More livestock operations are taking charge of the rising pressure around antibiotics by expanding their toolbox of options.
But it’s not just the tools that are important – just as critical is having the right management thinking.
A leading example of an operation that has used this combination to get ahead of the game is Spring Creek Colony, located near Walsh, Alberta. The colony has dramatically reduced its reliance on antibiotics by adopting enzymes and other bio-based feed supplements.
Spring Creek Colony is representative of many of the leading farming colonies that have proven very progressive in recognizing today’s shifting marketplace demands and championing the early adoption of new innovations.
Long before ‘antibiotic-free’ and ‘natural’ became buzz words du jour, the colony – one of largest Canadian Prairie land holders and a major swine and poultry producer, as well as dairy and beef producer – quietly shifted to steadily increased use of feed enzymes and other feed supplements based on natural processes. This was done to reduce reliance on antibiotics and get more health and productivity benefits from feed during an era of tight margins.
“We spend a lot of time looking ahead,” says Paul Hofer, swine manager at Spring Creek Colony. “We’re always thinking about not only how we can improve on the farm but what the consumer wants and how we can provide that. You have to do that in this business. If it works on the farm and it fits what the consumer wants, that’s the direction we go. Our philosophy is, if you’re not moving ahead, you’re moving behind.”
This mindset has served the colony well, says Hofer. But it’s more than just thinking forward – it takes time, work, and investment, including a lot of focus on identifying and building the right relationships with trusted farm advisors and suppliers.
“It’s all about being connected,” says Hofer. “We attend a lot of meetings – all the major ones in North America and some in other parts of the world. We hear all the new knowledge, meet all these different connections and also email back and forth on what’s coming out, what’s new and what packer wants, what the consumer wants. We need to be out there and alert to be on the cutting edge of all of this.”
Discussions in the meeting rooms a decade or more ago have risen today to become the headlines in major newspapers and trending topics in social media. Hofer, like most farmers, has clear opinions on the new expectations for welfare, environment, antibiotics, and other issues, and who and what is driving them. But his focus is keeping a business mindset with a clear eye on what the future marketplace looks like.
“My take is at the end of the day the public and the consumer is always right – we have to listen to them and we have to work with them. We have to do our best to make sure in our production that our approaches are up to snuff. Nobody is perfect but we can listen, explain what we are doing and show we are doing our best.
“We’re not producing pigs or cows or chickens, we’re producing meat and we need to provide the meat that the consumer wants. The closer we are in our thinking to the supermarket and the dinner plate, the better off we are. Our thinking is to be as much natural and antibiotic free as possible.”
With the right technology, catering to new public and consumer demands doesn’t have to mean sacrificing productivity, he says. In the case of the colony’s use of feed enzymes and other biological-based feed supplements, for example, the efficiency and productivity benefits make sense in their own right, let alone that today these are becoming more favored in the marketplace – especially with the recent major announcements aimed at curbing antibiotic us.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the animal industry right now – for welfare, antibiotic-free, the environment, you name it. We know this and it’s important to know this. But this alone is not the reason we’re doing it,” he says.
In addition to managing swine production, Hofer heads up running the colony feed mill, which serves the whole farm. Spring Creek has been an early adopter of feed supplement innovations to get more nutritional and health benefits out of feed for the animals and also for keeping competitive and sustainable.
“We’ve used enzymes for a long time and we use a lot of enzymes now,” he says. “We get more nutrition and energy out of the feed and it really makes a difference. With the top options we use, it’s not hard to get $10 to $15 more per pig from that investment, plus it fits what the market wants today and is better environmentally so there are several big benefits there.”
Hofer currently uses several enzyme products for pigs. One is a phytase product. This helps the farm managing phosphorus nutrition for swine, to optimize the performance and health of animals. It also greatly reduces phosphorous excretion in order to help with soil nutrient management.
