How to tackle mortality-causing lameness in finishing hogs

Lameness is now the leading cause of mortality in mid- to late-finishing pigs. How did lameness develop into such a big problem?

Mike Eisenmenger, DVM, Swine Vet Center, and Kathleen Wood, DVM, Christensen Farms, addressed the lameness issue during a recent webinar produced by the Swine Health Information Center. Both shared insights from their experiences managing lameness in finishing hogs.

First, pathogens that used to drag down finishing pigs are under control. “We worked really hard to remove the major pathogens that flow out vertically from sow farms,” Eisenmenger reported. “We want to be able to give the nursery-grow-finish system PRRS- (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome) and Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae-negative pigs so we can get the lowest mortality possible.

“In reality, even though mortality has improved, it seems we hit a baseline threshold. It is getting harder and harder to make continuous improvements…and there are a multitude of reasons.”

Lameness caused by bacterial arthritis has become the big reason for mortality today. Eisenmenger credits the infectious “small bugs”— Strep suis, Mycoplasma hyorhinis and hyosynoviae, Actinobacillus suis, Glaeserella parasuis — for the arthritis.

25% to 40% lameness new normal

Industrywide, lameness affects 10% to 25% of hogs in grow-finish. But Wood was stunned to see how much lameness increased during the COVID-19 shutdown.

“It has been on the upward trend in the summer months,” Wood said. “Recently 25% to 40% severe stiffness or lameness is not uncommon. Lameness is the No. 1 cause of mortality in our mid- to late-finish hogs. Unfortunately, it has become the new normal.

“Mild lameness has always been there,” she continued. “We just weren’t recognizing it as an issue because it doesn’t raise red flags as a cause of high mortality. Stiffness and subtle lameness aren’t alarming, and they don’t trigger the need for immediate treatment in the industry. But we need to change that. We need to start reacting to low-level mortalities.”

Back to basics: necropsy it

A focused, coordinated effort to reduce lameness by Christensen Farms started with the veterinary team going into the field and regularly working with service staff on necropsies to help identify causes for stiffness and lameness.

“Our service team is very well trained, but there are still nuances and additional things that they can learn about on causes of lameness and post-mortem exams,” Wood explained. “We started cutting open a lot of pigs with them and getting our team to open pigs on their own. They weren’t confident cutting open joints, so we walked it through with them.

“It’s not always about just the heart, lungs or brain,” she added. “If a pig can’t walk properly, it’s chances of making it to market as primary pig has severely decreased. This means that getting into the bones and seeing what’s going on is an obvious but underlooked necessity.”

The results of the additional training are a game changer for Christensen Farms, she added. It reset what the farm’s service teams expect with lameness.

“Pigs are not supposed to be stiff,” Wood said. “Lameness and stiffness are not normal. Pigs are not supposed to be in pain when walking.”

Treat early signs

The second part of the Christensen Farms plan involves early recognition of lameness, with a priority placed on treatment.

“We have to do what’s right for the pigs,” Wood said. “Treat them. We are limited in our options, especially with anti-inflammatories. But they are equally as important as antibiotics and give pigs pain relief. In our system, we are limited to two, and there are withdrawal times that make it difficult to use them in late-finishing pigs.”

To help caregivers identify when to treat, Wood created a chart with photos of pigs showing three stages of lameness, with the required treatments. The chart helps farms quickly identify when help is needed.

Work with diagnostics

Another part of the lameness fight means working closely with the diagnostic lab. Wood wants all lameness samples sent to the lab with a detailed history and other communications of the problem to help the lab more quickly find the cause.

Also, samples sent to the lab should be the entire limb and not be fluid from an open joint. Conditions in the barns are not sterile enough to collect the fluid, according to Wood.

Other interventions

Wood also works with other departments at Christensen Farms to determine the best treatment options. For example, she suggests working with the marketing group if 5 days are needed to provide medication with a withdrawal time to get on top of a lameness issue.

