Plant power for the immune system

Why we need plant-based additives now more than ever

With Corona, ever more and stricter regulations, difficult economic conditions and increased social expectations, there is really a lot that livestock farmers, feed manufacturers and producers have to shoulder at present. But their scope for action is often very limited. The pressing question is: How can we become both more ecological and more economic and thus more profitable and successful in the long term? One answer to this is: start with feed and take advantage of the benefits of plant additives. After all, they are versatile and effective in different areas. If we look at broiler production, for example, performance is usually the first indicator of successful production. However, health and the immune system are just as important, as they have a direct influence on current and final performance. One indicator of this is natural resistance, which can be measured using parameters such as phagocytes and lymphocytes. Various experiments have already shown that the activity of these important immune cells can be significantly improved with the help of plant feed additives. For example, plant additives can have a positive effect on the natural defences of broilers. At the same time, growth performance is also improved, which benefits the farmer. A healthy and robust immune system with optimal performance is the basis for the well-being of humans and animals.

Will EU succeed in setting a course for the future?

It may have been an informal meeting, but the issues discussed at the meeting of EU agriculture ministers in Koblenz couldn’t be more pressing. In the course of the German presidency of the Council of the EU, Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Julia Klöckner invited her counterparts to the city on the Rhine. A touristic programme including a boat trip on the Moselle and a visit to a steep-slope vineyard typical of the region  accompanied the talks, which focussed on strengthening agriculture and nutrition in the future and, in particular, promoting social acknowledgement.

Associations, organisations and the industry at large had already shown great interest in the meeting. In fact, ‘Meine Landwirtschaft’, an alliance of more than 50 organisations related to agriculture, called for a peaceful demonstration in the Koblenz city centre on 30 August. Numerous farmers from the surrounding area as well as the neighbouring Benelux countries also came to Koblenz aboard their tractors to support the cause. According to the German Farmers’ Association among others, the coronavirus crisis in particular has clearly shown the relative importance of food and feed production, and it is the ministers’ duty to support such production and make it sustainable. However, animal welfare should not play second fiddle to profitability: the aim should be to address both jointly and enable sustainable, animal-friendly and profitable production.

We will only achieve this if all stakeholders in the value chain contribute to improving animal welfare in any way they can. After all, everyone stands to benefit from improved animal welfare – the animals, farmers, food producers and consumers.

The three most effective measures to improve piglet welfare

There are numerous methods that can be applied in piglet rearing to improve animal welfare. We have selected the three measures which are particularly effective and relevant in practice.

1. Pen design

A pen design that provides piglets with an appealing environment is important, as is the location of a designated resting area. It is all about a well-planned pen: the piglets know exactly where they can rest or sleep, leave their excrement, eat or indulge in their normal behaviour. The resting area should be warmer and darker, while the exercise area should be equipped with sufficient manipulable material.

2. Avoiding non-curative interventions

Interventions such as castration, teeth clipping or grinding and tail docking are highly controversial issues and nowadays less and less tolerated by the public in many parts of the world. Not only will castration without anaesthetic no longer be acceptable in the future, but other interventions will also be critically examined. Other, more animal-friendly solutions will have to be found. In order to meet the expectations of politics, the retail sector and society and at the same time to be able to produce successfully and profitably, optimised feeding is one of the most important tools for farmers and producers.

3. Reducing stress

Here, experts and producers agree: stress is one of the most important factors for the occurrence of behavioural disorders such as tail biting. Stress due to stocking density, stable climate or health problems usually leads to reduced performance. In addition to long-term, fundamental changes in the production system (premises, management, ventilation and herd size), there are other measures available to pig producers. A feeding regime that is geared for animal welfare and health and includes the right feed additives can effectively counteract stress and present a major opportunity to support and strengthen the animals against daily stressors such as disease and environmental factors. Phytogenic, or plant-based, additives are particularly applicable: this product class can strengthen the immune system and combat pathogens while producing a calming effect on animals. A case in point is Dr. Eckel’s plant-based additive MagPhyt, which has been scientifically proven to reduce tail biting due to its calming effect.

