NEW APPROACH OFFERS RESPITE FROM TAIL-BITING
Tail biting continues to present a drain on pig producer margins but a new nutritional supplement is helping reduce the extent of tail biting behaviour which could have big benefits.
There is no single factor that causes pigs to begin tail biting, but once they start it can become a hard habit to break. This makes it a frustrating challenge for producers.
Tail biting triggers can be many and varied, for example from environmental factors such as draughts. Factors such as changes in feed supply, changes to the diet and restricted feed space are often associated with an increase in tail biting. Gastric ulcers and ileitis are also linked to the problem.
Veterinary surgeon Fran Baird from the George Pig Practice says “Anything that makes a crabby and irritable animal more crabby and irritable can predispose pigs to tail biting. You have to work to find the trigger and reduce the impact to manage the problem. Once pigs get a taste for tails you will struggle to break the habit and instead have to try to ameliorate the impact.”
Mr Baird stresses that tail biting can lead to significant financial losses. Once a tail is bitten the open wound will bleed and infection can set in. A bitten tail allows environmental bacteria to enter the animal, with more entering every time it is bitten. The bacteria can then spread up the spine causing spinal abscesses resulting in pigs going off their legs. If abscesses are found at multiple sites in the carcase is determined unfit for consumption.
Carcase condemnation is one of the factors making tail biting a major animal welfare and economic problem for the pig industry, reducing liveweight gain and increasing veterinary and treatment costs. The initial drug cost to treat a case of tail biting is around £5.
At average incidence levels in any herd 3-5% of pigs may be affected by tail biting with around 1% requiring euthanasia and a further 1% of carcases being condemned. At these levels the annual cost to a 300 sow breeder feeder farm is around £10,000 in lost pigs with an average of 140 pigs lost or condemned. In addition there is the cost of treatment, care, isolation and reduced growth. In batch systems, losses as high as 30% have been recorded.
Various methods have been used to try and prevent the onset of tail biting behaviour and in farm trials using a new block from Caltech Crystalyx have shown to be effective in reducing the incidence. The company are leaders in the manufacture of high sugar, dehydrated molasses-based blocks and have a significant track record in the ruminant sector.
“Piglyx is a mineralised block, best considered to be an 5kg treacle toffee supplied with a purpose designed, floor mounted holder,” explains David Woodcock from Caltech Crystalyx. “When placed in the holder on the floor of the pen, the exposed surface of the block becomes sticky allowing regular intakes by the pigs while preventing over-consumption.
“The block relies on the principle of environmental enrichment. The most effective environmental enrichment is something that isingestible,chewable and destructible.
“It helps satisfy their natural curiosity and rooting instincts. By giving them something to lick and play with it distracts and occupies them and helps reduce the inclination to tail bite. In pens where there is a known problem, blocks can be put in to help reduce incidence.”
One business that has trialled the block is Devon-based producer Robin Bright and his daughter Rachael who run a 500 sow unit, finishing all progeny. Sows are Landrace x Large White and all gilts are home-reared.
They operate a three week batch farrowing system with 70 sows per batch. They are averaging 2.34 litters per sow with 27.85 pigs weaned per sow per year.
Sows are managed on contract at a farm a short distance from the growing and finishing unit. All pigs are reared on a wet feed system. Around 750-800 pigs will move across every three weeks at an average of 8kg to a weaner unit half a mile from the main unit before moving to the growing and finishing unit at approaching 9 weeks old and 31-32kg.
They are moved into pens of 13-200 depending on the buildings available and stay in the same pen until slaughter. The diet is based on co-products and meal balancer.
The pigs are sold at an average liveweight of 110kg with a maximum liveweight of 124kg at approximately 22 weeks. They are sold on a deadweight contract with Tulip Westerleigh. In total around 13,000 pigs are sold per year.
“Tail biting can be a problem and can knock a hole in our income if carcases are condemned,” comments Rachael Bright. “It also increases treatment costs and complicates management as it takes more time to treat affected animals including the added costs of moving pigs to casualty pens. Staff demotivation can also be an issue.
“We tried the blocks across several pens of pigs throughout their time at the growing and finishing unit. In pens of 40kg pigs a block would last three weeks with 40 pigs, while with the same number of 110kg pigs a block would last a week. This gives an intake of 1.0kg per pig, costing around £1.30.”
Rachael comments that the consequential loss of a condemnation is around £130 to their business so the cost of blocks is not an issue.
“When we compared pens with and without blocks, the results were encouraging. In the pen without the blocks had 11 tail bitten animals and nine condemnations while where blocks were used we have 10 tail bitten pigs but only one condemnation.
“Severity of biting was lower and the only difference was the blocks. There was an 80% reduction in condemnations which in that one pen is worth over £1000.
“The blocks may not remove the problem but they certainly seem to play a major part in reducing the severity.”