Researchers in Northern Ireland are hopeful they may have found a natural alternative to the soon-to-be-banned zinc oxide.

It’s feared a ban on the therapeutic use of the supplement could increase pig sector reliance on antibiotics at a time when pressure is mounting for the industry to reduce drug use.

However, early research suggests supplementing some wheat in pigs’ diets for rye may fulfil some of the same functions.

Zinc oxide

Zinc is an essential trace element commonly used in the pig sector to treat post-weaning diarrhoea and bowel oedema in piglets.

The element is also an active ingredient in popular nappy rash cream Sudocrem. However, it is set to be outlawed for therapeutic use in animals under European legislation by 2022.

The veterinary use of zinc oxide was first raised due to environmental concerns about two years ago. After a vote in 2017, the European Commission set a transition time of up to five years to phase out the product.

However, some countries have already banned the substance. For example, farmers in the Netherlands had just six months’ notice of the ban.

Rye as an alternative

Earlier this year, conference-goers at the AB Vista’s Progressive Pig Producer conference heard that antibiotic use had risen in some countries where the supplement had already been banned.

However, researchers at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) are understood to be looking for funding to trial rye as a viable alternative.

Speaking to AgriLand, Dr. Lisa Black, an arable crop scientist at AFBI’s plant testing station in Crossnacreevy, said rye is well-suited to Irish growing conditions.

Black said the cereal was low-input in terms of fertiliser and fungicides and was also cheaper to buy than wheat.

The nutritional make-up of rye is understood to cause similar effects to zinc oxide; improving satiety and reduce stomach upsets.

Black is currently working on a field-study trialling 10 different varieties of rye but said that funding was the biggest obstacle to taking the study forward.

Rye can be planted in the spring or winter and is typically harvested in early in the autumn.