This week, I had an e-mail from a man who is interested in raising his own livestock. He is currently in the learning and planning phase and had the following question:
“One of the guys at my work said it is impossible to raise hogs without antibiotics. Is this true? I don’t think it’s true, but thought I’d ask.”
Below is my initial response to him:
“In five years, I have used one antibiotic on a pig, and that was this past fall. I had one that caught pneumonia and was sure to die if I didn’t (watched that happen three other times). I’ve raised over 220 pigs in that time so, no, that is absolutely false. He doesn’t know what he is talking about, or more likely, is just regurgitating what he has been taught. Now, in a confinement application, what he states is true, due to the rampant disease and bacteria. But that isn’t farming, and it’s a lazy way to raise animals.”
Let me expound upon this question, as it routinely comes up in farming circles about not just pigs, but most any livestock. The main reason farms give antibiotics is a preventative measure, not to actually treat an acute problem or disease. Sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in watering system and medicated feed accounts for 80% of all antibiotic drug use in the United States! That’s right, only 20% go to human beings. And we wonder why antibiotic resistant strains of bugs are popping up everywhere!
Now, in a confinement application where animals are simply kept in a barn with no access to fresh air, pasture and sunshine (nature’s natural way of sterilizing things) this is a true statement. No animal can live in a manure and bacteria infested environment without the aid of drugs. But that is not how nature intended them to live now is it? Take for instance the lowly pig, often regarded as the dirtiest of all farm animals. And in these aforementioned conditions, it is. A hog will root through and eat its own manure when left to that end, and then turn right around and sleep in it. Obviously, this is going to stimulate disease and necessitate the use of pharmaceuticals.
However, if our goal is to mimic nature inside of a production model, then we will raise our hogs in the forest, just like is done in nature. When placed in this setting, the hog is actually the cleanest barnyard animal. When confined to an area out in the woods, they will actually establish a “bathroom” area(s) and will not eat the vegetation in that spot until all other vegetation is consumed. If we rotate them in a timely manner, this issue never occurs and we move them off of old excrement where bacteria flourishes and into a new paddock with clean vegetation. This breaks the cycle of many pathogens, parasites and bacteria that can cause disease. Add to that the fresh air and disinfectant sunshine and our problems are almost completely eliminated.
I mentioned earlier that I used, for the first time, an antibiotic in 2012 on an animal. Pigs are extremely hardy creatures, and very resilient even if they get sick. But, just like humans, their weakness is the respiratory system. Given that we are raising them in the woods with shelter provided by large, mature hardwood trees and bushes, it’s not uncommon for one of them to catch a cold. This can sometimes lead to pneumonia, which, in my experience, has not ended well. I’ve had three hogs die from this in the past five years and know the signs well now. I’ve also had two or three recover, and this most recent case was headed the wrong direction for certain. So begrudgingly I called our vet and picked up an antibiotic to give him. I will say, within 12 hours that guy was running around and bouncing all over the place. The drug worked, and we saved his life. Given that we have raised over 200 pigs to date, I don’t feel too bad about using one dose in one instance. However, my goal is still not to have to use anything ever again.
But, to say that you can’t raise hogs without antibiotics is not true. There are literally hundreds, and probably thousands, of small farmers just like me proving that every day all over the country. If we will simply try and mimic nature in our production system, the animals will take care of themselves, for the most part. We don’t have to over think things and simply need to keep ourselves from getting in the way. God wired these guys up to live just fine without our help, try and keep that in mind during your own farming adventures.