Another department that can help with lameness issues is nutrition. “Nutritionists are your friends, not enemies,” Wood said. “Ask them what we can do to make this better and be open to their suggestions. Spending time with them in the field is a great way to get aligned on the issue.

“And don’t forget the sow farm,” she added. “What are they selecting for on confirmation? What can we do to knock down their bug load? How about maternal immunity? Everything goes downstream.”

 

 

Ventilation systems need winter check-up to keep pigs healthy

Ventilation systems in hog buildings need regular check-ups to prevent environmental issues that can compromise pig health. Winter audits are especially important, with ventilation running at low levels with little room for error.

“A lot of the winter is spent in minimum ventilation mode,” reported Sam Holst, DVM, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota. “When we do run into ventilation issues, it can be when we are in minimum ventilation, and winter is a good time to monitor that and make adjustments.”

A common problem is moving too much air and chilling pigs, especially in the critical time shortly after weaning. “Pigs will be cold and won’t have the energy to get to the feeder and start on feed,” Holst said.

“On the flip side, if there’s not enough ventilation, humidity will build up,” he added. Gas contaminants like carbon dioxide and ammonia accumulate, causing growth and performance problems. At certain levels, the contaminants can increase respiratory disease and other pathogens in a group of pigs.

Ventilation basics

Many variables go into determining correct ventilation rates. “It is a pretty intricate process,” Holst admitted. “We have multiple barn styles and ventilation systems to start with, and multiple controllers. It’s pretty easy to set up incorrectly and make mistakes.

“Even when I’m on visits for something other than looking at ventilation, there will usually be some issue or adjustment to improve ventilation,” he added. “There’s no doubt it has a big daily impact, and there’s room for improvement on almost every site.”

Minimum ventilation rates are based on the number and weight of pigs in a barn. A reference chart is needed to know how much air (cubic feet per minute or CFM) must be moved per pig per room. Settings to achieve minimum ventilation will then vary, depending on fan inventory and size. Things can go wrong when calculations are not correct.

Incorrect ventilation rate

The first big issue is the efficiency of the fans. Fan CFM ratings are determined at the factory when the fans are new. Fan efficiency takes a hit after being used for several months, and the accumulated dust and dirt aren’t removed.

“A lot of times we overestimate what the output will be in the barn because we are not dealing with factory conditions,” Holst said. “Make sure to clean up those fans with a power washer, and get the dirt off the fan blades and louvers.

“Even 1/8-inch of dust or dirt will reduce efficiency up to 40%,” he added. “That can really throw the ventilation settings out of whack.”

Also be sure to clean fans after fall harvest because extra dirt and chafe will accumulate on them.

Poorly placed temperature probes

“Improper probe location can be another often overlooked cause of ventilation issues,” Holst said. “The controller is getting data from multiple probes, and if they are next to a heater or an inlet, it won’t be an accurate read of what’s going on in the room.”

He recommends setting temperature probes for nursery pigs at 35 inches off the slats and finishing pigs at 51 inches off the slats. In barns with curtains, the probes should be located 5 feet from the outside wall or curtain. In tunnel-ventilated barns, the probes should be located over the areas where pigs sleep most of the time.

Heater issues

When heading into cold weather, all heaters should be cleaned and checked over to make sure they are working. It’s also important to review heater settings.

“The common error I see is incorrect heater settings with the heater programmed to shut off too close to the set point,” Holst said. “Typically, we want the heater to come on 2 to 3 degrees below set point and shut off at least 1 to 2 degrees before getting to the set point.”

If heater shutoff is set too close to set point, the minimum ventilation fans will start up and blow heated air out of the building, leading to higher utility costs.

Blocked inlets

Attic inlets and soffits that are plugged with dirt or chafe also lead to insufficient ventilation.

“If not enough air gets into the attic, then there’s not enough air going into the barn to be exhausted,” Holst said. “You will end up with improper mixing and air exchange.”

