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.”

 

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.”

 

Strategies to help manage tough times created by COVID-19

The fallout from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) hit the US pork industry with a vengeance. Midwestern packing plants facing worker shortages from COVID-19 reduced processing and, in some cases, completely closed their doors.

In addition, labor on hog farms continues to be a big concern should positive COVID-19 cases develop.

Recognizing these serious issues, Swine Vet Center (SVC) in its latest SVC newsletter offers different strategies to help manage business through these challenging times.

Slow down ADG

Reduced packing plant operation means there are loads of hogs backed up and even cancelled, creating a backlog of hogs on the farm.

One way to handle this situation involves the intentional slow-down of average daily gain (ADG). Here are different ways to accomplish this:

  • Warm up room temperatures to 72° F to 76°
  • Cut back on square feet per pig.
  • Increase minerals, such as calcium chloride or monosodium phosphate, to slow intake.
  • Add fiber to reduce growth, using dried distillers’ grain if available or soy hulls.
  • Tighten up feeders to reduce intake.

Be sure to discuss these strategies with your nutritionist or SVC veterinarian to come up with a plan that makes sense for your system.

Reduce COVID-19 on farms

Farm workers are considered essential employees who work hard to keep a safe food supply during these uneasy times. Here are several ways to reduce transmission from employee to employee on sow farms:

  • Stagger entry times into farms so employees aren’t gathering before the shower.
  • Stagger break times and spread out tables in the break room.
  • Disinfect tables and counters after every use and at the end of the day. Disinfect the entire office daily and fumigate weekly.
  • Educate all employees on how the virus spreads.
  • Make sure employees are following the stay-at-home order to reduce exposure outside of work.
  • Split crews in half to a morning and evening crew. Half the crew works 4, 12-hour days and the other half of the crew works the next 4, 12-hour days. Workers are split (4 days on, 4 days off). This way if one crew member tests positive, only half the crew stays home for quarantine.

Wean-to-finish sites are taking multiple precautions to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 to employees.

  • Limit any unnecessary visitors.
  • Supervisors and veterinarians should plan their site visits to avoid contact with the caretakers or contract growers.
  • Reduce the size of vaccination crews and have them split up to different sites.
  • Follow social distancing.

Reduce costs

Most systems are looking at ways to reduce costs or inputs.

  • Review the usage of vaccinations, routine injectable antibiotics and feed-grade medications. Consult your SVC veterinarian before reducing any vaccinations or prevention strategies
  • Review sow-herd inventory and make sure you don’t have extra sows on the farm. There are instances where we can keep up with production but reduce the carrying cost of sows on that herd.
  • Check body condition across all herds and make sure you aren’t overfeeding sows.

 

More information

If you have other questions about how to deal with COVID-19 issues, visit:

National Pork Board COVID-19 resources

American Association of Swine Veterinarians COVID-19 resources

USDA APHIS Coordination Center to assist producers (affected by meat-processing plant closures)

 

What we learned from PED applies to COVID-19

Swine veterinarians and producers may feel déjà vu when they hear about the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) epidemic in the US.

Seven years ago, they battled a different coronavirus — porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED). Just like COVID-19, it spread quickly.

“We know how frustrating coronaviruses can be,” reported Laura Bruner, DVM, Swine Vet Center (SVC), St. Peter, Minnesota. “They are pretty hardy. When they have a naïve population to move through like PED did, it moves very rapidly.

“As the pork industry faced PED, we implemented a lot of biosecurity steps — washing more market trucks, limiting movements, more testing,” she explained. “We really improved our biosecurity, especially at the market level.”

The strategy to prevent COVID-19 infections is similar. Bruner advises everyone to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for personal hygiene including frequent hand washing, limiting movement, staying home if sick and disinfecting the workplace.

In addition, the SVC office is taking workplace disinfection to a new level. “We are starting to fog our clinic with a product that kills microbes on contact. Just in case someone is sick, we can knock down that virus,” Bruner said.

She believes following the CDC guidelines in a hog facility will reduce COVID-19 infections in farm employees.

“I think you can function within a farm by using really good hygiene; even if one person gets sick, not everyone has to get sick,” she added.

Limiting contact in hog units

Some producers have changed work schedules to reduce contact between workers and limit the chance of a farm-wide outbreak.

“We’ve had some farms activate split shifts,” Bruner said. “Their crews are either split into a morning shift and afternoon shift or one half works three days and the other half works the next three days.

“If farms have not activated these shifts, they should limit contact between workers by staggering start times and breaks,” she added. “They also need to use social distancing on the job, like processing across from each other instead of next to each other.”

Contingency plans for dire situations

In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak at a client’s farm, the SVC veterinarians won’t be caught unprepared.

“Every week we have conference calls on what we need to think about for our clients; and every week we talk with our producers,” Bruner said.

They discuss contingency plans for everything from short staff at a farm to a processor shutdown.

Bruner says their biggest worry is a processor shutting down due to a worker shortage. She recommends everyone develop a plan to be prepared just in case it happens.

“Think of all the scenarios if you lost a week of marketing,” she explained. “It ends up being a double hit because you send in heavy pigs and it costs to feed them. So, what will be your plan for feeding those pigs differently at market end?”

If animal movement gets halted for a period of time, it is good to think through where the flow of pigs will go. Bruner says if space is available, it is possible to utilize nursery and farrowing to hold weaned pigs. But if you are tight, you may need to use the space in wean-to-finish barns. Identifying those now will help to handle this crisis if it occurs.

Short-staff planning

The other important contingency plan is for short staffing. “If we have multiple people who get sick, most times we have others come in to help, but that is not always possible,” Bruner said.

“We are asking producers if you normally have maybe nine people but only five are available, what are the tasks you need to do every day like feed, water, iron shots? We need to narrow the list to things you know you need to get done.

“We haven’t had a short staff yet, but we go through the concept with producers of what they need to do,” she added.

As the COVID-19 epidemic works its way through the country, Bruner believes people will learn from it and next year will be better.

“Just like with PED, we will have less coronavirus cases next year because people are recognizing how well these personal hygiene steps limit the spread of coronavirus,” she added.

More COVID-19 resources

For more information on ways to reduce the threat of COVID-19 in your hog operation, visit these websites:

CDC.gov
Pork.org
U of MN Swine Disease Eradication Center