By Madi Kregel, OCJ field reporter
As more fairs ban ractopamine — the active ingredient in products like Paylean or Optaflexx — some people in the show pig and 4-H community have questions about changes they will need to make in 2020.
Monty Alexander is not one of them. She is entering her last year as a Wood County 4-H exhibitor and has been no stranger to success with her livestock. She has only shown 4-H pigs for a few years, but she knows the stock show world well. She has won multiple market hog classes and the lightweight market gilt division in past county fairs. She has also done well in showmanship. Alexander credits her success with multiple factors, but she has never fed ractopamine to her pigs. Alexander instead relies on good feeding, good genetics and a unique
advantage over most of her competitors in the flatlands of Wood County — a hill in her backyard — for her success.
“I definitely think picking them out is a big thing. Our breeder comes over and helps us feed and that really helped us out,” Alexander said. “And I’ll be out there walking my pigs for two to three hours. We have a pond that has hills so I walk them up and down the hills to build muscle.”
Ractopamine hydrochloride is a feed additive used to increase lean
muscle tissue and growth, and decrease fat in livestock. It is not a steroid, hormone or antibiotic, and has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its safety. While it is legal to use, and has been commonly used in feeding commercial and show pigs, packers and export markets have been asking for ractopamine-free pork to comply with a ban from China and other countries on imported hogs that have been fed ractopamine. With huge export potential for U.S. pork, the commercial hog industry has been quick to phase out of ractopamine use. Packers do not want to jeopardize international marketing opportunities because of 4-H pigs.
For this reason, the Ohio State Fair just released the details of the hog ractopamine ban. The Wood County Fair, along with numerous other county fairs in Ohio, already made the decision to ban ractopamine in 2020. Sorting out the details, though, will be an ongoing process. Kyle Culp, the Wood County Fair Swine Department superintendent, explained their board looked at two options: come up with a plan to meet the needs of J.H. Routh Packing Co. out of Sandusky, or to not provide a marketing outlet for exhibitors.
“If it’s tough for the fair to find a buyer, it’s tough for the 4-H’er to find a buyer,” Culp said. “We wanted to take our time. I’ve personally been in contact with state Extension specialists on what they’re planning to try to get some answers on what the State Fair is planning to do.”
Wood County already released their decision to prohibit ractopamine with a list of show changes. The fair board in Wood County is asking that exhibitors sign an affidavit pledging to not use ractopamine along with the drug use notification form.
Nathan Isler, a show pig and commercial producer, said that ractopamine is a useful tool, but not a necessity in producing top quality hogs. Isler has 1,200 sows and 120 of those are show pig breeding sows. He breeds purebred Duroc, Yorkshire, Landrace, Hampshire pigs, as well as crossbreeds.
“We in the show pig industry rely on feedstuffs a lot, and the genetics to get there. Ractopamine is a tool in the toolbox,” Isler said. “We talk to the customers about the fact that each individual animal needs something different. There are a lot of show pig animals that have never seen Paylean, and there are others that saw higher levels than they should have.”
He explained that exhibitors and pork producers have an advantage today with the wide variety of feedstuffs available to achieve a show ready look, compared to even the past 10 years. However, he recognizes that for some, finding a substitute for ractopamine will be an adjustment. Genetics wise, Isler said prohibiting ractopamine will make show pig breeders work harder too.
“It’s not an apple for apples, but I don’t know if [banning ractopamine] a bad thing,” Isler said. “I know it will be a challenging thing, being that it’s market hogs, and that is what the commercial market has done. Sometimes we get away from that in the show pig industry.”
Ultimately, though, junior livestock market products are about the production of a food animal, not a banner for the barn, said Dr. Todd Price with North Central Veterinary Services in Sycamore and Lincoln Way Animal Hospital in Upper Sandusky.
“We are in a consumer driven business,” said Price, who raises commercial and show pigs with his family. “In the last year or so we have had packers not wanting to take pigs fed ractopamine. Our export markets are saying they don’t want it. We export 25% of our product. So, to be able to export, which every packer does, we need to meet the demand and go ractopamine free.”
Aside from ractopamine use, packers have been increasingly reluctant to buy hogs from fairs, in part, because the show industry has largely moved away from the types of animals preferred by the commercial industry.
“I would urge fair boards to go ractopamine free to save their markets. These kids are taking projects to make money and have success, but if we have pigs go through there that have been fed ractopamine, the packer is not going to take them. Traditionally we have been $5 to $7 a hundred under the normal summer cash markets for fair pigs and I would see fairs struggling to get a bid from a packer if we can’t guarantee these pigs are ractopamine free,” Price said. “That would just be a matter of the exhibitors signing an affidavit saying that they hadn’t fed ractopamine, understanding that those carcasses can and will be tested if the packer chooses to. It does not take much with today’s testing procedures for them to pull it out and test it.
Ractopamine does concentrate in certain tissues and they could test several different tissues to see how concentrated it is and see when it was fed.”
As a leader in the hog business, Ohio needs to be a leader on this issue, Price said.
“The five or six major packers are all ractopamine free. Ohio and Texas are two of the most aggressive, largest show pig states in the country and we need to lead the charge in this,” Price said. “We have already had calls about how this is not illegal to feed, so how can a fair board say we can’t feed it. The fair board controls the fair grounds, and they can tell you that you can feed ractopamine if you want to, you just can’t bring it to the fair. They have to do that to protect their markets.
“If you have a year or two of lower markets, you’ll have kids not take pigs to the fair. We don’t want that. We want kids actively involved with showing livestock and learning how to raise pigs. This isn’t all about ribbons and trophies, this is about learning a work ethic and learning how hard it is to raise livestock. So few kids now are raised on farms and even fewer are raised on livestock farms. This is something we have to adopt. We don’t have a great market the way it is with the show pigs and we don’t want to lose what we have.”
Some fairs are considering making shows non-terminal to avoid the issue altogether, but that can result in other challenges.
“In Ohio we have been switching to more terminal shows and that is because of swine flu issues. That flu bug can bounce around between poultry, humans and pigs. Our job as fair veterinarians is public health safety, so we try to make these shows shorter or at least terminal so all of the pigs there are sent to market and not going from show to show during the summer and spreading influenza,” Price said. “Being terminal, that eliminates the chance to take pigs back home. If there is a flu outbreak, the general public doesn’t care if it is a show pig or not, they just know it is in the pork industry and the whole pork industry suffers.”
Considering all of the factors, Price said a ractopamine ban is the best course of action and, whether it is a hill in the backyard, different genetics or a change in feeding practices, hog exhibitors need to move forward accordingly in a way that produces a top-quality product that works for judges and packers.
“The biggest thing is we need to learn how to feed a pig to give it shape,” Price said. “The show pig industry has relied on ractopamine too much and the next couple of years will separate out the good feeders. Whether we agree with them or not, it is the consumer that drives the market.”