He recommends regular cleaning of the soffits and inlets, especially in the fall after harvest.

Fall is also an important time to clean pit fans. “It’s even more critical because a lot of barns are getting close to full manure capacity which can decrease pit fan output,” he added. “Make sure those fans are clean.”

Help solving problems

Producers with ventilation problems that aren’t easily solved can call on veterinarians like Holst to help. He uses several sophisticated meters and data collectors to spot problems in ventilation.

For example, a client of Holst’s noticed an increase in tail biting in a barn and could not find the source. Holst sent a Hobo data collector to the barn where it was installed for a couple of weeks to chart room temperature.

After reviewing the temperature data, Holst noticed the barn at night was not cooling off enough to make pigs comfortable. So the pigs were agitated, leading to increased vice behavior. Without the data collector, he would not have seen the incorrect overnight temperatures.

He also uses meters that measure percent of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ammonia, as well as meters measuring air speed.

“There are a lot of tools and gadgets that I utilize on the full workup that allow me to fine-tune ventilation and find out what’s going on and potential problems,” he said.

Any producer experiencing ventilation issues in hog buildings should contact their veterinarian for help identifying the problems.

 

How hog farms used COVID-19 to improve herd health status

When faced with the COVID-19 crisis, some producers made the most of the situation by depopulating to get rid of disease issues, according to Paul Yeske, DVM, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota.

“People looked at ways to take advantage of these opportunities to improve the health status of herds,” Yeske explained. “Certainly, market prices had a major impact on us…The question often asked was, ‘Are you better off to lose less?’ Many people were frustrated dealing with sick pigs that were unlikely to be profitable.”

Economics of disease elimination

In budget models, eliminating disease pays off for hog farms. Even modest changes in overall productivity add up, Yeske said. For example, a 1,000-sow farm undergoing a disease elimination for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) returned an extra $13 per pig or $420 per sow to the bottom line.

The cost of eliminating disease varies by method used. A depopulation/repopulation with off-site breeding to reduce downtime costs $12 per sow and takes 1 year for payback. Without off-site breeding, the cost is $20 per sow and up to 2 years for payback.

A herd closure used to stabilize health is a much cheaper route for clean-up. Yeske said the cost of a closure ranges from $1.50 to $3 a sow with payback in 1 to 3 months.

Depopulation/repopulation considerations

While the cost for depopulating is high, it is successful. “Depopulation is a time-honored method for improving health status,” Yeske said. “It works very well for a number of different diseases. When executed properly, it is nearly 100% effective.”

Many herds were dealing with tough strains of PRRS, leading to death loss downstream in commingled pigs. Other health problems like mycoplasma also were present.

“We know sow herds are very likely to perform much better than previously when they start with a healthy herd,” he said. “The new pigs beat the old pigs to market before we’re done.”

This was also a good time for farms to correct parity-distribution imbalances and to make genetic changes.

But repopulation during COVID-19 was very different. Yeske said this was the first time he’d seen clients depopulate and then wait to repopulate. Some farms were even “mothballed” indefinitely.

“Repopulation is always a bit of a challenge,” he added. “Timing is always the hard part. If you start too late you miss the higher markets, and if too early, you lose too much money before you get a chance to profit from the decision.”

Herd closures

In the last few years, herd closures to stabilize herd health gained popularity, especially with multiple-site farms.

“The farrow-wean farms can be stabilized, and no other pigs brought on site,” Yeske said. “It allows the site to develop good, solid immunity. Then we empty wean-finish sites and do a repop on each of those. It’s the old ‘load, close and homogenize’ system.

“What we’ve learned over time is we can do it without losses in production,” he added. The herd closures are good options for diseases like PRRS, mycoplasma, influenza, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, transmissible gastro-enteritis, etc.

A different method used by a few hog farms was closing the herd and not loading it. “It accomplishes the same goal of improving health but with less pigs in the system,” Yeske said. “It may not affect the numbers as much as you think.”

