COVID-19 prompts hog farms, veterinary clinics to limit contact for workers’ health

The disease causing the greatest concern in the pork industry today is not a swine disease but a human one — coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19).

As this nasty respiratory illness spreads throughout the US, pork producers and veterinarians realize the devastating impact it could have on a hog farm if the workforce becomes sick.

Fortunately, many producers can use the lessons learned from another coronavirus that affected their business. Eight years ago, porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) prompted many hog farms to improve biosecurity and prevent future outbreaks of PED.

“Swine producers already have a pretty good grasp on biosecurity,” reported Brad Schmitt, DVM, veterinarian with Four Star Veterinary Service, Rushville, Indiana. “They’ve been doing this kind of thing for years.

“But we have to stay vigilant because if one [employee] has it, it’s not long before others get it, and there will be a labor shortage,” he added.

Social distancing at work

A number of new procedures are being implemented on many hog farms to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among employees.

Social distancing is probably the most popular one used to limit contact with other workers. Employees take turns on breaks and remain 6 feet away from each other, according to Brittney Scales, DVM, Four Star Veterinary Service in Mexico, Indiana. One farm added a breakroom to help provide more space for social distancing.

“Employees also are encouraged to stay home if sick,” Scales said. “Some farms have a system that if an employee becomes sick and needs to stay home, they will be paid as usual for up to 3 weeks. After that, the policy will be reviewed.”

Some farms ask employees to check their own temperature before showering into a hog facility. If they have a fever, they are asked to stay home for 2 weeks.

“Clients are doing the best they can to continue to do business as normal as possible and to provide for their employees,” Scales added. “First and foremost, they want to keep everyone healthy.”

Veterinarian-client interactions

Swine veterinary clinics also initiated biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among employees.

“In the large-animal practice, the first thing we put into place was lock the front door and post a phone number for clients to call and place an order,” noted Daniel Hendrickson, DVM, Four Star Veterinary Clinic in Farmland, Indiana. “We bring orders out to them.

“We’ve slowed down our visits to farms, too,” he continued “We aren’t doing regular, monthly herd checks unless something major is going on. But we are still doing necessary surgery.”

Hendrickson also is involved with a small-animal practice, and they eliminated client visits to the office, too. Technicians dressed in personal protective equipment pick up pets from client vehicles and bring the pets into the office for a check-up. If there are concerns, the veterinarian will go to the car and visit with the owner.

Hendrickson has noticed some clients are concerned about COVID-19 affecting animal supplies. “We are seeing some clients keep a couple weeks ahead of supplies, more because of what may happen if distribution companies become short-staffed,” he added.

Move to telemedicine

COVID-19 is forcing some veterinarians to use telemedicine with clients, Scales said. Clients send photos and video of their animals’ health issues and veterinarians try to determine treatments. It’s one way to prevent the spread of both human and animal disease.

When Scales does go to a farm, she wears a mask and personal protection equipment. But visits are getting fewer.

“We are still doing the health VCPR (veterinarian-client-patient relationship), but the rules are relaxed some to help get through this time,” Scales explained.

“Clients are doing the best they can to continue to do business as normal and to provide for their employees,” she added. “And first and foremost, they want to keep everyone healthy.”

More information

To find more information about strategies to handle COVID-19 in hog operations, visit and click on the COVID-19 Resources for Pork Producers page.

Included on this resource page are many links for answers about labor regulations, stay-at-home orders by state and documents to help plan for a COVID-19 outbreak. It also includes Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for preventing COVID-19.



Deadly swine-disease outbreak at buying station triggers search for mystery pathogen

When a call came into the office last September reporting very high, unexplained sow mortalities, Daniel Gascho, DVM, didn’t expect it to be anything unusual. But when the veterinarian with Four Star Veterinary Service in Mexico, Indiana, went to investigate, he found quite the opposite.

The site was a Midwest buying station with cull sows and boars collected for market. At first, just a few sows died, and alarms weren’t raised. Cull markets and buying stations are inherently at a higher risk for diseases, Gascho said.

But then 1,000 roaster pigs were unloaded at the station and they started dying, raising serious alarms.

