Profitable Antibiotic-Free Pork Production

By Darwin Kohler, DVM; James Schneider, PhD and Chad Bierman, MS, Babcock Genetics, Inc., Rochester, Minnesota, as published in the North Carolina University, Swine News Volume 31 No 6.
calendar icon 13 June 2008
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Antibiotics have been added to livestock feeds in the U.S. since FDA approval in 1951.(3) Over 13 million pounds of antibiotics were added to feed in 2002. Over 80% was for non-therapeutic use.(1) The use of antibiotic in livestock feeds is meeting with increasing opposition. The controversy revolves around the level of antibiotic fed to livestock for non-therapeutic use, which in turn causes an increase in bacterial resistance in humans and known allergic reactions or toxicity. The consumers of meat products today are asking for a more ‘natural’ food product. European opposition has been stronger than in the U.S. A ban of over-the-counter antibiotics was implemented in Sweden in 1986, Norway in 1992, Finland in 1996, Denmark in 1998, and Poland and Switzerland in 1999(2). Current EU regulations state that antimicrobials used in either human or in veterinary therapeutic medicine are prohibited from use as feed-additive growth promoters in livestock.

Table 1 illustrates technical assumptions that would be the most likely effects on pork production efficiency if a ban on over-the-counter feed antibiotics were to occur in the United States. The table is based on the Swedish experience coupled with various expert opinions. Today, one form of antibiotic free (ABF) pork production is beginning to be used in the United States. It is based on no birth-to-market antibiotic use of any kind, no growth promotants, no natural or artificial hormones, no ionophores, no animal proteins and no animal byproducts. Can antibiotic free (ABF) pork production be more successful in the United States than indicated in Table 1?


The case study is a 1,000-sow farrow to finish conventional confinement system using Babcock Genetics. This system has been closed to live animal introduction since 1996. Management was interested in pursuing ABF pork production. Small amounts of antibiotic had been used or needed in their herd, and a premium was being offered for antibiotic free pork. Pigs are vaccinated for Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae. PRRS is stable. Gilts are raised internally and there is an off-site boar stud. Since December 2004 no antibiotics, growth promotants, or animal byproducts have been used in pigs from birth to market. The farm maintains records of inoculations, illnesses and injuries, treatments, etc. Very few pigs require treatment. If prohibited medication is used in treatment, the pigs are marked for identification and are sent to conventional markets. Products such as zinc, copper, probiotics, enzymes, botanicals, enzymes, mannan oligosaccharides, egg antibodies, oil of oregano, and organic acids are allowed to be used in place of antibiotics in the ABF program. These products are not necessary in this herd and are not in use as replacements for antibiotics.


Table 2 shows the sow herd performance before and after ABF. The ABF program does allow for antibiotic usage in the sow herd. Antibiotic usage in the sow herd changed little over the six-year period. Comparisons of traits between the before ABF and after ABF are both positive and negative and show no consistent advantage to the use of antibiotics. Pigs had received an antibiotic at birth before ABF. The expectation would be an increase in pre-weaning mortality. An increase from 8.2% to 9.9% did occur but was not reflected in pigs weaned per mated female per year. Adjusted 21 day litter weaning weight is 13 pounds heavier after ABF with an increase in pounds weaned per sow per year of 8%. Only pre-weaning mortality was in agreement with the negative predictions shown in Table 1.

Table 3 shows the herd’s finishing performance before and after ABF. Although previous reports show poorer performance with ABF production, few differences are noted here. Only feed conversion showed a noticeable drop in performance.

Profitability comparisons are shown in Table 4. The Production Profitability Calculator was developed by Babcock personnel to make comparisons between various alternatives. All comparisons are adjusted to a common entry-weight (feeder pig weight), market weight, base market price and feed cost. Other assumptions may be seen in Table 5. No changes were seen in average daily gain, pigs weaned / sow / year or in finisher culls. The manager of the unit indicated that the number of finisher culls was very small before ABF and after ABF. Exact numbers were not available. Poorer feed conversion after ABF resulted in a cost increase of $0.68 per market hog. Sow death loss was actually better after ABF and resulted in a savings of $0.25 per market hog. Finisher death loss was slightly higher after ABF resulting in a cost increase of $0.07 per market hog. Average drug cost before ABF of $0.18 per market hog resulted in a savings after ABF. Pigs were no longer sold grade and yield during the last three years. Carcass yield and percent lean was assumed to be unchanged. Additional ABF premium was calculated as the difference received in harvest price by this herd versus other closed herds of Babcock Genetics utilizing the same feeds, the same management consultants, similar facilities and selling grade and yield to the same market that this herd had been selling to before ABF. Using this method, the additional ABF premium was estimated to be $4.26 per head in 2005 and 2006. The ABF premium tends to inversely fluctuate with the base grade and yield price and is much higher today when market prices are lower than in the previous two years. Current additional ABF premium for November 2007 is $16.62 per head.


Antibiotics are used to treat disease, improve feed efficiency, and promote health in livestock production. Production numbers derived primarily from the European experience have shown cost increases of $5.24 per head when over-the-counter antibiotics were removed from the pig production systems. Most of the increased cost is a result of the decreased production efficiency noted in the Table 1. Little or no differences in production numbers have been observed on this farm. Increase in cost of production has been shown to be $0.32 per head. Success is attributed to the use of appropriate genetics, maintaining a closed herd and maintaining a high level of biosecurity to keep pathogens out. Good management in areas of proper husbandry, nutrition management, environmental control, prompt treatment or removal of sick pigs and attention to detail is essential. Other farms utilizing Babcock Genetics, a closed herd system, plus good biosecurity and good management have also begun to utilize this opportunity. Not only does this case study illustrate the feasibility of ABF production, but it demonstrates significant profit potential in today’s niche markets.


  1. Lusk, J. L., et. al., Consumer Demand for a Ban on 1. Antibiotic Drug Use in Pork Production. American Journal of Agricultural Economics v. 88 no. 4 (November 2006) p. 1015-33.
  2. Hayes, D., H. Jensen, and J. Fabiosa. 1999. Economic 2. Impact of a Ban on Use of Antibiotics in U.S. Swine Rations. ISU Swine Research Report Management/Economics, Iowa Pork Industry Center, Ames, IA. ASL-R1677.
  3. Holden, Palmer, J. Carr, M. Honeyman, J. Kliebenstein, 3. J. McKean, J. Harmon, J. Mabry, S. Hoyer. 2002. Minimizing the use of antibiotics in pork production. Cooperative Extension Service, Iowa State University of Science and Technology, Ames, IA. IPIC 8.


First published from the March 2008 American Association of Swine Veterinarians annual conference.

Submitted by Morgan Morrow.

June 2008

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