How pigs are still thriving despite zinc oxide ban


Pigs can still thrive despite the removal of potentially harmful zinc oxide from their diets, and we’re currently working with a number of pig farmers who are achieving excellent results without medicinal zinc in their livestock’s diets.

Zinc oxide has been used for many years in the industry to reduce diarrhoea in post-weaned pigs. However, as a result of potential risks to the environment and in line with regulations set by the EU, therapeutic use of zinc oxide was banned across the EU in 2022.

The UK Veterinary Medicines Directorate granted an extension in the UK, allowing the industry to use up any product purchased before the authorisation expired in June 2022. Following the ban, 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.

We began removing medicinal zinc oxide from our Fostercare piglet range in 2023, and has also added a number of new products. “We are not seeing any negative impacts from removing the zinc oxide from the diets when the adjusted nutritional approach is combined with good hygiene and management in the nursery. We have customers who  are currently achieving weights of 35kg in their 10-week old pigs, compared with the industry average of just 30kg. On an average 300 sow unit, improving nursery weight by 5kg could be worth an additional £200,000 a year” said James Hall, our pig business development manager.

Kevin Stickney, our head of technical, said: “Piglets, when you wean them and take them away from their mother, are immunologically naive and prone to particular levels of infection, notably infections in the gut. Before they’re weaned, they rely on their mother for immune protection, but once weaned, the pig is then susceptible to bacteria it brings with it or encounters in the environment that it’s weaned into. Zinc is not only anti-bacterial but there are a number of things going on that it can influence – including stopping gut leakage and certain bacteria attaching itself to the gut wall. Whenever I have been giving presentations on this subject where we’re looking for a replacement, my comment is that there is no silver bullet. Zinc oxide was pretty unique in that category.”

“What you need is a number of different strategies, including increasing hygiene. One of the calls has been to improve on-farm management and a lot of that requires human input. One of the problems that we have in the industry is that, due to shortage of skilled labour, a lot of things don’t get done as well as they should, and therefore there is an increased onus on the feed to deliver the entire solution. You’ve got to go into a mode of improving the digestibility of the feed and that means selecting better quality raw materials the piglets find easily digestible.”

“As early as the late nineties and early noughties, we effectively started looking at processes that would help to reduce the impact of the medicinal zinc ban, ie shortly after the ban on antibiotic growth promoters, and I do now think piglets can thrive without it. But there has got to be good hygiene on the farm, plus some kind of assistance coming through the water supply because there is an enthusiasm for piglets to consume water immediately at weaning, when rates of feed intake are less predictable. In addition, introducing a digestible, palatable diet with reduced crude protein and buffering potential is less likely to feed the bugs in the lower gut.”

Oliver Thompson runs a farrow-to-finish system based near Sheffield, producing 5,700/year  pigs from 200 breeding sows and has been leading the way in high production without using zinc oxide by focusing on hygiene, nutritional tools, and bespoke ration management. The family business has produced high-quality pork since the 1990s and has continued refining its processes.

The farm strongly emphasises targeted nutrition for each production stage. We’ve been working closely together for over 10 years, offering nutritional support, alongside high biosecurity, to achieve its growth and required carcase traits. The transition away from the reliance on zinc oxide has effectively been managed through nutrition. “If successful, removing zinc oxide is better for pig gut health. It also has low palatability, so it depresses appetite,” said Oliver. “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 uses antibiotics and its quarterly average is 2 mg/kg, significantly below the industry threshold and average use. “Antibiotics create a poor gut microbiome and are therefore detrimental to our animal’s gut health,” said Oliver.

Attention has gone into the pre-weaning period with tailoring rations to support feed intake and gut health. Allison Elliott, one of our monogastric nutritionists, who supports the Thompson’s farm, agrees with this strategy. “Nutrition has to change without zinc,” said 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 us 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 aim to get their piglets off to the best start by combining their nutritional approaches with the mother’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 One  provides all these benefits and is advised to be given until piglets increase their feed intake, until day 14 at most,” said Allison.

“Once feed intake is established, the ration can be moved to Fostercare Two, which introduces uncooked cereals and vegetable proteins to trigger endogenous enzyme production alongside immune activation, and can be fed until weaned.”


Need some advice?
Contact one of our trusted experts.

Get in touch