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A holistic approach for a zinc oxide-free piglet diet

November 8, 2021
Zinc oxide ban in pigs

As most of us are now aware, the use of therapeutic doses of zinc oxide (ZnO) for preventing and controlling post-weaning diarrhea (PWD) in young piglets will be banned in animal feeds in the EU from June 2022. Part 1 of this 3-part series discussed the use of ZnO in piglet feeds, the rationale behind its widespread use and the emerging environmental and health concerns from prolonged ZnO utilization.

The key to ensuring that pigs can thrive and survive in a post-zinc oxide era is for EU pig producers to adopt a multi-faceted approach that encompasses optimal nutrition, management, health and welfare practices (see Figure 1). Part 2 of this blog post series will discuss several of these factors, which, when used in combination, should be capable of alleviating PWD in young piglets and lowering ZnO dependency.

"Zinc oxide ban in pig production"

Figure 1: A holistic approach to achieving optimal pig performance without the use of therapeutic levels of zinc oxide

Adopting a holistic approach

Unfortunately, there is no ‘silver bullet’ replacement for ZnO. Instead, pig producers across the EU will need to adopt a combination of novel nutritional and management practices to manage PWD in young piglets. Let us take a look at some of these practices:

1. Nutrition

Lower protein diets: Reducing the dietary crude protein level for a short period after weaning will reduce the incidence of PWD and improve the intestinal health of piglets by preventing an excess of undigested protein from reaching the large intestine. Advantages of feeding a low crude protein diet include:

  • Decreased proteolytic bacteria populations
  • Decreased pathogenic E. coli
  • Decreased PWD symptoms

However, it is critical to ensure that essential amino acid levels and/or ratios are not reduced below the requirement of the pig.

High-fiber diets: Fiber in the post-weaning diet plays an important role in controlling the intestinal morphology and microbiota of piglets and improving gut health. Advantages of high dietary fiber feeding include:

  • Decreased PWD symptoms
  • Decreased E. coli shedding
  • Decreased retention time of digesta in the gastrointestinal tract

Fibers can also increase the activity of some digestive enzymes, such as lipase.

Organic acids: Organic acids have been used successfully in pig production as a useful tool in controlling PWD symptoms and supporting piglet growth, particularly around weaning. The benefit of organic acids comes from their powerful antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. Advantages of dietary organic acid inclusion include:

  • Increased nutrient digestibility
  • Increased growth performance
  • Decreased PWD symptoms
  • Decreased inflammation

However, the response to organic acids can depend on several factors, such as organic acid type, inclusion rate, the health status of the pigs and hygiene and welfare standards on the unit.

2. Management

Sow and piglet gut health: Getting piglets off to a healthy start in life will help to maximize their lifetime growth performance and minimize antibiotic use. The key to achieving this involves promoting gut health and development as soon as possible after birth. Alltech’s Seed, Feed, Weed (SFW) program supports gut health in sows and piglets by modifying the swine gut microbial population to establish favorable and more diverse microbial populations, reducing E. coli attachment to porcine intestinal cells and optimizing gut structures to ensure optimal nutrient absorption.

High-quality colostrum: Unlike infants, piglets are born without maternal antibodies, making them vulnerable to infection. Pig producers need to ensure that newborn piglets have an adequate supply of good quality colostrum because colostrum is rich in immunoglobulins. These immunoglobulins provide piglets with their first line of defense, helping to build their immune system and protecting them until they actively produce their own antibodies. Incorporated into Alltech’s SFW program are feed materials such as Actigen (Alltech), which have been shown to increase colostrum quality and, subsequently, support the gastrointestinal integrity and stability of the piglets that consume it.

