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.”

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