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The time to say Cu to Copper is nigh

Dr Steve Jagger, Pig Nutritionist at ABN, explains the implications of copper reduction for the wider pig industry and what’s currently being done at ABN to replace it.

Since the day pig nutrition pioneer Dr Raphael Braude observed that a group of pigs which had been licking the copper pipes in his research lab had better growth rates than other litters, copper has been used in young pig diets to improve growth and protect gut health. Today, 70 years on from Dr Braude’s incidental discovery, new EU Regulations on reducing copper in feed are now in force (as of 13 August 2018) and the pig industry is once again turning to nutritionists to find its alternative.  

Why is copper used in young pig diets?

Copper has been used in young pig diets for many years. Together with zinc oxide – which the European Commission has voted to ban completely by 2022 – it provides critical dietary supplements in the post-weaning period, helping to address common gut health issues and increase growth as the animals adjust to solid food. Copper also reduces the need for antibiotics to treat enteric diseases in post-weaned pigs, thereby delivering on industry health targets.   

Why do we need to reduce copper?

Due to the high levels of copper in young pig diets, there are concerns about the environmental impact it has when excreted by the animals.

What do the changes mean?

Originally, the proposal was far more drastic than the one which has now been approved. The initial recommended drop in maximum copper levels in nutrition for piglets younger than 12 weeks was 170 mg to 25 mg per kilo of feed - a reduction of almost 85%. Research shows that such a reduction in copper could increase post-weaning diarrhoea and create a 40g fall in animal growth rates in the first 12 weeks of life. But, thanks to lobbying by the FEFAC, a more realistic plan to decrease levels over time has been approved.

The requirements per kilo of feed now stand at 150mg for piglets up to four weeks after weaning, and 100mg from five to eight weeks after weaning.

Although not as extreme as first put forward, the reduction of copper use is still significant and has the potential, if not addressed, to have a detrimental impact on the industry in terms of, pig growth rates and pig farming yields and economics. Given copper’s proven benefits to gut health, it’s imperative that the industry is actively seeking an alternative to ensure that pig health is maintained.  

So what is being done to find alternatives?

The good news is that the industry has been conducting research into nutritional alternatives for copper in post-weaning diets and that includes here at ABN. Finding a solution to the copper reduction issue has been a significant area of focus.

ABN’s research and development programme covers three key pillars: efficiency, health and piglet viability. One of our main focuses has been on the health and efficiency of pigs with the reduction in copper.

Myself and my colleague, Tegan Sutton, have conducted a number of different research trials to look at new options to supplement lower copper levels in young pig feed to ensure that performance is maintained. For example, we are working with the University of Leeds to understand the benefits of acidification in low copper diets on gut health and growth. Tegan’s research examines the effect of an acid blend on the performance of growing pigs, to see if we can balance the impact of reducing copper with other supplements. The results of this trial have found that there is a significant positive effect of the acids (Trt A & B) on final body weight, average daily gain, and feed conversion ratio (Table 1). Trt A & B increased the average daily gain by 56-58g/d, compared to control. All of the diets were low in copper, proving that acids can replace the growth lost by its reduction.

Table 1: Effect of acids on the performance of growing pigs.

 

Treatment

 

Control

Trt A

Trt B

P-value

Start Wt, kg

14.424

14.555

14.543

0.166

Final BW, kg

37.804a

39.895b

39.927b

<0.001

ADFI, kg

1.259

1.248

1.279

0.663

ADG, kg

0.668a

0.724b

0.726b

<0.001

FCR

1.894a

1.726b

1.769ab

0.025

Our ABN-sponsored trials join a body of research being conducted elsewhere in the industry, both in the UK and beyond, including extensive work in Denmark and the Netherlands to investigate the influence of copper on diets at different concentration levels and durations. 

Together, these research studies seek to understand fully the impact of the changes, how they can be mitigated, and what alternatives might be used to promote pig growth rates and minimise gut health problems.

While we’re unlikely to find a simple solution, as an industry we have already made significant progress.  For example, our research indicates that, in some cases, acid is able to deliver a similar level of performance in young pigs as higher copper levels by protecting the gut to reduce infection, showing that we can offset a significant reduction in copper by adding acid to pig feed. 

As a result, we have already increased the acid level of our weaner feed to provide our customers with reassurance by giving them new options for high performance feed. Our work is ongoing but we are committed to working closely with other producers, nutritionists and scientists to find a way forward for the industry.

Looking ahead to the next few years, it’s clear that change is inevitable. Although this level of change to piglet nutrition will create uncertainty, the industry and its leaders continue to actively seek solutions to ensure that pig health is maintained and pig farmers’ margins and productivity are protected. 

 

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