Raising livestock while practicing antibiotic stewardship

I have had a passion for pigs, sustainable farming, family and community since I was five years of age. That is when I was first given the responsibility of taking care of the runt and orphaned pigs that were raised on our 220 acre family farm in Osage County, Missouri. My family and community taught me the importance of doing the right thing. I feel fortunate to have grown up in the 60’s and 70’s in the small rural town of Frankenstein. I learned lessons of stewardship, responsibility, and cooperation at a young age. I also learned that a rural economy could truly be sustained by viable, independent family farms, competitive markets, community-based main street businesses, and re-investment of resources by loyal residents back into their community.

Russ as a child, playing with a piglet. Credit: author.
Russ as a child, playing with a piglet. Credit: author.

After getting my Animal Husbandry degree from the University of Missouri, I came home to farm with my dad. Within a couple of years, I convinced my dad that we needed to expand the swine enterprise. In my mind, expanding the herd and constructing confinement hog buildings would improve our operational efficiencies, which, in turn, would satisfy the need of the farm to provide another income.

The structure of the pork industry was changing significantly at this time. Consolidation, concentration, and vertical integration was gaining steam and independent producers got caught up in implementing the modern technology and systems that the industry leaders, bankers, and educational institutions insisted would keep up us competitive. This technology included farrowing and gestation crates, slatted floors, waste lagoons and deep indoor pits, and early weaning of pigs. Allied industry promoted the constant inclusion of sub-therapeutic  antibiotics and other additives in feed to improve growth performance and feed efficiency, as well as to keep chronic bacterial infections in check.

A few years after I adopted these practices, I realized pig farming wasn’t enjoyable and rewarding like it was when I was a kid. Chronic illnesses in all stages of production, significantly higher mortality rates, and decreases in overall efficiency and productivity took over. I spent a large portion of my day treating sick pigs and carrying off mortalities caused by a myriad of enteritis, respiratory, reproductive, and arthritic diseases.

Postmortem and serology procedures on my mortalities revealed that the bacterial pathogens that were causing these illnesses were resistant to almost all antibiotics available to me. Typically, the serology analysis would show that these diseases were resistant to 8 antibiotics that were commonly used for human treatment and sensitive to one new generation of antibiotic. Treatment choices were dwindling rapidly. Superbugs were indeed being created on my farm.

Pigs in a typical modern farm are cramped, stressed, and unhealthy. Credit: Wikimedia.
Pigs in a typical modern farm are cramped, stressed, and unhealthy. Credit: Wikimedia.

But I didn’t realize the significance and consequences of my farming practices until 1989. That spring, I got gored in the knee cap by a Yorkshire boar as I was driving him toward a pen of breeding gilts. As farming injuries occur occasionally, I put off seeking medical attention until 3 weeks later, when my infected leg had swollen to nearly twice its normal size.

My physician diagnosed my problem as an infection caused by a Streptococcus bacteria and assured me that the penicillin he prescribed would soon cure me. Unfortunately, the penicillin had absolutely no effect on my infection. No improvement resulted after subsequent treatments of streptomycin, erythromycin, amoxicillin and a couple of other tetracycline-class antibiotics.

My condition worsened as the infection spread. I knew that I was going to die if we couldn’t figure out a solution soon. I then realized that I was experiencing the same frustrations with my hog operation and that I had become infected with the same antibiotic resistant bacteria that my pigs had at home.

I immediately consulted with my doctor and a serology test on my infection proved my theory was correct. I was admitted to the hospital and given the human version of cephalosporin, the lone antibiotic that was able to stop the bacterial infection in my pigs.

As I recovered from my illness, I was overtaken by remorse for my participation in a system of farming that threatened the health of consumers, the welfare of my animals and the environment. I vowed to take a better path and immediately began the development and implementation of a new, sustainable farming operation.

I started over on a 150-acre farm that I had purchased from my great aunt. It was a secluded, clean location with natural barriers of wooded hillsides and ridge tops with forest species of oak, hickory, and hard maple. With my own sustainably-produced lumber, I built pig housing that utilized deep bedding and natural ventilation and allowed for ample unrestricted movement for the hogs. I established paddocks to rotationally graze pigs on meadows and woodlands.

Russ hanging out with his happy, healthy, antibiotics-free pigs.
Russ hanging out with his happy, healthy, antibiotics-free pigs.