Creep feeding: Creep feeding is not a new concept by any means, but not all producers think it is worthwhile due to the small amount eaten before weaning (typically 200–250 g/piglet). However, the goal of creep feeding is to:

  1. Increase the percentage of eaters in the litter because the pigs that actually eat creep have greater growth rates in the first seven days post-weaning
  2. Achieve the recognition effect of solid feed once weaned
  3. Support the weaning transition by preparing the piglets gut to digest solid feed

Creep feed should be offered from around 4–10 days of age, as the earlier creep feed is offered to piglets, the more significant the proportion of the litter that will be eating creep by weaning. The recommendation is to start by feeding roughly 80 g/day and then increase the amount given as appetite increases. Feeder hygiene is critical when offering creep feed, so keep feeders clean and remove stale and dirty feed daily.

Age and weight of pigs at weaning: A significant challenge producers face is getting piglets to have an early intake of solid feed after weaning. To ensure consistently high feed intake post-weaning and, consequently, high lifetime growth, weaning an older and heavier pig should be practiced. Producers are often limited by weaning age, but it is important to note that one extra day at weaning can result in +0.8 kg/pig at the end of the nursery stage and +1.7 kg/pig at slaughter. Weaning an older pig also means weaning a heavier pig, and this will affect mortality and longevity within the herd and reduce the number of days to slaughter, which will reduce the overall cost of production. The SFW program in pre-weaning diets can help producers increase weaning weights by improving the ADG, feed intake and feed efficiency of suckling piglets.

Drinking water quality: As water is an essential nutrient, it’s necessary to provide pigs with water of sufficient quantity and adequate quality. Furthermore, restricted water intake can reduce feed intake and ADG by up to 15%. For newly weaned piglets, it is recommended that you:

  • Ensure adequate flow rate (0.5–1 liter/minute)
  • One drinker per 10 piglets
  • Correct location, position and height of drinker in pen is crucial
  • Check/clean drinkers daily
  • Check for salt — salty water reduces intake
  • Test the quality of water for contaminants, microbes and minerals

3. Health

Biosecurity in pig farms: Implementing strict biosecurity protocols is one way to manage bacterial infections. This can include ensuring that feed trucks and vehicles are sanitized before entering the farm, that pigs from different groups are never mixed and that producers operate a strict all-in-all-out policy. If strict all-in-all-out policies are implemented, the health status of pigs will improve over time as a result.

Vaccination: Enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC) is the most important pathogen responsible for PWD in piglets, and vaccination is shown to be an effective approach to reduce the incidence of ETEC PWD. Following a good vaccination program will reduce the infection pressure and increase the immunity of the herd.

Hygiene: Dirty environmental conditions are also a contributing factor to PWD because poor pen and feeder hygiene can affect the health status of piglets. This can be prevented via correct sanitation (i.e., follow strict washing and disinfecting protocols, disinfect rooms with a chlorocresol product, allow rooms to fully dry before new pigs are moved in and ensure that all staff is properly washing their boots).

4. Welfare

Social stress and the environment: Pigs are exposed to several different stress factors around the time of weaning (e.g., moving to new nursery accommodation, mixing with unfamiliar pigs, separation from the sow, a change in diet). Because pigs experience a high level of stress so abruptly, it results in intestinal and immune system disorders and, ultimately, piglets suffer with PWD. However, pigs are less prone to disease and intestinal upsets if they are not stressed. It is, therefore, important that producers look at ways of reducing social and environmental stress at weaning by focusing on several aspects, such as feed and water provision, floor and feeder space allowances, the mixing and movement of pigs, temperature and ventilation.

"Zinc oxide ban in pigs"

As June 2022 draws closer, it is now time for EU pig producers to start making the necessary changes on their units so that they can begin moving towards ZnO-free piglet production. Implementing a holistic strategy that combines optimal nutrition, management, health and welfare practices will be key to ensuring that pigs can thrive and survive in a post-zinc oxide era.    

Learn how the Alltech Seed, Feed, Weed solution can help you remove ZnO from your piglet diets, and start the conversation about how you can begin transitioning to ZnO-free piglet production by contacting the Alltech Gut Health Management team today.  

This is part 2 of a 3-part series

*References available upon request


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