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How to Improve Biosecurity on Swine Farms

African swine fever risk means U.S. pig farms are on high alert.

With the threat of African swine fever (ASF) and other deadly diseases increasing daily, swine veterinarians are vital watchdogs for the global meat industry. Paul Thomas, associate veterinarian for AMVC Management Services (#10 on the Pork Powerhouses ranking of the largest pig producers in the U.S., with 135,500 sows in eight states), is one of the best. He was named the 2019 Young Swine Veterinarian of the Year by the American Association of Swine Veterinarians. We sat down with Thomas in the AMVC headquarters in Audubon, Iowa, to get his tips.

SF: Do you worry about foreign animal diseases reaching the farms you manage?

PT: On a daily basis, I’m more worried about keeping PRRS [porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome] and PED [porcine epidemic diarrhea] out of my farms. Those are here, they are real, and they certainly impact health and production. They hurt my individual clients. That’s what I think about daily.

I was very concerned about the risk of African swine fever at World Pork Expo. With the international visitors and the live animal shows, it is possible to introduce and spread foreign animal diseases. I’m thankful they [National Pork Producers Council] made the difficult decision to cancel the show this year. A foreign animal disease introduction would be terrible for the swine industry and the entire rural economy. If ASF gets into the U.S., it will affect everyone because of the impact on exports.

SF: How do you deal with PED and PRRS?

PT: We have gotten pretty good at keeping PED out of farms, and we know how to respond to it when we get it. PRRS pressures have been increasing the past several years. This past winter, PRRS wasn’t the worst, but it certainly wasn’t great. There is a lot about PRRS we still don’t know. We don’t have the tools to prevent infection. We still don’t know a lot about how it behaves in sow farms. We know a lot more than we did, but there are still a lot of unknowns. Some strains are mild and you get over them quickly. Other strains are severe but you get over them quickly. Some strains hang on forever. There is quite a bit of variation, and we don’t know if this is because of the virus, our response to the virus, or both. It makes it very difficult to predict the outcome and the best response plan at the start of a PRRS break.

SF: What are you doing to heighten biosecurity?

PT: We are looking closely at feed ingredients that come into a farm. When possible, we try not to source them from a country that has foreign animal diseases. When that is not possible, we put in appropriate practices to mitigate risk. If the timeline from manufacturing to when it could be consumed by a pig isn’t long enough to deactivate the virus, then we add quarantine time. We communicate with our nutrition partners that source our ingredients to make sure they hold ingredients for an appropriate time before they go to farms.

We make sure all our supplies are disinfected before they enter the farm. We have moved to central storage and distribution of the majority of our supplies. They come in and are held at a distribution center here in Audubon. We determine the delivery schedule. We know they are clean coming in and they are put on a clean truck. We know where that truck has been before.

SF: What biosecurity measures do you recommend on sow farms?

PT: All of our sow farms are shower-in and shower-out. Most have Danish bench entries before the shower. You sit on a bench when you come in, take your shoes off, and swing your feet over before you enter the shower.

Every entrance is important. On a sow farm, you have weaned pigs leaving, cull sows leaving, and gilts entering the farm. Make sure the trailer is decontaminated. Make sure people are moving in the chute and trailer in a way that doesn’t put the farm at risk. Design your chutes so that pigs can go up, but there is little chance for the pigs to come back down the chutes. Make sure those chutes are closed to the outside so you don’t have birds contaminating them. When you are done moving the pigs, wash and disinfect the chute.

With dead removal, you are opening a door and moving mortalities out. The loader may go to a rendering box. That rendering truck also goes to other farms. That is an area of risk. You need to be careful how you handle mortalities so you get them out of the farm in a biosecure way.

SF: What about biosecurity on finishing farms?