Some producers created a hole in production to allow a herd to clean out and reduce numbers in the system, he explained. Farrowing was left empty while stabilizing disease.

Other producers euthanized pigs to create a hole in production, reducing numbers and allowing pigs to stabilize. They purchased high-health pigs to replace inventory.

Weaning age, batch farrowing

Some hog farms made adjustments to weaning age during the COVID-19 crisis. Yeske said these farms were using a 19-day weaning age, but it wasn’t working well. After returning to a 21-day weaning age, the sows performed better with more born live, a shorter wean-to-first-service time and better farrowing rates. The pigs also were easier to start on feed and posted a better average daily gain.

Other farms took the opportunity to convert to batch farrowing. Synchronization products available today make this production model more successful than in the past.

“The advantages to batch farrowing are on the wean-to-finish performance,” Yeske said. “You can run all in, all out by site and can run bigger sites. It improves average daily gain and mortality. You can make a small farm perform like a large farm.”

 

How to reduce wean-to-finish mortality: Part 1 — Plan your strategies

High wean-to-finish mortality continues to trouble the pork industry. While lowering rates is possible, it’s not easy, reported Ryan Strobel, DVM, and Chris Sievers, DVM, with Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota.

The two veterinarians offered 10 strategies to reduce wean-to-finish mortality during an Iowa Swine Day webinar, organized by Iowa State University. The presentation can be accessed here.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, Strobel and Sievers discuss how to plan your strategies — the first step to successfully reduce mortality rates. Part 2 of this article series covers recommendations from Strobel and Sievers about how to implement plans to reduce mortality rates.

Planning Strategy #1: Track progress with benchmarking

“We start with benchmarking because if you don’t know where you’re at, you don’t know the direction you are headed,” Sievers said. “You need accurate data systems to measure and track where you are at and compare year by year and group by group.”

One set of production data available for comparison is MetaFarms. Its data shows wean-to-finish mortality trends down slightly from 6.4% in 2018 to around 6% in 2020, Sievers said.

But mortality rates between the top and bottom farms show wide disparities. Nursery close-outs averaged 2.5% overall, with the top 10% achieving just 0.95% mortality and the bottom 10% farms at 6.4% mortality. Sievers suggested setting a goal to be in the top 20% of the MetaFarms data.

Planning Strategy #2: Thorough prep required for nursery

All-in, all-out is key to helping weaned pigs start off strong and thrive in a wean-to-finish facility. “Do as much all-in, all-out as you can,” Strobel said. “By site is ideal but if [not possible] then by barn or at a bare minimum by room. We don’t want different age pigs in the same room.”

Thorough cleaning and prepping of the facilities before the pigs arrive also help the animals get off to a good start. This means washing with hot water, drying, disinfecting and drying again. Be sure to degrease periodically and definitely after a disease outbreak. White-washing with a thick coat on all areas also ensures a thorough cleaning.

Next, Strobel recommends the cleaned facilities be inspected by someone else to make sure everything is cleaned properly (feeders tipped over, under gates, etc.). Pay close attention to cleaning and drying water cups. Use a battery-powered leaf blower for best results. Also clean out the water lines.

“Transitioning pigs to water is an important step because 75% of a young pig is water,” Strobel said. “They can dehydrate quickly. Make sure to inspect those water cups.”

Make sure brooders and heat lamps are clean and working before pigs move into the facility. Also recheck controller settings to make sure fans and heat are set correctly. Do an exterior building walk-around, looking for maintenance issues and cleaning dust and dirt off pit fans. An 1/8 inch of dust on a fan reduces its efficiency by 40%.

“If we don’t get this cleaning process done right and we can’t get the pigs in a clean barn, then we are fighting an uphill battle,” Strobel explained.