Recent incidents surrounding the Covid 19 pandemic have shown very clearly that the solution to future long-term success in animal production lies in sustainability. Clear and decisive action is now required to restore consumer confidence confidence and strengthen businesses—for the benefit of animals, society and responsible producers.

Summer heat: not everyone’s cup of tea

Be it the Summer Olympics, football’s World Cup or the Tour de France, all top athletes have strategies in place to perform optimally, even at high temperatures. This is no different for livestock. In their own way, dairy cows are just like professional athletes: they have to use their energy selectively to achieve the best milk yield.

They are most comfortable at temperatures of up to about 16°C. Anything above that, and they increase their respiration rate and sweat to dissipate heat through evaporation. Even at these temperatures, their energy consumption increases noticeably, they eat less and drink more. The risk of chronic inflammation increases and their well-being suffers. But once the thermometer finally hits temperatures humans consider ideal for swimming and sun-bathing, dairy cows experience some serious stress.

Livestock farmers usually apply countermeasures such as ventilating the barn, ensuring enough water is available, cooling the water on hot days and insulating the roof of the barn. Feed provides another significant contribution: the right additives can help reduce animal stress. Dr. Eckel’s Anta®Ox FlavoSyn, for example, is a flavouring feed additive that is entirely of vegetable origin. It promotes the cows’ energy supply, providing them with better protection against inflammation and reducing their stress.

Improving animal welfare is highly complex, and can only be achieved in a combined approach. The feed is a critical element. So it all starts with the feed.

Dairy cows—we owe it all to them

Thousands of dairy cows produce their white gold on a daily basis. This is no mean feat, but one that only healthy, stable cows can perform in the long term. This is why, particularly in the case of dairy cows, better animal welfare equals better health, which in turn equals better performance. Here are the most important animal welfare parameters for dairy cows.

Udder health. Udder disease can result in massive economic loss and insurmountable costs. In order to prevent disease, farmers must be able to detect any deterioration in their herd’s health quickly. In most cases, we are only aware of the direct costs of veterinary treatment and medication. Additional costs arise from unusable milk and are incurred as a result of treatment, management, separate milking, increased restocking and problems in subsequent lactation. A major indicator for assessing udder health is the somatic cell content of the milk. Many risk factors, including poor barn hygiene, increase the somatic cell count. However, feed additives can help reduce the somatic cell content.

Cow comfort. Just as in the case of athletes, it is important that dairy cows avoid joint injuries, such as those of the hock and the knee, and broken ribs. More comfort, for example through outdoor lying areas in the exercise pen, ensures that the animals can lie down and rise with greater ease and without hindrance, and assume their natural lying position without incurring injury. In addition, animals should be provided with easily accessible resting, feeding, drinking and exercise areas. This also prevents soiling and skin injuries.

Lameness. This is often caused by a variety of hoof injuries or diseases, and has a significant impact on the animals’ natural behaviour and welfare. In any case, it is very painful and frequently one of the main causes of premature death. Detecting it early on and taking appropriate preventive measures increase the chances of recovery.

Social behaviour. Cows are herd animals that have an established hierarchy. They have a need for physical and social contact, which they normally express through mutual grooming. Additionally, they need a well-planned barn with exercise and resting areas, enough space and tranquillity to express their social behaviour.

Metabolism. The many breeding successes over the last few decades have resulted in significant increases in performance, but also in major challenges. A case in point is an increase in the risk of metabolic diseases such as ketosis and ruminal acidosis due to the different needs. In addition to feed management, this is precisely where the right feed additives can make a great difference.

Imagine you’re looking out onto a meadow …

What we humans find relaxing presumably also has a calming effect on animals. This realisation prompted the Ministry of Agriculture of the Russian Federation to conduct experiments that have attracted attention: cows on a trial farm in Moscow are currently being fitted with virtual reality (VR) headsets. The headsets, which have been specially adapted for cows, show lush green meadows. The aim of the experiments is to find out whether the animals yield more milk as a result.

