Europe has been struggling to reduce antibiotic usage in animal feeds since 2006, and even earlier in some countries. They banned feed-grade antibiotics as growth-promoting agents only to discover that total antibiotic usage increased in 2007 and still resists dropping to desirable low levels. Today, the EU is following a more holistic approach that views the reduction of antibiotic usage as a goal to be achieved gradually by a complete overhaul of the whole industry and not miraculously by just the ban on feed antibiotics.
To reduce antibiotic usage in animal feeds is a goal that is sought by other countries, as well; the U.S., for example, is quite enthusiastic about it. Others, like China, are experimenting in anticipation of the future, but perhaps with not enough enthusiasm. They all have to adapt methods, products, technologies and know-how under their own specific commercial conditions, but there are some basic “lessons” that require no repeating as they are universal. Having worked in all three continents, with and without antibiotics, with pigs and poultry, I have prepared a list of 12 lessons learned the hard way in the hope that others will be spared from the need to start from scratch.
1. Cost increases are inevitable
Initially, most farmers in the EU believed they would only need to find a suitable additive to replace antibiotics, and to their credit, they were prepared to pay for it from their own pockets. They soon realized the cost of production in antibiotic-free/reduced systems is much higher as there are many other changes that are required, and they all are expensive.
2. Profitability will fund cost increases
Lamentably, the money to fund such changes as those needed for a successful outcome in completely reducing or removing antibiotics from a farm can only come from profitability itself. Governments that impose such new ways of raising animals, and consumers who are believed to benefit from all these, are not as willing to share the bill, especially when imported animal products are not required to be antibiotic free.
3. Performance level will never be the same
Even in the best of cases, without antibiotics, performance will never be the same. Somewhere, somehow, some productivity index will have to give in for everything else to happen as expected. In the past, antibiotics allowed a level of performance that cannot be easily matched today without reaching levels of negative profitability. To break even should be the first goal from which any improvements will have to be evaluated.
4. Variability in performance will increase
Perhaps the gravest reason why performance suffers more without antibiotics is the higher variability associated with such a production scheme. This is due to the current lack of a single or even a mix of products to provide blanket coverage against most pathogens. As a farm's subclinical pathogen profile changes over time, so must the additives that control them should change, and this takes time, during which performance can fluctuate significantly.
5. Farm health status must be increased
This is the first step that must be taken, and it must be completed before anything else is changed. It should not be combined with changes in feed and additives, because these must conform to farm health status, and not vice versa. It is a lengthy process that requires effort and, above all, a realization that nothing can ever be the same, as new ways of raising animals need to be employed to reduce exposure to pathogens.
6. Immunity should be boosted at any cost
Once farm health status has been increased — and then stabilized throughout the year to avoid seasonal variations — the next step should be one that involves ways to improve immunity. By reducing environmental pathogenic load and making the animal able to defend itself better against any remaining bugs, we reduce our overall need to use antibiotics in the first place. Skipping these essential steps is a sure recipe to failure.
7. Feed formulations cannot remain the same
It would be naïve to expect current feed formulas to work equally well without antibiotics. This was a lesson learned hard when animals developed such severe diarrheas without antibiotics that overall antibiotic consumption increased due to higher therapeutic demand. Formulas without antibiotics need to be redesigned in all aspects: energy, amino acids, fiber, lipids, minerals, and even vitamins.
Formulas without antibiotics need to be redesigned in all aspects: energy, amino acids, fiber, lipids, minerals, and even vitamins.
8. No single additive can replace antibiotics
Bitter experiences have clearly demonstrated that under commercial conditions, replacing an antibiotic with any single additive — and without any other changes whatsoever — is not to be expected. This might be in contrast to controlled trials, but there is no such thing as controlled commercial production where more than one variable changes in a dynamic state.
9. Additive combinations are required
Depending on the success of raising animal health and immune status, and reworking the formulas, a specific combination of additives must be first tested and then applied to control gut pathogens that cannot be controlled otherwise. Not all additives work together at the same time, and piling them all up in any formula is counterproductive and simply too expensive.
10. Farm personnel must be re-educated
Nothing will work long-term if farm personnel — and this includes everyone on the farm — are not re-educated to new protocols, methods and ways to reduce exposure of animals to pathogens. Everything can and will go wrong if a single person does not adhere to the new ways. Training by itself is never enough. A monitoring system must also be employed to ensure training is not just an expensive exercise on paper.
11. The veterinarian must have the first word
A health professional must first assess current health status and measure animal immunity. This person must have the first word in setting new standards and procedures to achieve these standards toward increasing animal health and immune status. The vet should be the person holding overall responsibility for the antibiotic reduction project.
12. A qualified nutritionist must be employed
Many consider the nutritionist as the key person, but a nutritionist can only help the animal achieve its genetic potential when all other enabling factors are in place. And not all nutritionists are experienced in removing antibiotics from animal feeds, as education/experiences focus mostly toward additives.
Just the beginning
Everyone believed a one-to-one replacement of antibiotics with something else in the feed or water would close the issue of reducing antibiotic usage in the EU. As it happened, this was just the beginning of realizing that antibiotics had afforded a way of production that was inexpensive and forgiving. Without antibiotics, we must now reinvent the way we raise farm animals without financially ruining ourselves in the process. Toward this goal, the above 12 hard-learned lessons from the EU might prove beneficial to newcomers.