I purchased healthy, C-section derived breeding hogs and preserved my heirloom genetics through embryo transfer. These bloodlines were selected for the ability to thrive in more natural environments, an excellent immune system, the ability to rear large healthy litters without the use of farrowing crates, and excellent meat quality. I did not use any antibiotics, meat byproducts, steroids, and any unnecessary chemicals or additives. Instead, heeding lessons from my grandfather’s generation, I designed a wholesome, natural feeding program using farm grown whole grains and natural fibers such as oats and flax, supplementing this with probiotics and enzymes.

I built a sustainable, holistic, diversified system in which humane production and handling, less animal concentration, proper nutrition, and a selected crossbreeding system using heritage varieties replaced the need for sub-therapeutic antibiotics and other production crutches.

The strategy worked. My pigs have been drug-free since 1989. Post-weaning survivability rates have been near 99% and feed efficiency is at industry standards. I have virtually eliminated $16,000 per year in veterinarian and animal treatment related expenses since I made the conversion. Tedious chores of treating pigs, cutting tails and clipping needle teeth have been eliminated. But the greatest fulfillment comes from the sense that this was the right thing to do.

My objective was to eliminate any fear or stress on my animals. The result is that the pigs now are healthy and happy. They are a joy to be around.

I feel an obligation to teach others and demonstrate that this method of farming is profitable.

The pork industry trends of consolidation and vertical integration accelerated in the 1990’s. More and more, independent pork producers like myself were considered residual suppliers to the large pork packers. Most of the independent supply was captive, secured by production contracts. The vulnerability of independent producers came to a crashing reality in the fall of 1998, when the bid for market hogs dipped to as low as 8 cents per pound of dress carcass weight. Many producers exited the business when these Depression-era prices hit. But some of us determined producers decided to explore alternative marketing systems. We had a passion for pigs and this livelihood and wanted to provide an opportunity for the next generation.

I traveled to Europe in early 1999 to explore and examine possible options. I noticed a movement occurring there that was being driven by consumers demanding sustainable food.

In the United Kingdom, I was inspired by the fact that they wanted to know who produced their food, where it was produced, and how it was produced. Farmers that raised animals the right way were heralded by the consumers like rock stars.

In Italy, I was introduced to the Slow Food Movement and, while in the Parma region, truly saw how its people treated good sustainable food as a function of life rather than a quick fuel that we had become accustomed to in the U.S.

In Germany, I learned about holistic and homeopathic remedies from a retired veterinarian who developed a cooperative of 100 farmers producing hogs without antibiotics. They owned a small, yet modern, value added processing plant in a joint venture with regional butchers who provided a ready market.

Day-old piglets on Russ’s farm.
Day-old piglets on Russ’s farm.

I was inspired by what I learned in Europe and concluded that the real and authentic relationships those farmers had developed with consumers was the best approach for small- and medium-sized farms in the U.S. to remain in business.

Shortly after I returned from Europe, I helped organize and became president of a farmer-owned pork cooperative. We recruited 52 farm families that shared the vision of raising and processing hogs that were antibiotic-free, humanely raised, and vegetarian fed. Together, we organized a small, community-based processing plant in the Ozarks.

For the first 6 years, we struggled to keep the business afloat due to a shortage of the 3-M’s: Money, Management, and Marketing.

We overcame the marketing challenge by applying what I had learned in Europe about relationship marketing. I personally started knocking on doors, telling our story and showing our high quality products to potential customers. Because of this, we were able to build solid and personal relationships with loyal strategic customers including Whole Foods Market, Chipotle Mexican Grill, D’Artagnan, La Quercia, and Chef’s Warehouse.

We got over the money and management hurdle by partnering with experienced and successful artisan processors who shared the same vision of producing food humanely with integrity, treating all participants in the value chain with dignity, and providing an opportunity for the next generation to enter the business.

Through our cooperative effort with Heritage Foods, we have built a vertically coordinated production, marketing, and distribution system. It truly is an equitable food system.

One of the most important sustainable aspects of this organizational structure is that it is trans-generational. There is enough profitability to encourage the next generation to follow in our footsteps.

Since we use the most sanitary, eco-friendly techniques, we believe that our pork products are the healthiest, safest, and best-tasting. Recently, our business was one of 15 organizations in North America awarded the prestigious Community Impact Award for its outstanding social and economic benefit to its local community.

I appreciate the many farmers who have had the courage to buck the trend of conventional production and are helping build a better path. I also appreciate the many consumers who advocate for and support sustainable farming by buying our products.

I commit to educating, demonstrating, and evangelizing the need for sustainable food systems, and will do what I can to inspire and assist the development of these new models of hope.

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