“We had high-health, 50-pound pigs coming onto the site with no clinical signs of disease, and within 48 to 72 hours, half of them had died,” Gascho said. “It was worse than anything I’ve ever seen for an infectious disease, considering how fast they were affected after exposure. At this point we were ruling out toxin, ventilation failure or something along those lines. If infectious, it almost had to be something we were not familiar with in this country.”

Getting a diagnosis

Gascho reported the event to the proper authorities and sent off tissue samples to Iowa State University Diagnostic Laboratory for a diagnostic work-up. Worried it could be a foreign animal disease, he was relieved to have African swine fever (AFS) and similar diseases ruled out right away.

While they waited for a positive diagnosis, the buying station implemented biosecurity and depopulating protocols for the facility.

But it took a week to receive a diagnosis. “Unfortunately, most of the rapid tests we have available are for specific pathogens, so there were a lot of negatives before something was found,” Gascho explained.

The culprit: S. zooepidemicus

After ruling out many different things, the test results came back suggesting the mortality could be due to bacterial sepsis caused by Streptococcus equi ssp. zooepidemicus (S. zooepidemicus). This was the first diagnosis of S. zooepidemicus-associated mortality in pigs in the US.

Fortunately, S. zooepidemicus is typically highly treatable and susceptible to many readily available medications. But at buying stations, pigs are heading directly to market and cannot be medicated just before slaughter, in order to meet withdrawal requirements. This created perfect conditions for the bacteria to flare up at the site.

The buying station started what is known as a “rolling depopulation” as soon as ASF and other foreign animal diseases were ruled out. Once they knew the culprit was S. zooepidemicus, they moved ahead with a rolling depopulation that included emptying pens, setting biosecurity lines and disinfecting pens before new animals moved in.

“The disease appears to spread very rapidly by direct animal contact and through fomites and the environment, but poorly by aerosolization or through the air,” Gascho said. “We never had that barn completely empty but maintained a buffer zone of several disinfected empty pens between pens that had not yet been emptied and cleaned and the recently disinfected pens. The disease did not spread. We depopulated pen by pen until all pens were emptied and cleaned.”

Disease spread

How did this disease get into the US? One possible route is from Canada. The pathogen was found in cull sows in western Canada during May 2019. A year earlier, an outbreak of S. zooepidemicus occurred in mares, also in western Canada. The disease is most commonly found in horses; however, it can be transmitted to other animals and humans, but rarely.

“The natural suspicion is that this highly pathogenic form of the bacteria came into [the US] by Canada because a lot of their cull sows are brought here,” Gascho said.

After the disease hit the buying station, other episodes of excess cull sow and finisher mortalities occurred at slaughter facilities in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida and other states. Authorities believe the episodes were epidemiologically linked and are unlikely to represent new outbreaks. By late October, mortality rates at these facilities had returned to normal.

Wake-up call

Even though S. zooepidemicus is now in the US, Gascho doesn’t believe it poses a major problem for our swine industry.

“It’s very treatable, but you need to catch it fast,” he added. “If it’s a weekend and someone’s not around to check a nursery or finisher as often as they should, within a few hours a lot of damage can occur quickly.”

The S. zooepidemicus outbreak is a peek at what could happen with a major foreign animal-disease outbreak.

“It raised awareness to our shortcomings on our ability to control disease and how the steps we have in place to prevent these situations don’t always go as planned,” Gascho said. “I sent in the information and it took a week to get a diagnosis, simply because we’re limited to looking for what we know is out there. New things result in new challenges.

“It’s a good wake-up call if we were to get a foreign animal disease in this country,” he concluded.


8 key factors drive success when raising pigs without antibiotics

A cluster of hog farms raising pigs without antibiotics developed in southeast Pennsylvania where hog operations tend to be small and expansion limited. The producers here recognized that this was a way to stay viable raising hogs without getting bigger.

Helping many of these operations make the switch to producing hogs without antibiotics is Michael Pierdon, VMD, veterinarian with Four Star Veterinary Service, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

Pierdon says the decision to enter into hog production without the use of antibiotics should not be made lightly. Producers need to recognize there will always be health challenges. The goal is to resolve those challenges as they arise and not let them become a “gradual increase of endemic disease that makes antibiotic-free production untenable,” he added.