PT: The industry has a tendency to think of high biosecurity on the sow farm and then forget about grow-finish. The thought is you are going to empty this entire barn, wash and disinfect it, so we will be OK. But if you are not protecting your grow-finish sites, this is a big gaping hole in biosecurity. It doesn’t matter if it’s a grow-finish barn or a sow farm – as a country we can’t afford to risk having a foreign animal disease enter any type of site. We have started putting Danish bench entries in our finishers. Workers have outside boots and inside boots. That is a simple way to up our game on biosecurity in grow-finish. It’s something that everybody in the swine industry can turn around tomorrow and implement in their finishing barns easily and inexpensively.

Paul Thomas DVM

SF: Tell me about AMVC.

PT: We manage swine farms in North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio. We are a managed system of client farms, so there is no one-size-fits-all for our clients or our system. You have to be able to respond to different needs for different clients. You may have the same situation, but two different answers for different clients.

SF: Is the company growing?

PT: Yes. We are increasing the number of sows that we manage, and some of our clients are adding sows. It is a combination of new construction, adding new managed clients, and helping existing clients expand. We go where the opportunities are. Where clients want to work with us and expand with us, that’s where we are going to expand and grow.

SF: Are your clients positive about the hog industry?

PT: I think their long-term outlook is positive. Mine certainly is. There are challenges year to year with profitability, but you are not going to raise pigs if you don’t think long term. There are more people on this planet entering the middle class and wanting to eat quality protein. The world is going to want more pork and we are very good at producing it.

SF: Besides disease, what are other challenges for the swine industry?

PT: Labor is a huge issue. We provide the labor on our managed farms. They are all AMVC employees, so we think about labor every day. We are trying to get creative as far as coming up with a solution. The answer is different at every location. There is not one labor pool. When you are raising pigs in North Dakota and there is an oil boom, that changes the dynamics on labor. You are now competing with everyone for expensive and scarce labor.

We have come to the conclusion that we have to figure out a way to remove some of the daily tasks on a farm. We want people to work with the pigs where they can make the most impact, not carrying a feed scoop or a power washer wand. We are trying to automate as much as we can where it makes sense.

What’s really important is retaining labor once you get it. If you are always having a hard time finding labor, the worst thing you can do is lose the labor you have. Make a work place they want to show up to every day. Give them a job they can feel good about. Pay them a wage they can live on and provide benefits. Those are all important things. You have to be able to retain. Getting them engaged has been a big focus for us. An engaged employee does a good job and they feel good at the end of the day.

SF: You graduated from Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. What has surprised you since graduation?

PT: You realize veterinary medicine is not as simple as treating disease. Oftentimes, there is not one answer. What works one time doesn’t always work. You are making health decisions in the context of a pig population, a farm, and a business. We are helping people understand what they need to do. The best plan doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t get executed. You have to communicate effectively. Help people understand why your recommendations make sense.

SF: Why did you decide to specialize in swine health?

PT: Even though I grew up on a farrow-to-finish hog farm and I like working with pigs, I was still on the fence in vet school. I didn’t know what a modern swine veterinarian did. As I got exposed to farms through internships and the Iowa State faculty, I saw that the swine industry is data driven. Decisions are made using financial, production, and health information. Swine farmers expect you to justify your recommendations and they respond positively to the evidence when you do. It’s nice to work in an industry that values information and the decisions you make.

SF: You are an instructor for Iowa State’s Swine Medicine Education Center. What are you teaching vet students?

PT: They come here for a production consulting course. They learn how sow farms and grow-finish farms operate individually and at the system level. They are learning about the financial side to raising pigs. Health, weather, the natural cycles of the animals, and demand for pork all combine to affect pig prices. You are working for a client and they need to make money. If you don’t understand what drives their business, it’s more difficult to bring value. If you understand how the business works, how they make money, and where their constraints are, you can be more helpful to them. You can provide solutions and give them recommendations that take those constraints into account so they make the best decision for the health of their animals and the health of their business.

SF: What is important for farmers to understand about veterinary medicine?

PT: The cost per pig of veterinary medicine is very small, but it has an enormous impact. When health is good, you can make money. When health is bad, you can’t make money because you can’t make pigs. It’s important to understand the value that a veterinarian can bring. The cost for the return on that dollar spent is enormous. It’s a small amount per animal, and it can have huge benefits.

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