In October 2014, I was delighted to be awarded a 2015 Nuffield Farming Scholarship, sponsored by the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society, to study “Alternatives to antibiotics in Agriculture”. I looked at production systems in Aquaculture, pig, poultry layers, poultry broilers, dairy, beef and sheep sectors in Europe, Pacific Rim countries and Northern America. What I learned by studying fish farming opened a “can of worms” that allowed me to dig down into the issues on farm for each species that cause the need for antibiotics. My findings changed my career path, changed the way I looked at the problem of resistant bacteria, and led to the incorporation of Pruex Ltd to take the lead in the fight against Anti-Microbial Resistance.
In Norway, I learned that fish farmers can sell sick fish, but can’t sell dead fish. Rather than stimulate immunity to help fight infections in their fish, they feed a high saturated fat diet with the aim of suppressing immunity. This thinking was “Upside down” for me. By lowering the immune response, their fish suffer from less inflammation of vital organs, and as a result, mortality decreases. The fish are still infected, but ultimately make the marketplace.
I kept asking myself the same old questions: Is the pig industry different to aquaculture? Do the pigs with the strongest immune response just fall down dead due to inflammation? Should we be suppressing our pigs’ immunity to keep them alive as opposed to stimulating the immunity to fight off infections?
Whilst studying Broiler Chicken production in Canada, I explained to an experienced operator how, in the UK, at the end of every crop we wash, use detergent, disinfectant, fog, mist, and even burn our surfaces ahead of re population with the next crop. He obviously thought I was mad to suggest such a protocol. He explained that they clean their building once a year. I thought he was mad to put a new crop of chicks on the previous crops litter. He calmly replied, that if you have good bacteria in your shed, don’t kill it. I had no idea at that point what he meant, but I kept asking myself some pretty fundamental questions: Why if animals don’t live is sterile conditions do we attempt to disinfect the environments we keep them in? How do you know if you have good bacteria in your shed? If we disinfect our farm animals’ environments, how do they still manage to get sick?
The large farming companies I studied that achieve premiums by differentiating their end market meat products by claiming “Raised without antibiotics”, or “No Antibiotics ever”, all had one thing in common. They knew exactly which bacteria were causing infections in their animals. They take swabs of surfaces, culture and identify the infective bacteria in their animals’ environments and water sources. They modulate their hygiene protocols accordingly, and reduce the need for antibiotics by limiting infections. The evidence they generated on farm enabled them to limit infections. They didn’t assume that disinfection at certain times in their production cycle controlled the amount of infective bacteria their animals face. They assumed that the bad bugs overcome disinfection. They measured the potential risks their animals faced.
I started Pruex Ltd, Prudent not excessive antibiotic use, to help farmers in the UK do the same. We train farmers to swab, culture and incubate bacteria present in their animals’ environments. This allows them to modulate their hygiene protocols to limit the risk of infection on their farm. Typically farmers comment that there is no point swabbing a certain farrowing building as it was recently disinfected. The results of such swabs clearly demonstrate the presence of biofilm, that is, the nest of bad bacteria that survive disinfection to go on and re-populate the void generated by the cleaning process. In other words, we kill off both good and bad bacteria by cleaning, and allow the tough bad ones that are hidden away in biofilm to repopulate our surfaces and water sources. Farmers are amazed at the level of E.Coli and other nasties present in the biofilm that populate the insides of their water pipes, drinking nipples, disinfected heat pads, and slats.
Fig.1 Extreme biofilm in water pipes from Borehole. Copyright Pruex Ltd
To keep young animals healthy, water quality is paramount. I certainly wouldn’t want to drink water from a pipe with such a putrid biofilm as the example in Fig.1. And wouldn’t like my piglets to drink it either. There’s no wonder piglets scour if they drink water containing infective bacteria fuelled by biofilm. Farmers get quite angry when they realize that their water sanitation systems only suppress biofilm in their water pipes and don’t totally remove it.
Once we know which bacteria are causing infections in pig buildings, we help farmers ensure that their buildings are dominated with non-infective bacteria. Rather than attempt to kill all bacteria, we populate their environments with non-infective bacteria. This reduces the infective bacteria challenge the animals face.
The culture plates in Fig.2 illustrate the importance of generating evidence of the source of infection. It shows good bacteria being dominant in both the farrowing building (Farr) and the flat decks (FD). The middle plate (FD Water) shows small putrid smelling green colonies of infective bacteria present in the water the weaned pigs have to drink. The water itself is treated with Chlorine Dioxide, but the water the pigs drink is contaminated by biofilm at the point of drinking. Mortality in this building is high. The pigs are fed a medicated ration, which no doubt kills non-infective bacteria in the animal’s gut, which is probably replaced, by the putrid bacteria in the water source. The assumption was always that the water was clean because it was disinfected.
Fig. 2 Culture Plates Copyright Pruex Ltd
Pruex use good or non-infective bacteria to limit the dominance of bad or infective bacteria in our farm animals’ environments. We educate and train farmers in the use of on farm culturing as a means of generating evidence of infective bacterial challenge. We tell consumers of the good work done in agriculture to limit Anti-Microbial Resistance. As an industry, we need consumers to understand that human misuse of antibiotics, as opposed to a misuse in agriculture is responsible for the escalation of Anti-Microbial Resistance.
Typically farmers comment that applying non-infective bacteria to water and surfaces, and swabbing, culturing and incubating cost more than just disinfecting, but farming animals that aren’t sick and don’t require medicated feed is worth it. I do think that as an industry we are farming sick pigs, but recognize that based on evidence we can limit the need for antibiotics on our farms and keep truly healthy animals. I started Pruex to help.
If you want to take bacterial loading pressure off your pigs by cleaning their water pipes, then contact Pruex.
Aled Rhys Davies.