Planning Strategy #3: Know sow-farm health issues

“The goal for everyone is to get a high-quality, healthy weaned pig,” Sievers said. “How do you get that? Working closely with the sow farm [through] sound communications. How are pigs doing on the sow farm and on your farm?”

Optimize the age and weight of the pigs. Sievers’ ideal age is 20 days and older. He will compromise with 17 to 18 days of age and 7 to 8 pounds of weight.

From the health side, he wants pigs coming from a sow farm that’s negative to porcine epidemic diarrhea, Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia, mycoplasma and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus.

But if the sow farm is positive, he recommends focusing on biosecurity and filtration at the farm or looking for a different partnership. Nothing affects wean-to-finish mortality more than disease, Sievers noted.

For other bacterial pathogens in the sow farm, he recommends knowing what’s in the flow and creating autogenous vaccines to provide good immunity in the pigs.

“All this is to help dictate your feed budget, pull space and set up proper expectations,” he explained. “Previous health challenges and diagnostics are important in vaccination plans and strategies, timing…Make sure you have products on hand.”

Planning Strategy #4: Communicate your vaccination program

“One of the biggest issues we see is communications,” Strobel said. “What I mean is, ‘We switched over to a new [vaccine] at the sow farm and didn’t get it executed right on the second booster in nursery,’ or ‘The E. coli vaccine on the sow farm didn’t work and so now we need to do this group.’

“Making sure all communications happen in a timely manner is very important, especially from the contract grower or employee standpoint downstream,” he added. “Having some type of transfer sheet helps at every stage.”

Execution of vaccines has gotten better over the years. Strobel recommends retraining employees and growers at least once or twice a year. During training, be sure to not only tell what needs to be done but also explain why for improved understanding.

He recommends changing a vaccination program no more frequently than every 2 months and at least once a year. Also, do not cut corners on vaccines. If you need to reduce costs, work with a veterinarian for a solution.

“Communicating proper vaccine storage, if that’s dry ice or in the refrigerator, or just not in the sun. are all important factors to talk about with employees and growers,” Strobel said. “They don’t always realize the cost. If you vaccinate a 2,000-head nursery, it can be $1,000 of vaccine in that box that just showed up.”

Strobel suggests using a vaccination form filled out by a supervisor or owner that shows how a vaccination should be administered. It also includes a sign-off to document when the vaccination occurs. Some farms put up pictures of vaccines and labels to help employees identify the correct vaccine.

“Execution is just so important and not only the right protocol, but make sure it is done right every single time,” Strobel said. “Watch and observe at a nursery at least twice a year. Make sure the supervisor has unplanned visits when vaccinating. Watch vaccine crews to make sure they aren’t going too fast or stressing the pigs out or not changing needles.

“Going over all those little things regarding vaccinations is the way to make the program really work,” he added.

Planning Strategy #5: Determine barn layout, sorting pigs

Before pigs arrive, write up the barn layout that includes the number of pens for each pig category and location, including sick and recovery pens.

Strobel also suggests planning mandatory sorts. For example, some flows set pulls on days 1, 3 and 8. “This forces [employees and owners] to pull because there will always be small pigs,” he said. “They are out there if you look hard enough.”

Include the sort spaces on the barn layout, allowing 5% to 20% of the barn for these pens.

“Spending the right amount of time during the first 2 weeks in nursery and finishing saves time throughout the turn,” Strobel added. “The more you can sort and plan out where you put pens, the better the rest of the turn will go.”

 

Read Part 2 in this two-part series:
How to reduce wean-to-finish mortality: Part 2 — Implement your plans

 

How to reduce wean-to-finish mortality: Part 2 — Implement your plans

In Part 2 of this two-part series, Ryan Strobel, DVM, and Chris Sievers, DVM, with the Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota, share implementation strategies to lower wean-to-finish mortality rates.

The two veterinarians offered planning and implementation strategies to reduce wean-to-finish mortality during an Iowa Swine Day webinar, organized by Iowa State University. The presentation can be accessed here.

