Hog farmers live on edge with deadly virus

Farm Forum

MONROE CITY, Mo. — It’s hard to blame Scott Hays for waking up each morning and wondering if this is the day death pays a visit to his hog farm.

He’s a partner in family-owned Two Mile Pork, based in the small farming community 20 miles west of Hannibal. And like thousands of other hog producers across the nation, he spends a lot of time these days worrying about porcine epidemic diarrhea, referred to as PED in hog circles.

The vicious viral disease has dealt the pork industry a staggering blow since appearing in the U.S. last spring. The disease poses no risk to humans, but it kills virtually every piglet, 14 days and younger, that it touches.

Increased anxiety over the virus prompted the fifth-generation farmer last fall to put together a step-by-step plan for employees in the event of an outbreak. More than anything, he wanted to get everyone ready, emotionally, for what would happen.

“To show up for work and know that everything that’s born today is going to die, I don’t think you can ever really be prepared for that,” Hays said.

But that’s what farms in 27 states have been dealing with in the past 12 months. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 5 million and 10 million piglets have died from dehydration caused by the diarrhea.

From a pocketbook perspective, it’s something consumers will become well acquainted with throughout the year, with prices for bacon and other pork cuts climbing into record territory.

But what’s most frightening for farmers such as Hays is the simple fact that we still don’t know how the disease made it to the U.S. — or how to keep pigs safe from it.

“We can’t control it. We can’t stop it,” Hays said. “And it doesn’t seem to be going away.”

The disease was first diagnosed in this country in April of last year, popping up in several states at the same time. Researchers say the virus is virtually identical to one originating in China. But they haven’t figured out how it jumped continents, or even how it spread once it got here.

Missouri saw its first case late last year. Since then, roughly 5 percent — 119 farms — of the state’s hog producers have claimed outbreaks. Illinois farmers have reported 360 cases spread throughout the state’s 2,900 hog farms.

“It’s not like there’s one pocket that’s worse than other areas,” said Tim Maiers, spokesman for the Illinois Pork Producers Association.

Across the nation, at least 5,000 farms have been hit. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s March report on the industry estimated there’s been a 3 percent drop in the nation’s pig inventory over the past year. Though that is, at best, an informed guess.

Because reporting has been voluntary, many in the industry think the tally may be considerably higher. But we may soon have a better idea of the damage, following April’s announcement by the USDA that farms and testing labs will be required to report outbreaks of the disease that’s proving troublesome to fight.

The virus is known to spread through the transfer of tiny amounts of fecal matter. It may have an airborne element as well. The fact that it popped up in several states at the same time suggests it could be related to some product used on farms. Among those suspects is starter feed — given to piglets to bridge the gap between nursing and eating grain — that includes plasma from slaughtered hogs.

“This virus doesn’t have the ability to crawl under doors or jump from tall buildings. But there is something that’s happening that we don’t yet understand,” said Paul Sundberg, vice president of science and technology for the National Pork Board, which has invested $1.7 million researching the virus.

Even in good times, a hog farm isn’t the sort of place a visitor simply strolls into unannounced. These farms rely on strict biosecurity measures to keep their vulnerable nurseries safe from disease.

At Two Mile Pork in Monroe City, for example, workers and visitors already were required to shower and change into farm-provided clothing before entering the facility.

But with the new virus stalking the nation, farms such as Two Mile have been forced to re-evaluate, and in some cases tighten, their precautions. Particularly when it comes to the heart of the operation — the sow farm.

An outbreak wouldn’t knock the farm out of business. But it would claim the lives of thousands of young pigs, while inflicting considerable financial damage.

“We used to pride ourselves on farm tours,” Hays said. “But we had to stop those.”

The closest thing to a tour these days is pulling over on the dirt road running along the southern border of the farm, where 4,400 sows turn out 300 piglets each day. From the road, you can see the largest of the four barns and the one most vulnerable to the virus. The birthing barn stretches more than 600 feet, broken into 19 rooms, each with 48 sows.

With few exceptions, the only people allowed inside are the farm’s 25 employees. The only vehicles permitted on site are feed delivery trucks and those belonging to workers. Supplies bound for the farm are fumigated with disinfectant before being carried inside.

Two Mile also keeps an office in town, away from the sow farm and finishing sites scattered across the area.

Across the street from the office is the local feed supplier, Farmers Elevator and Exchange.

The company’s drivers carry large bottles of disinfectant to clean their tires after every delivery. They use disposable shoe covers at every stop to avoid transferring anything from one farm to another.

Their trucks are washed at least once a day now.

“We were washing our trucks basically weekly at best,” said Marlin McCormick, the facility’s general manager. “You could say this is only because of the pig virus.”

What’s happening in Monroe City is pretty much the norm these days in the state’s pork industry, said Marcia Shannon, a professor with the University of Missouri-Columbia’s division of animal sciences.

Shannon, who routinely consults with farmers about pig nutrition, said producers are doing everything they can to limit the potential for tires and shoes to spread the virus. She knows of at least one farmer who bought his own grinder and mixer to make pig feed — eliminating one of the reasons trucks visit his farm.

She’s even noticed a difference in the way farmers interact with her.

Before the virus came along, half of her consultations were done in person. Today, everyone wants to talk by phone — fearing contact with anyone else from the industry.

“That’s the anxiety,” Shannon said. “Nobody’s safe.”