Hog farmers fight epidemic killing piglets
By Amy Lavalley Post-Tribune correspondent August 2, 2014 6:54PM
Chris Birky wranlges up some of his sows for feeding Thursday afternoon at his hog farm. Birky's farm has escaped the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus.| Dan Shelton/Sun-Times Media
PEDV is not a human health issue. Pork remains completely safe to eat.
No vaccine is available to cure or prevent PEDV.
PEDV is a pig-farming virus affecting only pigs. It poses no risk to other animals, humans or food safety.
PEDV is not a new virus; it’s been found in countries worldwide.
The USDA, state animal health officials, the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and veterinarians at the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council are actively engaged in monitoring and continuing to manage this disease.
The National Pork Board’s board of directors approved $1.1 million toward research and communication to better understand the PED virus.
Updated: September 4, 2014 6:14AM
Kouts hog farmer Chris Birky considers himself and the farmers he knows lucky so far.
Their herds have been spared porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, or PEDV, which strikes the tiniest of piglets, rapidly killing them with severe dehydration and diarrhea when they are only a few weeks old. Older piglets and pigs are able to recover from the virus, which cannot be transmitted to humans.
The virus, Birky and those familiar with it said, is changing procedures on farms to even greater awareness of sanitation, and, for the consumer, driving up the cost of pork products.
“People can’t contract this from an animal. It’s nothing people have to live in fear of, but we want to keep animals healthy,” Birky said.
Jay Gruber, who manages a number of farms in Jasper County with a little more than 6,000 sows, hasn’t been as lucky as Birky.
The virus struck one farm shortly before Thanksgiving; a second farm about three months later; and a third farm around mid-April. In all, the farms lost almost 7,000 piglets.
The loss was difficult for Gruber and his employees.
“When things don’t go right, they take it very personally. Though it might be out of their hands, going in every day and knowing everything that was born will die is just very difficult,” Gruber said, adding he’s seen other illnesses, but nothing like PEDV. “This is the most devastating thing I’ve ever seen as far as death loss.”
The virus first hit Indiana, Ohio and Iowa in late April or early May 2013, striking in all three states almost simultaneously, said veterinarian Tom Gillespie, whose Rensselaer practice has clients in Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa.
“At that point, we did not have the diagnostic capabilities to diagnose it,” he said. “We started to see breaks in our client base in late November and early December last winter.”
A driving economic force is getting piglets weaned and to market. Losing those piglets, Gillespie said, is both a tremendous economic and emotional burden for farmers.
A two-pronged approach — building immunity in sows through exposure and better cleanliness on the farm — seems to be keeping the disease at bay for now, Gillespie said, with no sign of the virus in his clients since mid-April, something he calls “pretty remarkable.”
“There’s no virus, and we cannot find the virus inside the buildings. The other side of this is, how long does the immunity last in these sows? Not long,” he said.
The sows begin to lose their immunity to PEDV after three months, he said, and the virus thrives in cold weather. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also has given conditional licensing o a vaccine against the virus.
Gillespie’s clients include Fair Oaks Farms, which added the Pig Adventure to its ag offerings a year ago. A July 14 post on the farms’ blog notes that the Pig Adventure is negative for the virus and has never had it.
“We worked very hard to build awareness last summer and to build a protocol for very early detection, and it worked very well for them,” Gillespie said.
Anecdotally, PEDV has been found in at least 48 counties, said Denise Derrer, public information director for the Indiana State Board of Animal Health. The agency should have more comprehensive statistics in the coming months, as both the USDA and the state board recently mandated reporting cases of PEDV.
“Reports just started trickling in to our office,” Derrer said. “It’s out there. Going forward, we’re just advising producers to use caution and be aware, and they do that.”
Birky Family Farms, north of Kouts along Indiana 49, raises about 1,000 pigs a year. Birky said PEDV has changed the way farmers are raising pigs, and increased awareness about not tracking diseases to and from their farms. He’s also seen industry-wide changes when it comes to cleaning and sanitizing transport trucks.
“We’re always very conscious if we take to pigs to market or the butcher, or visit another farm, or going to the fair last week,” he said. “We always clean up, change clothes and try not to contaminate.”
One of the hardest things for farmers now, even those who whose hogs haven’t been hit by PEDV, is waiting to see how it will play out, Birky said, since immunity developed by the sows is not long-lasting, and the virus, like any other, has many strains.
Consumers are feeling the impact of PEDV as well.
According to a recent news release from the National Pork Producers Council, PEDV killed about 7 million pigs in 30 states between April 2013 and April 2014, likely reducing this summer’s slaughter by more than 10 percent.
That’s expected to push U.S. hog prices up by as much as 25 percent and force consumer pork prices up.
“People go to buy pork chops in the store now and they say, ‘Man, they’re expensive,’ and it’s because of PEDV,” Birky said.
Gruber agreed that prices “are really good for producers” because demand is high, as is typical of the summer months, and supply is tight because of the millions of pigs lost to PEDV.
The farms Gruber manages have been spared since April. He said it’s the dehydration from the virus, rather than the virus itself, that kills young piglets, which only weigh a few pounds. A 400- or 500-pound sow can lose 10 pounds and bounce back; piglets can’t afford to lose as much as half a pound.
Despite ongoing sanitation measures to keep the virus off the farm, Gruber said he and his employees are keeping a wary eye on the coming colder months, when PEDV thrives.
“First and foremost, we all take a moral obligation to treat the animals well every day,” he said, adding his employees are walking on eggshells as they go forward. “Our employees are still nervous, to say the least, about what the future may hold.”