Farmers in Denmark adjust to livestock antibiotic ban
by Adam Compton on 8/4/2010

Farmers in Denmark adjust to livestock antibiotic ban


Denmark is to hogs in Europe what Iowa is in the United States. So the Danes can provide lessons for U.S. farmers and the Obama administration when it comes to restricting the use of antibiotics on hog farms.

The nation banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in hogs in the 1990s, a step that the Obama administration is proposing for U.S. farms. That move cut antibiotic use by 40 percent.

Denmark next halted the use of antibiotics for anything other than treating ill animals. Farms could no longer give antibiotics to young pigs to prevent them from getting ill, a practice that became common decades ago in the United States and Europe as pigs were weaned earlier so farms could get as many litters as possible from their sows.

The second restriction resulted in an actual increase in total antibiotic use as farmers found themselves treating more sick pigs, a fact that's often cited by the U.S. industry in arguing against restrictions on the drugs' use.

Danish farmers have been forced to make changes in their operations, including keeping newborn pigs with their mothers for a week longer, to try to protect them from getting ill.

Still, antibiotic usage has increased in recent years faster than hog production has grown, a Danish food safety official told a U.S. House committee recently.

Per Henriksen, a veterinarian, told the panel the government is flagging farms that exceed a certain level of antibiotics and requiring them to cut back.

Kaj Munck, who produces 10,000 hogs a year near Copenhagen, says raising pigs with his country's antibiotic restrictions requires paying more attention to the pigs' health and feed than farmers did previously.

That means checking for sick animals daily. Barn floors are heated in the winter to keep the animals warm. Pigs are weaned at 28 days rather than the previous 21. Pigs are more susceptible to disease the earlier they are weaned.

Munck has had mixed success with alternatives to drugs as growth promoters. He's tried both probiotics, products that can replace one form of bacteria with another, and zinc oxide.

"When the ban came I was very much against it," Munck said at a briefing for congressional aides arranged by the Pew on Human Health and Industrial Farming, an advocacy group. "Now, I think it's one of the best things that has happened to the Danish farmers. Today it's more interesting taking care of pigs."

The number of farms in Denmark has fallen from 35,000 in 1998 to 6,000 today, while production has risen nearly 20 percent.

Denmark has about 27 million hogs, compared with about 20 million in Iowa.

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