For weanling producers in Manitoba, the devastation wrought by porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) elsewhere has a very silvery lining.
As their counterparts south of the border and in Eastern Canada haul dead piglets out of their barns by the wheelbarrow, the industry here is getting $90-$100 per head for isoweans and up to $135 for 40-pound piglets.
With a provincial average of 28 piglets per sow per year, that makes keeping a sow nowadays almost three times more profitable than a beef cow, even with calf prices at the current record highs.
But that lasts for only as long as the industry here can keep it out of production facilities.
James Hofer of Starlite Colony fears Manitoba’s luck will run out sooner rather than later unless small abattoirs and assembly yards act quickly to tighten up their biosecurity.
At a meeting last week hosted by EMF (formerly Eastman Feeds) and feed additive giant Alltech, Hofer cited the latest results of environmental surveillance by Manitoba’s chief veterinary office that have found a total of eight swabs taken from high-traffic areas that were PED positive.
“My question is how does it get there?” said Hofer, noting that so far none of the tracebacks by the CVO from those operations have led back to PED-positive farms in Manitoba.
“We should be standing up to them and saying that if you’re accepting unwashed trucks at your facility, we’re not supporting your business anymore.”
Given the high profits that can be gained from “staying clean” and the devastating consequences of bringing the virus back onto the farm, a sow operation would be better off shooting cull sows at home than bringing them to a location where PED is present, added Hofer.
Weanling producers have good reason to be concerned, said Dr. Peter Provis, of Elanco Animal Health.
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He cited a study that found 20 per cent of the trailers arriving at U.S. killing plants were contaminated with PED. That finding wasn’t particularly surprising, he said, given the extent of the outbreak.
But what shocked researchers was their discovery that 11 per cent of the trailers deemed clean at arrival were found to be contaminated with PED by the time they had left the plant.
That makes cleaning and drying trailers critical for halting PED, and last winter’s brutally cold weather made that task especially difficult.
“You can’t disinfect shit. So you have to get rid of the shit. If you don’t get rid of the shit, you can’t get rid of the virus,” said Provis.
The fact that Manitoba and the western provinces haven’t “broken” is a source of amazement for many, especially in the U.S. where thousands of farms have lost an estimated seven million pigs.
That’s because even just a speck — a millilitre — of infected piglet feces contains a billion viruses, and only six are needed to make a pig come down with the disease that is 100 per cent fatal in newborn piglets.
One gram of PED virus — that’s about the size of a pencil eraser — diluted in two large swimming pools will result in water capable of infecting a pig, he added.
“There’s not many viruses that we know of that are that infectious,” said Provis.
The PED virus is so insidious — it can persist in fecal slurry at room temperature for two to four weeks and withstand anywhere from -20 C to 40 C – that some of his colleagues in the United States have come to regard it as an “evil spirit” that spreads on the wind.
There may be some truth to that, he noted, because studies have shown that if a barn is more than three miles away from an infected premises, it has no more chance of getting infected than if it were hundreds of miles away.
“If you’re downwind, you’re more likely to get it than if you’re upwind,” said Provis, who added if PED does become established here, spreading manure will become problematic.
Unlike bird flu, which can jump from birds, hogs or humans and back, and other Corona viruses such as MERS and SARS, which are deadly to humans, PED can only infect pigs.
That means it can only spread by hitching a ride on boots, fingernails or on the feet of birds, flies or vermin.
In the early stages of the outbreak in Canada, feed made from a single lot of porcine plasma was the only identified common link between the first 18 infected farms.
But for the American industry at this point, it is “academic” whether the initial source of infection was contaminated feed or some other vector, said Roger Kinsey of Iowa-based U.S. Feeds, who gave a disturbing overview of the horrific losses seen by pig farmers down south.
Virtually all feed companies have pulled the plasma product out of piglet starter feeds as a precaution, but now, with an estimated 200 new farms getting infected every week, there’s enough of the virus present to sustain the carnage even without feed as a potential vector.
“I think it’s a safe product if it’s processed properly, but you know, things can happen,” said Kinsey.