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Feed efficiency starts at the gut level of the pig

Getting the most gain out of each pound of feed is critical to every producer’s bottom line. As feed costs rise, so does the economic impact of feed efficiency. However, what may be having a major impact on your feed efficiency isn’t the feed itself, but what’s happening at the gut level of the pig.

“As feed costs rise, so does the impact of disease, specifically diseases that affect feed efficiency,” says Fernando Leite, technical manager for enterics at Boehringer Ingelheim. “Because the less efficient a pig is, the more feed it will have to consume.”

In recent estimates, the global herd prevalence of Lawsonia intracellularis, which causes the disease ileitis, is about 96%, meaning most grower and finisher pigs will be infected at some point in their production lives.

A Formidable Challenge

According to recent research from Leite and Iowa State University published in Veterinary Research, managing subclinical and clinical pathogenic disease in swine remains a formidable challenge for pork producers.

“Our research showed that Lawsonia intracellularis has a significant impact on feed efficiency,” Leite says. “What is occurring is that the cells in the gut responsible for nutrient absorption are being damaged. In our study, over the disease period we saw a 25% reduction in feed efficiency due to disease. So when I think about feed efficiency, I think of giving the pig a chance to optimize that feed efficiency by getting rid of the pathogens that have a direct, negative impact on nutrient absorption.”

The best way to combat Lawsonia intracellularis is to prevent it from gaining a foothold. “The ideal method is to immunize the pigs,” Leite says. “They are protected from the negative consequences and benefit from increased feed efficiency.”

In the study, Leite says there was an 18% increase in feed efficiency in pigs given an oral live vaccine against Lawsonia.

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Vaccinating vs. Treating

Leite says estimates are that more than 90% of U.S. farms have some level of Lawsonia intracellularis infection. “We have producers who are vaccinating against this disease,” he says. “But we are also seeing producers who are medicating to treat the disease. Obviously, the greatest benefit of the vaccine is that it prevents the disease to begin with. If you are treating the animals once you have the disease, there has already been a negative performance impact.” 

While the most noticeable cost may be in feed efficiency, poor animal health and overall reduced performance can have additional negative impacts on the farm. 

“In its most acute form, Lawsonia intracellularis can cause death. And the problem here is death loss also directly relates to feed efficiency because it can occur prior to first cut or at the end of finishing. You do not want death loss at that stage of production because by then the pig has consumed a lot of feed.

“If you’re not doing anything to control the disease and you’re not seeing diarrhea, that does not necessarily mean your pigs aren’t experiencing some form of performance loss due to Lawsonia,” Leite says. “The disease could be subclinical, which means you are still experiencing some feed efficiency issues because the disease is present. It’s just not readily apparent from clinical signs.”

Direct Return on Investment

With producers looking to tighten their belts, Leite cautions that skipping a vaccine protocol can have major repercussions and cost more in the long run. 

“Producers can understandably get in the mind-set of cutting costs, but in reality the vaccine should be viewed more as an investment,” Leite says. “It will give you a direct return, because it is a way to control a disease that is having an impact on feed efficiency, overall pig health, and your bottom line. In one of our research trials, we saw an 18% improvement in feed efficiency over the course of the disease among pigs that had been orally vaccinated compared with those who had not. That’s a direct return on investment.” 

That return becomes even greater as feed costs increase. “When feed costs are on the rise, producers want to get the most out of every pound of feed. The higher the feed costs, the more costly reduced feed efficiency rates become. So, a producer’s return on investment actually goes up when feed costs rise. In this sense, the vaccine could be viewed as an even better investment,” he says. 

Producers can also capture savings by removing the cost of antibiotics used to treat ileitis. Multiple studies have demonstrated that oral vaccination for Lawsonia can help producers reach their antibiotic use and reduction goals without sacrificing performance. 

A study that compared continuous tylosin in feed during finishing vs. a protocol of receiving one dose of an oral Lawsonia vaccine before entering the finisher found that vaccination was more economical compared with pigs receiving tylosin. In another study of more than 120,000 pigs across five production systems, vaccination was shown to have a more than 7:1 benefit-to-cost ratio compared with maintaining a conventional continuous feed medication program. 

Other research on field evaluations of Lawsonia intracellularis oral vaccination programs in infected herds found that vaccinated pigs have reduced incidence and severity of ileitis and greater average daily gain compared with nonvaccinated pigs. Also noted were reduced lesions that can compromise nutrient absorption, as well as reduced fecal shedding of the bacteria. 

“We are continuing to research the role Lawsonia intracellularis has on gut health and performance,” Leite says. “As we do, we gain a deeper understanding of how disease pressures can have a direct impact on overall feed efficiency and performance."

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