higher cost pig and you didn’t account for all of the cost components,” he said.

Producers must also consider that some pigs will have to be treated with antibiotics for health and animal welfare reasons, so those pigs will have to be marketed outside RWA. That scenario has revenue and costs as well.

It must all be considered if an RWA conversion is pondered, as the public seems to want.

“Our reality is, as pork producers, we are being asked to reduce our antibiotic usage,” he said.

“We don’t know how to measure it yet. We don’t exactly know what the ask is, but the public wants us to decrease our antibiotic footprint, no different from a carbon footprint or anything else. They want to trust us that we are doing the right things with antibiotic stewardship.”

About the author


  • Denise

    Why are you using a photo of a sow with her lovely little piglets lying on a nice warm bed of clean straw nursing contently when you know ,damn well, that’s not how it works in factory barns with metal stalls so narrow the mother sow CAN’T turn around. She can barely lie down to nurse her babies and there is only metal grates to lay on? Such deception should not be allowed.

    • Happy Farmer

      But Denise, it’s the picture you want.
      The article simply states that change(s) happen and the general public consumer had no idea what it costs the farmer to comply.
      If the consumer blindly asks farmers to “comply to their wishes” and gives no thought to how a farmer can accomplish or even afford it-how is it ever possible to move forward. I know you have an opinion as to why farmers can afford what you want-but do you really know what it will cost to achieve your wishes?
      Ever thought of actually doing all the things you believe in (on a larger farming scale) so as to prove they work?

      • John Fefchak

        Lets be honest: Basically, it’s not the right picture to represent the article that deals with hog industries production of meat.
        Denise questioned the photo that was displayed. She did not require or need any lessons on other opinions. She emphasized the cruelty and absence of animal stewardship, and she did it well.

      • Denise

        Happy Farmer, There’s a big world out there and it is worth exploring other methods of raising pigs. Those metal sow stalls and gestation crates must cost a fortune…….? Talk about a waste of good money. Good salemen though, because every factory hog producer bought into that prison model. A must have, to look very “high tech”.
        There will be a lot of whining because of the changes that will have to be made, with the restrictions on antibiotics. But change is coming and it’s good for a lot of reasons.
        More interaction with the livestock will be necessary. I hope that’s good. Giving the hogs access to the outdoors will help keep diseases at bay. Diseases,like PEDv, will be less likely to race through a barn, like wild fire.
        Animals, just like people, need sunshine and fresh air to enhance their immune systems.
        You can deny it, if you want, but ALL living creatures need some sunshine and exposure to their natural environment or they get sick.
        And speaking of fires, maybe the animals would have half a chance to escape barn fires with pen doors installed ,along the sides of the barns. Maybe automated ones?Why not?
        PEDv decimated SE Manitoba’s hog industry last year. Anti
        biotic use didn’t stop that. The ILSO model is failing.It needs to be modified. Disease will force change. Millions of pigs, dying from epidemic diseases, is not a sign of a successful business model, not to mention the subsidies burdening taxpayers and the environmental degradation.
        If the animals are raised properly, epidemics are rare. The hog producers just get over one epidemic and another one is en route.
        How many restrictions and barriers can they create to the barns before it seems the whole exercise in bordering on insanity?
        Charge more for pork but raise them properly, please.
        I am not alone in this way of thinking but I refuse to be a polite Canadian and just look the other way.

        • ed

          Yes, the factory farm method is so expensive that you need tens of thousands of pigs in a year to make a decent living. Now there is progress for you.

        • old grouchy

          Hmmmmmmmmmm – – – are you really prepared for the added costs with a total change to all these management systems?
          Most people would be quite unprepared for a 2, to maybe even 3, time increase to their food budget. Another article had individuals quoting that all they ‘knew’ (for cooking) was hamburger (and they said they couldn’t afford that but they could afford to go to mikkie dee’s). I bout bet that you are very munch in a tiny minority that would applaud such a price increases.

  • John Fefchak

    Barb Glen:
    The photo that you provided, reminded me of my youth, when we raised pigs on our family farm. ( we did not dock the piglet tails, however.) Yet it very much seems the article is based on huge numbers of hogs, in operations, that are considered ILO’s, not family farms.
    Were you unable to retrieve a more suitable photo that represented, a much harsher picture of reality?
    Or were there sensitive concerns that presenting such an image to the public would not be appreciated?


Stories from our other publications