Based on his experiences, Pierdon recommends eight key factors that drive success in hog production when not using antibiotics.

1. High health status

Breeding stock and pig flow should be negative for these diseases: porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus/porcine delta coronavirus, actinobacillus pleuropneumonia and swine dysentery.

Other disease such as Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae (M. hyo) and influenza A (IAV) are ideally excluded from pig flow but are more easily managed with vaccination than other diseases.

2. Strict biosecurity

Excellent biosecurity is needed to prevent disease introduction.  If the most severe diseases are kept out, other endemic diseases are more easily managed through a combination of appropriate gilt acclimation, vaccination protocol, pig flow and husbandry.

3. Gilt acclimation

When possible, use replacement stock from the same source used to originally populate the barn.

Gilt facilities on breeding farms should allow a 2- to 4-month acclimation period when diseases like IAV and M. hyo are present.

Internal development of replacement animals is a good way to manage exposure and acclimation of replacement stock, as long as external disease introduction is minimized.

4. Vaccination

A vaccination program that creates a diverse, robust immunity is key to preventing the emergence of disease. Vaccinations should address all endemic diseases present in the breeding herd and pig flow, as well as diseases that the pigs will likely encounter downstream.

Breeding herd vaccinations should include porcine circovirus type 2 (PCV2), M. hyo, influenza, parvovirus/leptospirosis/erysipelas, Haemophilus parasuis and Salmonella.

Growing pigs should be vaccinated against PCV2 and M. hyo along with ileitis. Additional vaccinations frequently are necessary to control Salmonella, E. coli, erysipelas, Pasteurella/Bordetella and IAV.

Vaccination protocols should maximize immune response. This means vaccinating at the correct age with full doses and using two-dose protocols when necessary and recommended.

5. All-in, all-out pig flow

Pierdon suggests using batch farrowing on sow farms and all-in, all-out pig flows on grow-out sites to allow the elimination of diseases that emerge in the normal course of production.

Large populations impact health, too. He recommends setting up systems to minimize the number of pigs at one site without sacrificing the economies of scale needed to be sustainable.

He recommends keeping sow farms at 1,400 head or less and on a 4- or 5-week batch system with each group flowing to distinct grow-out sites that are emptied after each turn.

6. Barns designed for comfort

Barns used for raising pigs without antibiotics must allow for optimal husbandry conditions. Proper ventilation and temperature regulation are critical in preventing environmental stressors that can predispose pigs to disease.

Use zone heating, mats, hovers, etc., to manage the microenvironment for pig comfort. Water systems should allow routine use of oral vaccines and supplements. Water treatment systems may be needed in some areas to control pH and bacteria.

Smaller, conventional penning with 20 to 30 pigs per pen is better than large pen designs.

In hospital pens, create a separate drinking system to provide oral antibiotic treatment. An individual, moveable, gate-mounted, gravity-fed drinking system is recommended.

7. Producer engagement

“Producer engagement is key to the success of the growing pigs, particularly in the nursery phase,” Pierdon said. “Careful attention to requirements for environmental management and for individual pig care are required in order to optimize success.”

He also recommends making the training of animal caretakers take high priority. The time and resources invested in training will help keep caretakers engaged and motivated.

8. Veterinary oversight

Veterinarians have a key role to play in hog systems not using antibiotics. “Prompt, accurate diagnosis of disease challenges and timely, targeted treatment can often prevent the need for mass medication,” Pierdon said.

“Responsibility for this oversight cannot rely on lay staff,” he added. “Veterinarians have training and expertise that allows them to view the ‘big picture’ and identify not just the disease challenges present but also the factors that predispose those diseases.”

In addition, regular veterinary visits to the production sites help ensure proper medical care of all animals when necessary.

“Our responsibility is to advocate for the animals under our care,” he explained. “This includes promptly initiating antibiotic treatment when necessary and broadly enough to prevent disease outbreaks that compromise animal welfare.”


Michigan switches to pen gestation; Ohio is next

Hog operations in Michigan faced an April 1, 2020, deadline for switching from individual stalls to pens for sow gestation. The state legislature passed the mandate requiring group housing for gestating sows in late 2009.

