Award winning pig farm uses nutrition as a tool during the pre-weaning phase to boost performance

An award-winning pig farm is leading the way in high production without using zinc oxide by focusing on hygiene, nutritional tools, and bespoke ration management.

Oliver Thompson and his family run a farrow-to-finish system based near Sheffield, producing 2,000 pigs from 200 breeding sows. They recently won Pig Farmer of the Year at the Yorkshire Post Rural Awards.

The family business has produced high-quality pork since the 1990s and has continued refining its processes. Around 20% of their pigs are processed through their butchery, Moss Valley Fine Meats, and the remainder are sent to Cranswick Foods. They have invested in genetics and run a closed breeding herd using a large white X landrace female and duroc for sire line for slaughter pigs.

The farm strongly emphasises targeted nutrition for each production stage. It has been working closely with Harbro for over ten years for nutritional support, alongside high biosecurity, to achieve its growth and required carcase traits.

Following the zinc oxide ban in the summer of 2023, pig producers have been on a deadline to use any remaining products and utilise alternative methods of supporting gut health and preventing post-weaning diarrhoea in their weaned pigs. The Thompson’s farm transitioned away from the reliance on zinc oxide last year and has effectively managed this through nutritional changes.

“If successful, removing zinc oxide is better for pig gut health. It also has low palatability, which can depress appetite,” says Oliver Thompson. “We began to use a probiotic product alongside supplementary milk and solid feed on advice from Harbro. The pigs didn’t show any scouring, and we never looked back. We have had no issues not using zinc oxide.”

“The Harbro Tropper mobile mill and mix visits every Monday morning as the first call of the week as we are a high-health herd, and biosecurity is important for us. Anyone visiting the farm must be 72 hours pig-free, wear clean clothes and use site footwear. We also don’t have any pig farms close to us, which is handy.”

The farm rarely provides antibiotics. Their quarterly average is 2 mg/kg, significantly below the industry threshold and average use. The latest electronic Medicine Book (eMB) data, published by AHDB, shows that the average usage was 70 mg/PCU in 2022. “Antibiotics create a poor gut microbiome and are therefore detrimental to our animal’s gut health,” states Oliver.

Attention has gone into the pre-weaning period with tailoring rations to support feed intake and gut health. Dr Allison Elliott, monogastric nutritionist for Harbro, who supports the Thompson farm, agrees with this strategy.

“Nutrition has to change without zinc,” says Allison. “Customers will notice more additive products on starter feed labels, be that essential oils, short chain fatty acids or enzymes, but the focus area for Harbro is the pre-weaning feed intake.

“Medicinal zinc oxide was used to improve intestinal morphology, reduce pathogens by activating the immune system and improve nutrient digestion. Without it, piglets must develop the ability of the gut to digest food quickly.

“Farmers can use the time while suckling from the mother to increase feed intake pre-weaning to help develop gut enzymes, alongside group feeding and familiarity with feeding dishes. We can prepare as best as we can for when weaned by making sure the peak feed intake in the farrowing room is well managed to stimulate digestion.”

The Thompsons get their piglets off to the best start by combining their nutritional approaches with the dam’s milk, a little and often strategy, providing highly palatable food similar to milk. This encourages group feeding and adaptation to feeding from a source other than the mother’s teat.

“Our FosterCare range provides all these benefits and is advised to be given until piglets increase their feed intake, until day 14 at most. Once feed intake is established, the ration can be moved to foster care two, which introduces uncooked cereals and vegetable proteins to trigger endogenous enzyme production alongside immune activation, and can be fed until weaned,” explains Allison.

“Creep feed is provided from day ten as a crumb in the farrowing accommodation, alongside Harbro’s FosterCare one and two, starting on the MilkyWean to begin with. We aim to adapt the gut for the following ration slowly,” adds Oliver.

There is also the possibility that the last week before weaning includes a link feed, which can fill the gap between pre-weaning and weaning rations, believes Allison. This ration aims to match some of the increased palatability factors pre-weaning, for example, the inclusion of sweetener and aroma hallmarks whilst supporting the piglet’s gut.

This is achieved by including organic acids and essential oils with coarsely milled wheat to discourage stomach ulceration and optimise pH reduction. Stomach acid production is limited whilst the gut is still developing.

The gradual transition of ration form and ingredients through dedicated management benefits piglets who adapt more quickly to their weaner rations, preventing post-weaning stress, diarrhoea, and weight loss.

“This can also benefit the sow, who can lose body condition during lactation. Creep feed can help alleviate this as piglets have another nutrition source, which can benefit the next cycle of the sow,” asserts Allison.

Oliver explains that nutritional support is pivotal throughout their pig enterprise: “Harbro has allowed us to tailor our rations. We added extra calcium, vitamin D for bone growth, and a mycotoxin binder for the gilt-rearer and lactation rations. This is to prevent delays in pigs coming on heat and conception and to prevent risk if mycotoxins are present in the grain.”

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