When swine medicine crossed over to human medicine

The tools used countless times to eradicate disease in sow herds and on hog farms became the tools to help pork packing plants reopen last spring after shutting down due to COVID-19. In an unusual turn of events, swine medicine crossed over to human medicine and helped quell COVID-19 outbreaks among plant workers and their families.

Veterinarians involved in the unprecedented effort spoke in a session at the 2021 American Association of Swine Veterinarians meeting. Tim Loula, DVM, led the effort with help from Paul Yeske, DVM, both of Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota. Also closely involved were David Bomgaars, DVM, with RC Family Farms, Orange City, Iowa, and Brad Freking, DVM, New Fashion Pork, Jackson, Minnesota.

Plant closures

“When we started to hear about the COVID-19 problems, never did we imagine that slaughter capacity would be the biggest challenge that many producers and veterinarians would have to deal with,” Bomgaars related.

While pork-processing plants were deemed essential and could stay open during the pandemic, COVID-19 outbreaks sparked alarm among workers, their communities and local government officials. Soon, plants in Minnesota and Iowa cut back production and some completely closed.

A growing backlog of market hogs created great alarm in the pork industry. Producers and veterinarians worked on ways to handle backlogs while waiting for processors to reopen. But the processors didn’t know when that would happen.

Connecting with medical teams

“It just seemed like nobody was doing anything to get an answer on how to get these plants back running,” Bomgaars said. “Tim Loula and I discussed the need to get the human medical community involved in this process. We needed to better understand the prevalence, exposure, severity and asymptomatic rate of COVID-19.”

Bomgaars started seeking connections in the medical community. He contacted the CEO of his local hospital in Orange City and was provided a connection with Sanford Health, a major medical system in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Sanford’s chief medical officer was willing to work with Bomgaars and other veterinarians to develop a plan for testing workers and getting packing plants back in operation.

“The medical doctors’ response was very encouraging,” Bomgaars related. “I was also talking with Roger Main, DVM, at the Iowa State University (ISU) Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. It was taking the state hygienic lab 10 to 12 days to get COVID-19 tests completed. The ISU lab has been running over a million PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests a year. They helped the hygienic lab expand to run PCR tests. There was tremendous collaboration with human-health providers in Iowa.”

Both Loula and Bomgaars discussed their experiences eliminating disease in a hog population with the medical doctors. They explained how they used testing to assess the infection and immunity in populations of hogs. This same process could be used to assess COVID-19 infections in workers.

“Dr. Loula’s basic premise is we need to get testing and build confidence in what’s occurring so people will come back to work,” Bomgaars said. “Through collaboration with veterinarians, epidemiologists and health care providers, he developed a testing algorithm.”

The COVID-19 algorithm

The algorithm is a roadmap for handling COVID-19 test results and getting packing plants open (link to algorithm). All workers are tested either with a PCR or antibody test. Those testing positive on the PCR must quarantine and retest weekly until negative, which is when they can return to work. Workers who test negative can work unrestricted but must continue to be tested on a regular basis.

Workers testing positive on the antibody test must follow-up with a PCR test, according to the algorithm. If the PCR is negative, they can go to work. But if the test is positive, they must quarantine and be retested weekly by PCR until they have a negative test.

“This plan was to test everyone and keep them from spreading to other workers,” Bomgaars explained. “It definitely helped keep other processing plants operating.”

Workers were managed according to their health status to decrease health risk and promote worker safety. The negative PCR and immune (positive antibody test, negative PCR test) populations could work together. Initially it was proposed that these workers and families were housed in hotels or dorms to stay safe. The positive PCR with positive antibody test were at very low risk of shedding if showing no clinical signs. They were segregated in the plant or worked different shifts from the rest of the population.

“In the initial testing, it was amazing how many workers were asymptomatic,” Bomgaars said. “One plant had 2,400 people tested with 40% PCR positive and well over half showing no clinical signs. At another plant, 370 workers tested positive, and all were asymptomatic.”

Building worker trust

The algorithm helped packing plants get back in operation. And those that didn’t close were able to stay at near capacity by taking steps to test and manage workers to stop the spread of the disease.

“We also noticed a very personal response with education and explanations about the situation in languages that people could understand,” Bomgaars added.

During the really tough times of the pandemic, gift certificates were purchased from local restaurants for take-out food and given to plant workers. On weekends, Bomgaars said they had truckloads of food brought in and donated to the workers, too.

“Doing things that show you care about their health and family had a major impact on worker confidence that you want to do what’s best for them,” he added. “That’s a huge thing we learned in this process.”

The veterinarians also took home some good lessons about working with their human medical counterparts. “Local health workers understood that veterinarians are used to population medicine, and human medicine is more attuned to individuals,” Bomgaars explained. “They learned new methods of thinking. And the synergy that occurred in those situations was remarkably good. We may need this again.”


Nicollet’s Loula honored with MN Pork Board’s Distinguished Service Award

By Katelyn Gradert, Minnesota Pork Board


The Minnesota Pork Board recognized Dr. Tim Loula, of Nicollet, as this year’s Distinguished Service Award recipient.

An enduring passion for pigs, hard work ethic, and determination to serve farmers well set the stage early on for Dr. Tim Loula’s legacy. Without his countless contributions, pork production today would likely look much different, for Loula has spent his career challenging the status quo and pushing farmers outside their comfort zone to be the best.

