Monthly Archives: March 2013

Are Antibiotics Required To Raise Livestock? 


This week, I had an e-mail from a man who is interested in raising his own livestock.  He is currently in the learning and planning phase and had the following question:

“One of the guys at my work said it is impossible to raise hogs without antibiotics.  Is this true?  I don’t think it’s true, but thought I’d ask.”

Below is my initial response to him:

“In five years I have used one antibiotic on a pig, and that was this past fall.  I had one that caught pneumonia and was sure to die if I didn’t (watched that happen three other times).  I’ve raised over 220 pigs in that time so no that is absolutely false.  He doesn’t know what he is talking about, or more likely is just regurgitating what he has been taught.  Now in a confinement application what he states is true, due to the rampant disease and bacteria.  But that isn’t farming, and it’s a lazy way to raise animals.”

Let me expound upon this question, as it routinely comes up in farming circles about not just pigs, but most any livestock.  The main reason farms give antibiotics is a preventative measure, not to actually treat an acute problem or disease.  Sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in watering system and medicated feed accounts for 80% of all antibiotic drug use in the United States!  That’s right, only 20% go to human beings.  And we wonder why antibiotic resistant strains of bugs are popping up everywhere!

Now, in a confinement application where animals are simply kept in a barn with no access to fresh air, pasture and sunshine (nature’s natural way of sterilizing things) this is a true statement.  No animal can live in a manure and bacteria infested environment without the aid of drugs.   But that is not how nature intended them to live now is it?  Take for instance the lowly pig, often regarded as the dirtiest of all farm animals.  And in these aforementioned conditions, it is.  A hog will root thru and eat its own manure when left to that end, and then turn right around and sleep in it.  Obviously, this is going to stimulate disease and necessitate the use of pharmaceuticals.

However, if our goal is to mimic nature inside of a production model then we will raise our hogs in the forest, just like is done in nature.  When placed in this setting, the hog is actually the cleanest barnyard animal.  When confined to an area out in the woods, they will actually establish a “bathroom” area(s) and will not eat the vegetation in that spot until all other vegetation is consumed.  If we rotate them in a timely manner, this issue never occurs and we move them off of old excrement where bacteria flourishes and into a new paddock with clean vegetation.  This breaks the cycle of many pathogens, parasites and bacteria that can cause disease.  Add to that the fresh air and disinfectant sunshine and our problems are almost completely eliminated.

I mentioned earlier that I used, for the first time, an antibiotic in 2012 on an animal.  Pigs are extremely hardy creatures, and very resilient even if they get sick.  But, just like humans their weakness is the respiratory system.  Given that we are raising them in the woods with shelter provided by large, mature hardwood trees and bushes, it’s not uncommon for one of them to catch a cold.  This can sometimes lead to pneumonia, which in my experience has not ended well.  I’ve had three hogs die from this in the past five years and know the signs well now.  I’ve also had two or three recover, and this most recent case was headed the wrong direction for certain.  So begrudgingly I called our vet and picked up an antibiotic to give him.  I will say, within 12 hours that guy was running around and bouncing all over the place.  The drug worked, and we saved his life.  Given that we have raised over 200 pigs to date, I don’t feel too bad about using one dose in one instance.  However, my goal is still not to have to use anything ever again.

But, to say that you can’t raise hogs without antibiotics not true.  There are literally hundreds, and probably thousands, of small farmers just like me proving that everyday all over the country.  If we will simply try and mimic nature in our production system, the animals will take care of themselves for the most part.  We don’t have to over think things and simply need to keep ourselves from getting in the way.  God wired these guys up to live just fine without our help, try and keep that in mind during your own farming adventures.

Starting Spring Chicks

If you are planning on raising meat birds this Spring, or starting some layer chicks now is the time to be planning and getting things in motion.  When buying chicks, you have a couple of different options available to you.

First, you can order direct from a hatchery.  The advantages to this are that you get to order exactly what you want, have them arrive when you want, and typically pay a lower premium than buying the chicks from a local farm store.  However, shipping costs on smaller orders can make this prohibitive or eliminate any potential savings.  Consider ordering chicks for yourself and friends, neighbors or relatives to split the shipping costs and to take advantage of quantity pricing breaks.  You may also find that this is the only way to get meat birds, or at least the faster growing varieties such as a Cornish cross. While some farm stores carry those, not all do.  You might be able to find some heritage cockerels locally in a farm store which can produce a nice meat for you, but they take considerably longer to raise (at least twice as long) and will have a darker, smaller breast meat than most Americans are accustomed to.  If you want a heritage meat bird, then buying from a hatchery direct can be a great way to save money.  The male chicks are usually a fraction of the price from a hatchery as those in a farm store because they are in low demand.

The main thing to consider when buying from a hatchery is it’s location relative to you!  Shipping stress is your greatest enemy with day old chicks, and the longer they are in that box while in transit, the more problems (and deaths) you will have.  Personally, I prefer to use a hatchery that will get the birds to me in just one night.  Two nights are okay so long as you pick those birds up first thing that next morning and get them tucked into your warm brooder setup as quickly as possible.  Most likely, your post office will have them on hand by 6:00 a.m. and are all to happy to have you come pick them up.  Beyond that, use a hatchery with a good reputation.  I’ll list several hatcheries I like at the end of this article.  For more on brooder management, please check this article I wrote.

Picking up birds from your local Tractor Supply, Rural King or similar type store also has it’s own pro’s and con’s.  First, you can get as few (or as many) as you like and it’s easy to mix and match breeds to meet your fancy or satisfy your kid’s desire for a specific color.  Also, the birds will be at least a few days old when you pick them up, which means they are past that crucial 72 hour period after they get unloaded from the shipping box.  This lets the farm store take all the initial risk.  And, they have been fed for a week by someone else.  The bad news is, we have no idea what they have been eating for the past week!  Typically, this will have been medicated, genetically modified feed which I’m adamantly opposed to for many reasons. I always suggest trying to source gmo free grain, or even spending the added cost for certified organic grain to feed your livestock.  You are what your food ate!

Also, you will normally pay a much higher premium for layer chicks early in the season than if ordering direct.  These chicks are also at the mercy of minimum wage store staff who may, or may not, be taking good care of them.  Problems arising from mismanagement may not be evident until later on in the birds life.  The good news is, if the chicks are a week or two old and have survived in that environment, then you probably have some pretty hearty birds to take home and raise.  It’s also a great way to buy 3 or 4 chicks, get your feet wet and give this whole chicken thing a try if you are new to it.  Lastly, if you roll the dice and wait until later in the season to buy from a local store, just like everything else they go on clearance.  I had a friend of mine who once cleaned out a Tractor Supply of their leftover stock for .50/chick and they were already 6-8 weeks old, or a third of the way home to producing eggs.  If you are an opportunist, this might be a good route to consider.  You can also add your name to a mailing list for hatcheries who will sometimes discount overruns or orders that get canceled at the last minute.  You can also call a hatchery to see if they have any extras they would be willing to sell at a discount.

Here are some hatcheries I’ve personally had good success with over the years.  We are currently using S&G Poultry out of Alabama for all of our meat birds.  While I have not tried any of their laying hens, I suspect they would impress just as much as their heritage white broiler has done:

Remember, the main thing is how fast the chicks can get to you.  Every hatchery will be able to tell you how many nights they will be in the mail, make certain it isn’t more than two.  While they will tell you chicks are fine for three nights, in my experience the shipping stress is just too much, especially for quick growing broilers.