Implementation Strategy #1: Feeding weaned pigs for success

Weaning is an “extremely high-stress event, from one mom and a small farrowing crate to pens of 20,” Sievers said. “[They go] from an all-milk diet and a little bit of feed to a corn/soy diet; a truck ride,…vaccinations, new barn environment and water access.”

Creep feeding before weaning helps pigs acclimate to feed. In the wean-to-finish facility, Sievers wants pigs fed four times a day at first with mats and gruel bowls. He suggests doing it during chores. “Walk all the way through the buildings with mat feed and gruel bowls, and back through with treatments and…to get them up again so they know feed is always there,” he explained.

The goal for mat feeding is to give all pigs a taste of feed to help get them started eating. Feed them enough to last 20 to 30 minutes. A general rule for grueling is to start with 70% water and 30% feed and slowly work to 70% feed and 30% water in 5 days. If a pig isn’t eating and looks gaunt, pull it immediately and move the pig to a sick pen, he added.

Newly weaned pigs also need adequate water access. Sievers recommends one cup for up to 20 pigs. Set the dripper to run slowly into the cup so the pigs learn where to find water.

Implementation Strategy #2: Avoid training pitfalls

A big challenge for a supervisor is finding a balance between showing employees how to do work and what to do versus expecting them to do everything and walking out, Strobel said.

“Another thing I find often is blame versus education,” he added. “It’s easy to blame the grower or employee for a bad turn. But it’s important to educate them on why that happened and what we could have done better…rather than blame them for it.”

He also advocates leading by example. “I think every company should set up a show barn that can serve as a good example — clean and set up properly so if we have an issue, we can bring a grower or employee [to visit].”

Strobel recommends reviewing flows and performance measures quarterly. Follow up on any issues immediately. He also suggests positive feedback to reassure people they are doing good things for the pigs. But strategically push people to always get better.

One way to improve communications is to set trigger points. “Create a trigger point where that caretaker knows ‘I need to call my supervisor,’” Strobel explained. “Like in a 1,000-head barn, if I have five dead, I need to immediately notify my supervisor.”

Strobel also advocates for caretakers to have access to the veterinarian and nutritionist. “I make my number available at every site,” he said. “They need to have access to veterinarians and nutritionists in a timely manner.”

Implementation Strategy #3: Set up criteria for pulling sick pigs

Sievers recommends using an individual pig-care program to help find sick pigs and identify the treatment needed. One example is an ABC pig program where the “A” pig with a droopy head and watery eyes is acute and needs individual treatment within the main population.

The “B” pig takes it a step further, showing its backbone and ribs. Treat the pig immediately and put it in the pull pen. The “C” pig should already be in the pull pen because it’s on a negative energy platform and needs extreme care and attention.

Treatment success is reliant on not only the right antibiotic but also the timing of treatment, with early absolutely being better, Sievers said. He also recommends using injections for treatment.

A correctly set up pull pen also helps ensure success with sick pigs. Locate the pull pens away from a curtain and inlets where air will flow on the pigs. It should be a clean environment. Provide extra heat, water and feed.

Implementation Strategy #4: Take grow-finish biosecurity seriously

“Is it a myth or achievable?” Strobel asked. He offers several tips to prevent disease spread to the farm and within a farm.

Control high-risk areas where there’s contact to the outside. Make clear clean/dirty lines; in a shower/locker room, leave all clothes on the dirty side of the shower in lockers and all towels on the clean side; keep all maintenance tools and items on site and not around other pigs; keep all doors locked at all times.

A check of feed bins is one of the most obvious breaks. “Everyone wants to jump outside as soon as they see a feed outage to hammer on the bin and jump back in,” he said. Put on clean boots and coveralls to work on the bin and leave on the dirty side when done.

“Dead removal is the most important biosecurity risk on grow-finish sites,” he said. Keep a dead removal box away from the barn and out of public sight. Wear specific boots and coveralls for going to the box.