Passion for pigs

Growing up in Northfield, Loula spent his summers on a dairy farm working with family and a nearby farmer, along with riding alongside Dr. Roger Green, the local veterinarian, exposing him to all aspects of raising livestock. These experiences intensified his love of livestock, paving a natural progression to becoming a veterinarian.

Swine practice became his true passion after interacting with the late Dr. Al Leman. Loula traveled to farms and meetings with Leman while he was studying at the University of Minnesota, gaining an appreciation of herd health visits and being pushed to “think out of the box”, as Leman commonly encouraged. Loula carried his knowledge and passion to the Nicollet Vet Clinic after graduating in 1978, where his mission was to “develop the swine part” of the mixed animal practice.

While there, he learned how raising pigs indoors, multi-site production, and European genetics had the potential to change the U.S. swine industry. Loula’s love for swine practice became his focus and in 1991, he started the Swine Vet Center in St. Peter with his partner and colleague Dr. Paul Yeske. This practice has since grown to 15 exclusively swine veterinarians.

“Tim’s ability to quickly analyze problems and be able to sense the right direction to move forward, even without a lot of data behind the idea, was what helped propel our business forward,” stated Dr. Paul Yeske. “He is a great leader who challenges everyone around him to be their best and drive their own destiny.”

Inspiring teacher

Loula’s wife of more than 40 years, Dr. Ruth Loula, declared, “Tim’s passion is and has always been teaching. Not so much in a classroom setting, rather out in the field and barns working with farm staff to raise pigs the best way possible.”

Tim has always been driven to continually learn to stay on top of his field to be “at least as smart” as his clients. He is known for being a self-learner and avid reader, talking with and learning from people both within and outside of the swine industry, constantly gaining knowledge and insight valuable to him, his clients, and family.

His teaching knows no bounds, as “he continues his teaching with our six grandchildren – the loves of his life,” described Ruth. “He takes them out to see newborn calves, feed the cows, work in our son’s wean-to-finish barn, and ride the 4-wheeler to check on crops, newly planted trees, and the pumpkin garden.”

Steve Langhorst, owner of Wakefield Pork, stated, “One of Tim’s greatest strengths is his ability to work on the slat level teaching entry-level caretakers production skills. His dedication to working with caretakers is paramount to the success he has had in the industry.”

Loula’s goal is to create relationships with staff members and engage them during his visits; he believes in the importance of making work in the barn fun, interesting, and rewarding. When he sees people learn and develop over time with more production and leadership skills, he feels a sense of pride, since he is always challenging others to keep improving.

“Tim has and always will be an incredible teacher. He takes people out of their comfort zone and helps them to think bigger, challenge their status quo, and encourages them to be the best, all while detailing why these steps are so important,” Yeske added.

Committed success

Loula’s success within the industry can be widely acknowledged and appraised by any bystander simply by the list of accolades associated with his work. To this day, Loula has done consulting work in 34 U.S. states and 30 foreign countries. He has made countless contributions to eradicating diseases, being an early adapter of new technologies, leading world class production, and challenging farmers to think bigger and make the industry better.

However, his leadership and relationships built with farmers and veterinarians alike is what has made his legacy so paramount.

“Tim’s relationship with his clients and fellow vets, along with his drive to see them succeed is evident. He has an uncanny ability to understand how to motivate others and is excellent at finding what drives producers to be better, and how to challenge them when he sees an opportunity to grow,” Langhorst noted. “Tim always stresses that great benefits come from networking with others, and is famous for being in hallways having discussions many hours after meetings and conventions end. His passion to continuously learn from others and share his knowledge is very evident by his actions.”

Yeske described Tim’s relationship with producers as one of mutual respect. Loula’s philosophy is to meet the producers where they are most comfortable, build a personal relationship with them, and then provide them with a plan to help improve their operation. His presence is one of service, consistently seeking to understand and assist, always asking, “How can I help you today?”

Producers he has worked with over the years described how each person he comes in contact with has his full attention. His objective is to be present in the moment; “when he is with you, no one is more important than you at the time.”

Loula stated he has always prided himself, and urged all staff members of the vet clinic as well, to push clients to excellence.

“Tim is unapologetic in challenging clients that they can do better,” Yeske proclaimed.

He contributes much of his success to his clients, for their willingness to listen, change, and push themselves to be better is what has propelled the industry forward and made Minnesota production so successful. He feels his accomplishments have always been linked to the success of his clients.

One of Loula’s favorite sayings is, “Listen to the pig – do what’s right for the pig, and your clients will be successful. If your clients are successful, you will be successful.”

Pride for generational farms

Loula’s love for working with pigs is easily connected to his respect and passion for the family farmers of whom the pigs belong. In his early years, he established leadership and commitment to the development and growth of farms – both large and small – across the state which continued throughout his career.

“He has grown close to the families of many of his clients and feels a real sense of pride and accomplishment when younger generations come home to the farm,” Ruth said.

“Tim has worked with multiple generations of family farms and vet practitioners. No doubt his early contributions to these folks and farms have allowed other generations an opportunity to return to the farm,” stated Langhorst. “I would say he most looks forward to seeing upcoming generations succeed with world-leading production numbers.”

When asked what advice Loula would give to incoming generations, Yeske stated, “He would tell them to be good neighbors and make sure they are running responsible operations creating opportunities for themselves and for the greater world in abundant food supply.”

The 2021 Distinguished Service award winner, Dr. Tim Loula, is a tireless leader who helped shape pig farming as we know it. His contributions to the state of Minnesota and the rest of the country have benefitted pig farmers, veterinarians, and researchers significantly and will continue to do so with future generations to come.