Infectious disease can be disastrous to a swine operation, which is why farmers throughout Pennsylvania are working with New Bolton Center experts to track farms where infected pigs are located, and implement biosecurity practices to minimize the spread of diseases.
Dr. Meghann Pierdon, a veterinarian and researcher at Penn Vet’s Swine Teaching and Research Center, manages the day-to-day operations of the Pennsylvania Regional Control Program for swine disease, funded by the Pennsylvania Pork Producers Council.
One of the first and largest of its kind in the country, the program was put into place several years ago to help control the most costly disease that swine farmers face: Porcine Respiratory and Reproductive Syndrome (PRRS). The program was expanded two years ago to monitor the outbreak of an equally devastating and emerging pathogen, Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PED).
Pierdon has the important job of regularly updating a secure website with the program’s map, which pinpoints locations where pigs have tested positive for diseases.
“The regional control program has been instrumental in helping the industry understand the scope and impact of this new disease, PED, and the best measures of biosecurity to stop the spread of the deadly virus,” she said.
Industry Participation Up, Swine Disease Down
Since Pierdon took over management more than two years ago, the industry’s participation in the control program has nearly doubled to almost 100 members, and swine disease levels across the state have markedly decreased. At the end of 2012, 24.5 percent of pigs in the program were located on farms positive for disease. That number declined to 17 percent by the second quarter of 2015.
The collaboration among the farmers, who historically have been reluctant to share information with their competitors, is unprecedented, said Dr. Thomas Parsons, Director of the Swine Teaching and Research Center at New Bolton Center.
“Every quarter we get all the farmers in the room and they talk about disease problems,” he said. “Previously these topics would have been business secrets, but they realize that some of these diseases are bigger than themselves and require a team approach to control.”
Dr. Jessica Risser, the Animal Health and Welfare Manager for one of the largest pork producers in Pennsylvania, said swine producers realize cooperation in the control program is necessary to eradicate the two devastating diseases.
“The program has been effective in opening the communication doors across systems,” said Risser, a veterinarian for Country View Family Farms. “The website has been a great tool to aid in the rapid communication of disease breaks.”
Parsons emphasizes that the disease control program is only one aspect of the breadth and depth of the Swine Center’s expert team, which includes two PhD ethologists, who study swine behavior, and four veterinarians who specialize in swine health and husbandry.
Parsons is best known for his research on swine welfare, specifically housing for the mother sows. Parsons and his team created the pioneering “Penn Gestation” model, a housing alternative that eliminates gestation crates commonly used by commercial pork producers and allows sows to move about freely.
“Our explicit mission is to serve the farmers of Pennsylvania,” Parsons said. “Our goal has been to assemble a team of nation- ally and internationally recognized experts to ensure that we can provide unparalleled expertise and create a competitive advantage for Pennsylvania agriculture.”
An Online Map to Track Disease
Using a geographic information mapping system (GIS), Pierdon maintains an online map detailing the disease status of 542 swine farms, representing about 90 percent of the pigs in the state.
“Dr. Pierdon has been great at keeping us organized, accountable to reporting our data, and has helped to track our progress toward PRRS and PED control,” Risser said.
Outbreaks of active disease are pinpointed by farm on the map, available through a secure website hosted by pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim. Pennsylvania’s swine veterinarians also access this site to post information about recent disease outbreaks. Program members are notified so that changes in disease status are available in a timely manner.
Pierdon faxes or mails the map to those in the Amish and Mennonite communities who do not have access to the Internet— about 10 percent of the members in the program.
“It’s important information, so that the stakeholders don’t take disease from farm to farm,” Parsons said, noting that program members also include those from service industries. Preventing a feed truck that has been on a farm with active disease from going directly to other swine farms is one obvious way to reduce disease spread, he added.
“This is very much a partnership,” Parsons said. “We are the stewards, and provide infrastructure and guidance, but the farmers make the decisions. For the program to be effective, it has to be their program.”