When moving animals in and out of the site, make sure the market trailer and chute are cleaned.

Implementation Strategy #5: Fix ventilation issues

The best way to check a building’s ventilation is to look at the pigs.

“Let the pigs tell you their comfort level,” Sievers said. “They like to lie touching each other but should not be piling. Watch where they are dunging, lying and eating. If those areas are spreading into each other, either we have a disease or the ventilation is off.”

The goal of ventilation is to control excess humidity, which Sievers wants at less than 70%. He also wants proper air exchange by bringing in fresh oxygen and removing carbon monoxide.

Pitfalls to proper ventilation include dirty fans, fans with broken blades, improper location of temperature probes in barns, blocked or insufficient inlets, and leaks caused by sagging or torn curtains and around doors.

“The end goal is to understand your barn and controller because every barn is different,” Sievers said. “Make daily adjustments based off pig comfort and using your pigs as your gauge, not just the numbers on the controller.”

 

Read Part 1 in this two-part series:
How to reduce wean-to-finish mortality: Part 1 — Plan your strategies

Packing plant closures lead to big lessons learned from COVID-19

Nothing in his lifetime could have prepared Paul Yeske, veterinarian at Swine Vet Center, for the painful fallout from COVID-19 that hit the clinic and its clients.

In early April 2020, major packing plants taking most of their clients’ hogs started shutting down. At one point, processing capacity dropped 45%, with most plant closures occurring in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa as well as other plants slowing down and reducing capacity.

“Plant closures were one of those things we didn’t see coming,” related Yeske, whose clinic is located in St. Peter, Minnesota. “We were in the middle of it. It had a major impact on our producers and clients.”

Yeske and his colleagues devised contingency plans for handling a glut of market-weight pigs with no place to go. Fortunately, many others including producers jumped in to help. Yeske discussed the harrowing situation and outcomes during a talk at the 2020 Leman Swine Conference held virtually in mid-September.

Penalty for efficiency

“The industry was always rewarded for building better efficiency. But we soon learned there was a penalty when that comes apart,” Yeske explained. “There was no room for problems to develop. [It was like] being on an escalator and the people at the top aren’t moving away and you are trapped. I think everybody this spring felt that pressure and felt trapped.”

The first step before closures occurred was slowing down pig growth. Producers warmed up the temperatures in buildings, tightened up feeders, added fiber to diets and made other recommended nutritional changes.

But drastic action was needed to handle the massive loss of packing capacity as plant shutdowns occurred. Depopulation and disposal were needed to handle the overflow of pigs.

Depopulation lessons

In the past, Yeske said he participated in exercises for handling foreign animal-disease outbreaks, which involved discussions about mass depopulation. But it didn’t fully prepare him for this event.

“Like many other things, it’s much different to do it than to plan and talk about it,” he said. “We really learned it takes a lot of logistics. Some of these systems had to act like a packing plant — we were getting rid of that many pigs. We started out using traditional methods…but our veterinarians were saying we had to come up with a better plan.

“The challenge is how to do mass depopulation [in] the best way to euthanize the pig and keep people safe,” he added. “The silver lining out of this is we now have better methods for mass depopulation…we know what works and, more importantly, what doesn’t work.”

Some of the better options include the use of trucks and shipping containers with CO2 and ventilation shutdowns. Work on these options continues. For example, North Carolina State University is developing shipping containers with CO2 to handle mass depopulation.

Disposal of carcasses

Disposal was also a challenge with plants shut down, Yeske said. But because not everyone depopulated at the same time and there was also less restaurant waste, they were able to get most of the carcasses through rendering plants.

A large number of carcasses were still available to test the grind-and-compost method. Minnesota used two centralized locations for composting the carcasses.

“We did learn how to compost,” Yeske said. The grinding method really helped speed up the process by getting the compost to temperature faster, which will be important in a foreign animal-disease situation. It also requires less area to get it done.