The ministry has reported initial success: the overall mood of the herd is more peaceful and the cows experience less stress. By means of this study, Russia intends to explore how milk yield can be further increased by applying new methods. Further experiments propose to show whether milk quality and quantity are also affected – should this be the case, even more cows in Russia could soon be wearing VR headsets.

Is this the future of dairy farming? Probably not. What is certain is that when animals’ welfare improves, their performance also improves. But in the long term, if this improvement is literally not real, the animals will hardly be affected by measures like VR headsets. Despite positive results in the short term, a truly sustainable, long-term improvement in animal welfare—and this must be the ultimate objective—will not be achieved in this manner, especially because this is invariably based on a combination of factors, including method of production, farm management and feeding. Therefore, farmers would be well advised to rely on reasonable measures. Indeed, the right feed additives can positively affect major animal welfare parameters such as udder and liver health, as well as the vitality of the animals concerned.

Animal welfare already a major issue with calves

Healthy calves are the basis for the best possible milk yield: they secure the livestock’s future and consequently that of the farm. Good management and animal-friendly farming practices ensure that these calves grow into dairy cows that perform well and have a long lifespan. Protecting calves as much as possible against avoidable diseases and inflammations is particularly important. Inappropriate feeding and farming practices may reduce their resistance and increase the risk of disease. Their first few hours of life are decisive: since calves are born with an underdeveloped immune system, they need a sufficient quantity of valuable colostrum, which boosts their immune system, providing them with the antibodies they need to survive in their specific barn environment.

Calves are also exposed to numerous external factors, including stressors such as poor farming conditions, environmental influences and high microbial load. These could produce symptoms such as diarrhoea, infections and respiratory diseases, which often occur together and are due to the weak immune system of the young calf. All these factors stress the calf immensely and permanently hinder both its well-being and performance. Disease often results in developmental disorders and impairments, and requires extra work and additional costs. Therefore, prevention is better than cure: this involves providing calves with the best possible care and containing possible stressors so that the future dairy cows can reach their full genetic potential.

Feeding can also actively contribute to this, effectively improving animal welfare from the inside out. Plant feed additives can reduce inflammatory reactions in calves, meaning that the energy acquired from the feed is not wasted on inflammatory reactions but made completely available for growth. This simultaneously increases the calves’ resistance and well-being. A recent feeding test showed how a Dr. Eckel feed additive containing flavonoids demonstrably promotes calves’ well-being. You can learn more about this test here.

Animal welfare in Germany mediocre

World Animal Protection (WAP) publishes international animal welfare ranking based on its assessment of animal welfare standards in 50 countries. Sweden and Austria came in first.

World Animal Protection, with headquarters in London, has been working to improve animal welfare for more than 30 years. The NGO has assessed the animal welfare policies and legislation of a total of 50 countries worldwide and ranked them from A (the highest score) to G in its Animal Protection Index (API). The indicators considered include general awareness of animal welfare, national legislation and political support for animal welfare standards concerning pets, animals used in farming and animals used in research. According to the API, Sweden, Great Britain and Austria achieved the highest scores. The ‘B’ grade they were awarded shows that animal welfare in these countries is at a very high level but there is still room for improvement in certain areas. However, countries such as Morocco, Iran, Algeria and Belarus are still missing an essential basic legal framework for animal welfare or at least formal recognition of animal welfare in their existing legislation.

Germany, which only obtained a mediocre ‘C’ grade overall and a ‘D’ for its efforts in protecting animals used in farming, is on a par with France, Poland, Spain and Italy. This shows that there is still much that Germany and the other European countries can do. Although the economic, ecological and ethical importance of animal welfare has received increasing recognition in recent years, many industry stakeholders still lack direction when it comes to applying concrete measures. A useful rule of thumb is to start early and use all the available resources. This is why Dr. Eckel has long been focusing on measures to improve animal welfare, starting with feeding. The right feed additives can be a significant contribution to this.

