Farmers around the world are feeling the earth shift beneath their feet as a new landscape of expectations takes hold for agriculture.
Sustainability issues from environmental stewardship to animal welfare are becoming critical to market acceptance and social licence. This includes use of antibiotics, as Tyson, Walmart, and a host of others implement restricted-use policies.
It’s daunting terrain for many, but one of the leaders in this area is Spring Creek Hutterite Colony in Walsh. The Hutterite colony has quietly shifted to increased use of feed enzymes and other feed supplements based on natural processes to reduce antibiotic use and increase health and productivity benefits from feed.
“We spend a lot of time looking ahead,” said Paul Hofer, the colony’s swine manager. “We’re always thinking about not only how we can improve on the farm but what the consumer wants and how we can provide that. You have to do that in this business. If it works on the farm and it fits what the consumer wants, that’s the direction we go. Our philosophy is, if you’re not moving ahead, you’re moving behind.”
Members of the colony — one of the largest Prairie landholders and a major swine and poultry producer, as well as dairy and beef producer — focus on relationships with trusted farm advisers and suppliers.
“It’s all about being connected,” said Hofer. “We attend a lot of meetings — all the major ones in North America and some in other parts of the world. We hear all the new knowledge, meet all these different connections and also email back and forth on what’s coming out, what’s new and what the packer wants, what the consumer wants. We need to be out there and alert to be on the cutting edge.”
The colony takes the view that “the consumer is always right,” he said.
“We have to listen to them and we have to work with them,” he said. “We’re not producing pigs or cows or chickens, we’re producing meat and we need to provide the meat that the consumer wants. The closer we are in our thinking to the supermarket and the dinner plate, the better off we are. Our thinking is to be as much natural and antibiotic free as possible.”
Feed enzymes and other biological-based feed supplements offer efficiency and productivity benefits that make sense in their own right, said Hofer, who oversees the colony’s feed mill.
“We’ve used enzymes for a long time and we use a lot of enzymes now,” he said. “We get more nutrition and energy out of the feed and it really makes a difference. With the top options we use, it’s not hard to get $10 to $15 more per pig from that investment. Plus, it fits what the market wants today and is better environmentally.”
Hofer currently uses several enzyme products, which become active once ingested. One is a phytase product, which is used for managing phosphorus nutrition for swine, optimizing performance and health, and reducing phosphorus excretion. He also uses multi-carbohydrase enzyme products, which break down particular feed components that otherwise would be hard or impossible for the animal to digest. A multi-carbohydrase approach requires developing unique formulations where the different activities complement one another.
“There are five to seven enzyme activities in the main feed efficiency products we use, and that’s why we use them,” said Hofer. “You get more feed breakdown with more activities so the efficiency and value is much higher… Part of the reason we go with multiple activities you just get more happening during what we sometimes forget is a small window of opportunity. You have to keep in mind the animals only have so much time to digest and the clock is ticking.”
The colony also uses another bio-based feed supplement designed to mimic the activity of beneficial nucleotides to stimulate intestinal development and improve immunity, particularly in young animals. The product improves average daily gain and feed intake, while enhancing nutrient absorption and gut health, said Hofer.
The colony isn’t totally antibiotics free, but is operating that way much of the time.
“As much as we liked antibiotics for a number of reasons in the past, today we only want to use them when we really need them for health issues. And overall, we don’t end up needing them very much. So we’re pretty much there. And it’s good because we keep getting pressure and we can expect more demands like we’re seeing from Walmart.”
But the shift came with a major learning curve.
“There’s not one size fits all so you need knowledge and you need people you trust who have the expertise,” said Hofer. “There is something new coming out every day and a lot of it is good, but you need to be careful because there is also a lot of garbage coming out.
“You need to see the research and the data. You have to be careful how you spend your dollar because the margins are pretty slim and mistakes are expensive.”
Sophisticated record-keeping is also critical, and the colony uses the latest software and technology to collect real-time data to measure performance.
“For example, as soon as we started using multi-carbohydrase technology, we could see health and productivity shot up. It’s better for the animals’ digestive system so you get far less issues. And you get clearly better growth performance and feed efficiency — average daily gain is amazingly better.”
When it comes to health, a lot of the focus is “prevention is the best medicine,” he said.
“We can see a small investment in prevention is really not a cost at all because it avoids expensive problems. A lot of this has become routine now for us — for example, we do a lot of acidifiers in the water for gut health — the healthier that animal is, there’s less chance of getting different bugs.”
While he expects there will be greater restrictions on things such as antibiotics in the years ahead, there will also be new alternatives.
“You never know what will turn up next. I was in a meeting (recently) in Regina and there’s a product out there now that has the same effect as a glass of wine — it will calm the sows and it’s a natural product. Europe is there already with a lot of unique approaches and there’s a lot we can learn.
“I’m an optimist and I think that’s how our industry needs to approach things. When one door closes another one opens. When you look at all the new tools emerging, it’s a great time to be in this business. I am looking forward to the future.”