Other lessons

Some hog farms with significant health issues used this crisis to depopulate. They also waited to repopulate when the market was more favorable. “I have never seen farms that were mothballed,” Yeske admitted.

“Some producers went through and only fed good-quality pigs and euthanized the bottom end,” he said. “Some aborted sows to make holes in production to allow farms to stabilize health and reduce numbers in the system.”

Yeske also learned untraditional markets can offer big help. “We were able to get pigs out of the system. Some smaller plants geared up. Local lockers are still booked for 6 to 12 months. Sale barns moved a lot of pigs. And university meat labs set up to do custom slaughter for food shelves.”

Figures from the Minnesota Pork Producers show the untraditional markets moved a lot of hogs. About 250,000 pigs were taken out of the system and given away. Another 350,000 pigs were euthanized.

Future preparation

“What do we do in the future so we don’t have to face this again?” Yeske asked. “We talk about building slack capacity in production systems, but it’s too difficult, particularly with economics today. There is some discussion with packing plants about building slack capacity, but they are built around efficiency as well.”

Instead, Yeske suggested using a COVID-type situation to make the industry healthier. He looks back and wishes the industry had taken advantage of the shutdowns to improve herd health. In the future, the industry needs to help itself and set up funds like what they did with the Swine Health Information Center. Funding will help the industry be ready to act when unexpected situations occur and not left trying to react in the face of the battle.

“There would be opportunities to capture this and come out as a healthier industry,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think we missed that opportunity [with COVID-19].

“As we know from the past, those willing to adapt will survive,” Yeske continued. “There will be a new normal as we go forward. And we have to find some funding to help us go through these things in the future…We have to remember we still live in one of the best places to raise pork.”

 

People in pork production just as important as pigs

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While their schooling focused on pigs, veterinarians on the job spend a lot of time working with clients and members of their staff. After all, they must carry out a veterinarian’s health or production plan for the pigs.

“Our whole training in veterinary school is about the pigs, and we don’t spend a lot of time on the people,” reported Ross Kiehne, DVM, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota.

“We just kind of put the plan together and away we go. Then we might come back and wonder why it didn’t work…And not understand that there’s human reasons why it didn’t work out, not pig reasons.”

Stressful situations

Workers in hog barns generally want to see pigs do well, but difficult situations with the animals can lead to a breakdown in care.

“Some diseases are very devastating,” Kiehne said. “Sow death loss, for example, is really hard to watch.”

Veterinarians as well as clients should watch for signs of stress among staff. Kiehne said he sees some workers who exhibit their stress right away and then appear to get over it. But there are others who don’t show their stress and become quiet and introverted. These people may need to discuss the situation with someone else who understands such as a veterinarian or co-worker.

Veterinarian stress

Veterinarians aren’t immune to stress either. Kiehne said he’s seen colleagues experience great stress and family hardship. His response was to help pick up their work.

Now he realizes his colleagues also need someone to talk to and understand the situation. He said he needs to be more cognizant of situations when people are stressed and want to talk about it.

“How do I consult in all that and keep up on it?” he continued. “I think the stress level is probably higher [today].”

Change needed

Kiehne does see some changes occurring to help alleviate stress on veterinarians. For example, he’s hearing more colleagues take time off to coach a child’s team.

“It’s better realizing that there is some life outside of veterinarian medicine,” he said. “I think we need to continue to encourage that — not discourage [it by] saying no, you aren’t working hard enough or you’re not up early enough.”

Unfortunately, when younger veterinarians are struggling, they often won’t seek help from the more-seasoned veterinarians like Kiehne. Instead, he said older veterinarians need to make the first move to be available when someone looks like they need help.

Clients also become stressed, especially during down markets and in the winter when disease is more prevalent. Just offering to listen to the issues can help.

“Letting them understand that yes, they can be frustrated with it and they can be stressed, but they’re also very good at moving forward,” Kiehne added.