Read more about the API and the results obtained by other countries here:

Great new world for pigs

A new livestock strategy should help farmers develop farm structures and prepare themselves adequately for the future. The North Rhine-Westphalian (NRW) Ministry of Agriculture explained the implications of such a strategy for pig farming at a press conference at the end of January. According to Agriculture Minister Ursula Heinen-Esser, pig farming cannot carry on without implementing radical change.

Indeed, the minister has set herself the goal of finding a balance between the increasing requirements of animal welfare, environmental protection, building regulations, the economy, social issues and social acceptance. The new livestock strategy should help farmers develop successful structural changes early on. The development of livestock production will be as comprehensive as possible, and will include possible changes in the existing farm and marketing structures. The ‘barn of the future’ is a cornerstone of this livestock strategy.

Together with the NRW Chamber of Agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture is currently building new barn systems for pig farming. Two fattening barns at Haus Düsse, an experimental farm of the Chamber of Agriculture in Bad Sassendorf, are planned. These should meet the level-two and -three requirements of the state animal welfare label, and include a completely new outdoor run concept with green, climate-controlled areas and pig toilet. These barn systems will serve as a model for future building projects. The ‘barn of the future’ is to be financed entirely by state funds. The new barns should be ready by 2022.

Another issue the livestock strategy aims to promote is dispensing with tail docking in piglets. It plans to achieve this by improving pig production conditions to such an extent that keeping undocked pigs becomes the norm. Additionally, even more effort should be put into prophylactic measures that address the causes of disease, to further reduce the use of medication in pig farming.

We welcome the emphasis the livestock strategy places on recent developments in feed management and emission reduction methods. It shows that policymakers have now also understood that optimised feeding is the first step to improving sustainability and animal welfare. Let’s do it!

Industry initiative five years old

Stakeholders from the agricultural, production and trade sectors got together and resolved to collaborate on a project to improve animal welfare and increase innovation in agriculture exactly five years ago, when the ‘Initiative Tierwohl’, a nationwide animal welfare initiative driven by producers and traders, was born. This presents the ideal opportunity for our very own Animal Welfare Initiative to take stock of what the Initiative Tierwohl has achieved so far.

Pretty much, apparently. According to a recent forsa survey, two thirds of respondents are familiar with the initiative and more than 90% consider it to be a good or very good idea. Moreover, the label has made its way into consumers’ awareness—indeed every third respondent deliberately notices it on the packaging. Today, about 70% of poultry and 25% of all fattening pigs in Germany benefit from the improved standards, including 10% more space and additional manipulable materials. According to the ITW, in excess of 100 million pigs and more than two billion chickens and turkeys have now been bred, raised and slaughtered in accordance with the initiative’s guidelines.

In an interview with German newspaper Die Welt, ITW Managing Director Alexander Hinrichs stressed that every consumer must be able to opt for improved animal welfare when shopping. It is a pity that the food service sector has so far largely held back from commenting on animal welfare and how it’s financed.

The industry initiative’s next round of financing will commence in 2021. However, the financing model is set to change. To date, the major food retailers have paid €130 million a year into a fund that was distributed to participating farmers. This will change as from next year: future financing will be directly from the market. Slaughterhouses would then pay participating pig farmers a fixed premium, which currently amounts to €5.28 per animal. Furthermore, the initiative plans to significantly broaden the scope of the meat labelled with the ITW logo on the refrigerated shelves of supermarkets. This will then be extended to sausages in 2022.

Even though the measures are considered to be minimal in many critics’ opinion, they are an important step towards achieving increased market penetration. And every step that helps to improve overall animal welfare is a step in the right direction. There has to be continuous development, where all parameters are constantly reassessed, when it comes to animal welfare. In fact, many innovative solutions, especially in animal feed, actively promote animal welfare.

Click here to learn more about what feeding can achieve.