The colony also typically uses one of two main multi-carbohydrase enzyme products, choosing one or the other depending on the specifics of the diet. Multi-carbohydrase is an increasingly popular form of enzyme technology, pioneered through research at the University of Manitoba and other key institutions, which utilizes multiple unique enzyme strains that express multiple activities.
“Western Canada is a leader in multi-carbohydrase so that’s a big benefit for us that we can deal with a local manufacturer and a lot of the research is directly relevant to our practices.”
Each of the different enzyme activities is designed to break down a different feed component that otherwise would be hard or impossible for the animal to digest, and would result in waste rather than increased nutrients and energy.
As opposed to blending single-source enzymes together, true multi-carbohydrase approach involves intensive research to develop unique formulations where the different activities complement one another and also deliver added synergistic activity for greater impact.
“There are five to seven enzyme activities in the main feed efficiency products we use, and that’s why we use them. You get more feed breakdown with more activities so the efficiency and value is much higher. Both are second generation multi-carbohydrase and they’re about the best you can get.
“Part of the reason we go with multiple activities you just get more happening during what we sometimes forget is a small window of opportunity. You have to keep in mind the animals only have so much time to digest and the clock is ticking.”
In addition to enzymes, the colony also uses another bio-based feed supplement that is designed to mimic the activity of beneficial nucleotides, to stimulates intestinal development and improve immune system response, particularly in young animals. Hofer says the product improves average daily gain and feed intake, while enhancing nutrient absorption and gut health.
With these options in its stable, the colony has not yet enforced a strict ‘antibiotics-free’ approach, but is often operating that way for all practical purposes and is ready to go there as customers demand it. Hofer says the new pressures to limit antibiotics use as much as possible can sometimes be a challenge, but should be generally manageable with the tools available now.
“As much as we liked antibiotics for a number of reasons in the past, today we only want to use them when we really need them for health issues. And overall we don’t end up needing them very much. So we’re pretty much there. And it’s good because we keep getting pressure and we can expect more demands like we’re seeing from Walmart.”
That’s not to say it doesn’t take a learning curve, he says. Strategies to reduce reliance and adopt alternatives require doing appropriate research to find reputable products that fit the livestock and the feed, as well as other particulars of an operation.
“There’s not one-size-fits-all so you need knowledge and you need people you trust who have the expertise. There is something new coming out every day and a lot of it is good but you need to be careful because there is also a lot of garbage coming out. You need to see the research and the data. You have to be careful how you spend your dollar because the margins are pretty slim and mistakes are expensive.”
Sophisticated record keeping is critical to manage risk and fine-tune approaches, he says. Spring Creek Colony uses the latest software and technology to collect real time data on all aspects of inputs and performance. “For example, as soon as we started using multi-carbohydrase technology, we could see health and productivity shot up. It’s better for the animals’ digestive system so you get far less issues. And you get clearly better growth performance and feed efficiency – average daily gain is amazingly better.
“We always need to be finding new and better ways of improving our feed efficiency, and enzymes are a really nice way of getting that done.”
There are a whole host of other feed supplement alternatives that are becoming better and more widely adopted all the time, he says. Spring Creek regularly works with its partners and suppliers to keep abreast of the latest options, and then test drives those that show the right science and right fit.
When it comes to health, a lot of the focus is “prevention is the best medicine,” he says. “It’s a big focus for us,” he says. “We can see a small investment in prevention is really not a cost at all because it avoids expensive problems. A lot of this has become routine now for us – for example, we do a lot of acidifiers in the water for gut health – the healthier that animal is, there’s less chance of getting different bugs.”
Mycotoxins are also a rising concern increasingly getting more attention, he says. For this, Spring Creek also uses a binder product and related testing system. Like with its enzymes, the colony typically uses products that are bio-based and fit well with marketplace expectations.
“The best companies that supply these products are definitely on that same path as the producer – they have to be so producer has more in the tool box to work with. No matter what a product can do, it’s no good if it’s not what the customer wants. The whole world industry is definitely shifting to more natural.”