Improving health of organic pigs

Quick facts

  • The most common health problems observed on organic pig farms include diarrhea (scours), respiratory issues (coughing and breathing difficulty) and parasites.

  • Once infected by parasites, eradication is difficult. So, prevention is the key to parasite control.

The most common health problems observed on organic pig farms include diarrhea (scours), respiratory issues (coughing and breathing difficulty) and parasites.

These problems echo the results of pathogen load from an early study conducted by researchers at Iowa State University (ISU). According to the 2009 ISU study, internal parasites, swine influenza virus and circovirus were the major pathogens challenging pigs in alternative and organic production systems in the Midwest. These health problems are also observed frequently in organic pigs in Europe according to Fruh, et. al.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea is a multi-factorial problem and can be caused by infection of bacteria and virus, poor immunity, or compromised digestive systems.

Strategies to control diarrhea

  1. Enhance and maintain strong immunity of pigs. All pigs should ingest colostrum and iron after birth, have access to warm/dry/clean bedding and pen, and consume solid feed before weaning.

  2. Prevent disease transmission. Separate sick pigs from their cohort group. Treat sick pigs if needed with the following options:  

  • Provide electrolyte solution (one liter of water, 20 g of glucose, 3.5 g of salt, 2.5 g of baking soda - sodium hydrogen carbonate, 1.5 g of potassium chloride), provided in “Improving health and welfare of pigs.”

  • Provide 1 percent silicon clay in the diet.

  • Feed several meals in small amounts per day.

Respiratory issues

Respiratory issues (coughing and breathing difficulty) can be caused by viral and/or bacterial infections in the respiratory tract or the lungs.

Mycoplasma pneumonia and circovirus are often detected in pigs with respiratory issues housed in bedded barns, according to Yaeger, et. al. Stress can compromise immunity and contribute to the onset of respiratory disease.

Management strategies to reduce respiratory issues

  1. Maintain good air quality (low ammonia and dust level) and proper thermal environment (temperature and humidity) in barns for pigs.

  2. Ventilate the barns properly to maintain ammonia level below 25 ppm, keep room temperature in the appropriate thermoneutral zones, and keep relative humidity between 60 and 80 percent.

  3. Outdoor access can help reduce the impact of bad air quality and high humidity of the barn.

  4. Add fresh bedding as needed to reduce humidity and ammonia.

  5. Put feeders outside to reduce dust.

  6. Stock pigs at a proper density in winter to maintain the facility temperature at a reasonably comfortable level.    

Treatments

Add 2 to 10 g certified organic thyme (dried leaves and flowers)/pig/d in feed for 7 days, according to “Improving health and welfare of pigs.”

Prevention

Vaccinate pigs against influenza, mycoplasma, ileitis and porcine circovirus.

Parasites

The large roundworm (Ascaris) is the most observed internal parasite in organic pigs. Pigs can get infected through consuming parasite eggs and larvae in contaminated pens, yard or pastures.

Infected pigs shed eggs of the parasite six to eight weeks after infection. The eggs will develop into larva in four to six weeks during the summer months when temperature exceeds 15 C (59 F). Below 15 C (59 F.), the eggs can survive and remain infective for six to nine years [4,5].

The majority of pigs develop immunity after infection and consequently, excrete the larvae.  Only a small portion of pigs eventually become hosts of parasites. Larvae will migrate into the liver, leaving white spots in the liver. Eventually, the parasites will reach and reside the small intestine.

Usually a pig has about five to 10 adult worms in the jejunum [4]. Adult worms shed eggs in feces. The eggs have hard thick shells and are resistant to disinfection.

Treatments to control internal parasite infestations

Some producers have noted that using apple cider vinegar, wormwood and garlic may help reduce internal parasite load in pigs. Efficacy of these remedies has yet be investigated.  

Prevention

Once infected by parasites, eradication is difficult. So, prevention is the key to parasite control using the following options:

Gilts

Quarantine newly-purchased gilts for at least 60 days. Float fecal samples for parasite eggs. Deworm the gilts that shed eggs before bringing them into the breeding herd.

Sows

If parasite eggs are found in feces, sows should be dewormed before the last third of gestation. Clean the sows (using soap to wash during warm seasons, or at least remove feces and dirt from the body surface of the sows) before moving to farrowing pens, because feces and dirt can harbor parasite larvae or eggs.  

Farrowing pens

Clean farrowing pens and leave empty for a few days before moving new sows in. Remove feces daily from the farrowing pen. Keep the pen clean and dry because dirty and damp floors will help eggs and larvae survive.

All-in/all-out

Batch farrowing and use all-in/all-out management for pigs at each stage to break parasite cycles. Clean, disinfect with substances allowed by the National Organic Program, and empty each barn between batches.

Pastures

Crop rotation helps kill parasite eggs and larvae because environmental changes will increase the mortality of eggs and larvae, according to Mejer and Roepstorff. Reducing stock density, rotation of grazing and moving feeding station on the pasture will reduce accumulation of parasites on certain areas of pasture. Parasites accumulate more frequently near the barn and feeder areas.

To break the parasite cycle on pasture, it is recommended that the same pasture should not be stocked with pigs for five years, and pigs should access fresh pasture every year.    

Yuzhi Li, associate professor - swine, West Central Research and Outreach Center; Wayne Martin, Extension educator; Bradley Heins, Extension specialist - dairy; Lee Johnston, Extension specialist - swine; William Lazarus, Extension economist; and Joel Tallaksen, scientist, West Central Research and Outreach Center

This work is supported by Organic Agricultural Research and Extension Initiative [Grant# 2017-51300-26817) from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Reviewed in 2018

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