Michigan joins several states already phasing out gestation stalls for pregnant sows. These include Florida, Arizona, California, Oregon, Colorado, Maine and Rhode Island.

Ohio is the next state to discontinue crated gestation. The state’s hog operations must make the change to pen gestation by 2025.

Some hog producers have already switched to group sow housing without a mandate. Smithfield Foods began the process in 2007 and, in 2018, announced all pregnant sows on company-owned farms are housed in pens. Contract growers are asked to convert to pen gestation by 2023.

Law requirements

Michigan’s mandate allows sows to be in stalls until verified pregnant, according to James Kober, DVM, with Four Star Veterinary Service, Holland, Michigan. This allows producers to individually crate sows during breeding and early pregnancy during implantation.

The law does not include space requirements for the pens. It also doesn’t include a method to check producers for compliance. Instead, if a complaint is lodged about a producer, the state will investigate to determine compliance.

Many of the state’s pork producers have already switched to pens, Kober says. The pens vary from a small number of sows (5-6) to large numbers (300-350). Most of the pens are created in the space where gestation crates were removed, but some new construction also took place.

Feeding methods for sows in pens range from electronic sow feeders to individual feed stalls to feed simply dropped on the floor.

Lessons learned

The biggest difficulty with pen gestation is sow aggression. “While there are no space regulations in the law, there are guidelines for square footage for pen gestation from the Extension service,” Kober said.

Some genetics appear to experience more leg and feet issues from fighting than other genetics. Kober expects these problems to be worked out in a couple of generations.

Tips from veterinarians

To read more about improving pen gestation, visit “Tips to improve pen gestation for sows” from Four Star Veterinary Service veterinarians.

Tips to improve pen gestation for sows

Many pork producers successfully manage sows in group gestation pens after completing breeding and pregnancy checks in crates. Veterinarians with Four Star Veterinary Service (FSVS) offer management suggestions to help maximize sow productivity in pen gestation.

“Most of our clients are converting to pen gestation,” reported Randy Jones, DVM, FSVS, Kinston, North Carolina. “Some of our better performing farms are pen gestation. After all, we managed sows in pens before we put them in crates.”

Pen size

“Give the sows plenty of space,” stated James Kober, DVM, FSVS, Holland, Michigan. “There are no space regulations in the Michigan law, but there are guidelines available that suggest 18 to 20 square feet per sow. If you get under 18 square feet, sows will start experiencing pregnancy problems.”

If crates are remodeled into pen gestation, utilize the walkway behind the crates for pen space to maximize space per sow. The extra room helps deter fighting.

Reduce fighting

When sows are first mixed, they fight. Kober suggests mixing sows late in the evening, feeding them and then turning off the lights.

“Some producers will mix sows every week and have a dynamic group,” he added. “The sows will fight some, but if the pens are big enough, they can move away.”

Feed and water

Adequate feed and water are vital for sow productivity, especially in pen situations, according to Jones. Boss sows will “hog” the feeders and waterers if not enough are available.

Jones recommends feeding all sows at once in some type of feed stall. The design and size of the feed stall varies among manufacturers and producers. But the important thing is offering some protection for sows while they eat.

“Another aggression point is not enough waterers,” reported Cary Sexton, DVM, FSVS, Kinston, North Carolina. “I’ve had some farms put in additional waterers because of [sow fighting].”

The waterers should be installed on different side panels of the pen to prevent sows from congregating and fighting.

Treat immediately

“I always tell clients if you think there’s anything wrong with a sow, pull her out now and treat her right away,” said JoAnna Kane, DVM, FSVS, Holland, Michigan.

“If you think you can come back later to do it, all the sows will be lying down and you won’t be able to find her.”

Sows needing treatment or time to recover from an injury are moved to individual hospital stalls.


Sows bred for gestation crates may experience leg and feet issues when housed in pens. Genetics will need to address those issues. For Sexton who works with many herds already in pen gestation, that has already occurred.

“Genetics have changed to a much hardier animal,” Sexton said. “The animal I started practicing with early in my career would not handle the competitive nature of today’s group-housing environment.”

Lessons learned: How a modern hog farm in Russia recovered from ASF

China’s African swine fever (ASF) epidemic may offer a grim view of life with the disease. But its neighbor Russia has proven recovery from ASF is possible.

Jon Van Blarcom, DVM with Four Star Veterinary Service in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, learned about a Russian ASF outbreak in a modern hog facility when he was asked to consult with Cherkizovo Group, Russia’s second-largest hog producer.

One of the company’s 6,000-head hog farms broke with ASF in late 2014. Van Blarcom arrived early in 2015 to help them improve farm biosecurity and truck washes. His consulting work quickly expanded to include medications, vaccinations and overall herd health. He also helped the company through a second outbreak in 2016.

Van Blarcom’s work in Russia gives him first-hand experience in understanding how to survive an ASF outbreak in a modern hog unit.

Fast animal disposal

Russia requires fast action on an ASF-infected site, including disposal of the hogs. “If you have ASF on your farm, Russian law requires animals to be euthanized and to do it quickly,” Van Blarcom said. The Cherkizovo operation used a ventilation shutdown to euthanize the hog population.

Next, the workers took on the arduous process of moving all the animals to a deep pit dug on the site for burning and disposal.

Once the buildings were empty, workers thoroughly washed and disinfected the facilities. This is when Van Blarcom entered the scene.

“Because they knew so little about ASF, they shut the site down for several months,” he said. “They didn’t know how long the virus would survive and how effective their sanitation procedures were.”

Van Blarcom guided the workers in sanitizing the equipment, including dismantling and soaking parts in disinfectants. He also helped set up a diagnostic lab with high-tech equipment like a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machine to better test for ASF. Cherkizovo was willing to make these investments to help get the hog operation running and to stay in business, he added.

Repopulating first site

“The first farm sat empty for a year,” he explained. “Russian law says 3 years, but we asked to put in sentinel animals to test for ASF. Pigs are much better at moving around and licking things than we are at taking swabs and testing. If something is in there, the pigs will pick it up.”

The sentinel pigs were left in the facility for 6 to 8 weeks, and periodic blood tests showed they were negative. The facility was then repopulated and remains negative today. New, stricter biosecurity protocols were implemented to prevent reinfection.

When a second Cherkizovo site broke with ASF in 2016, the same procedures for euthanizing, disposal and cleanup were followed. Only this time, they knew what disinfectants to use and the protocols for effectively disinfecting the facility.

They also started repopulation right after cleanup by moving in gilts to act as sentinels. The gilts were tested and then bred after they were cleared through the testing protocols. This site also continues to be negative today.

Source of ASF outbreaks

The hog company was able to determine the source of the ASF infection.

The 2014 outbreak was contaminated meat and bone meal that came into the unit through purchased feed. After this incident, feed became a scrutinized source of ASF, including local grain that may be contaminated with infected carcasses.

The cause of the 2016 outbreak was a worker bringing in a contaminated semen bag to steal semen for use in his own pigs. After this incident, some of the units implemented a two-change system for everyone entering the facilities. Shoes and clothes are first changed in the 24-hour guard station at the perimeter of the site. Then they walk to the barn, shower in and change clothes again. This prevents people from sneaking in items.

Because workers cannot bring in food, the company provides snacks and meals for them.

Ramped up biosecurity

“After each outbreak, we added biosecurity protocols where there were weaknesses,” Van Blarcom said. “Now the Cherkizovo Group has better biosecurity than perhaps any hog facility in the US. They have a fence with a 2-foot concrete wall and 6 feet of chain link fence on top installed around the entire site. A guard is on duty 24 hours per day, 7 days a week and cameras are everywhere.

“They won’t be able to truly eliminate ASF, so they focused on creating little islands where nothing gets through that outside fence,” he added.

High-health truck washes and market-truck washes were built by the company in areas near their hog units. Van Blarcom helped them set up protocols to correctly wash and disinfect the trucks as well as clean the bays after washing. They also implemented audit controls to ensure protocols are followed.

A big part of successful biosecurity is staff training, which now frequently takes place. Van Blarcom says the Russian workers are very disciplined and follow directions.

“They are pretty eager to learn and do a good job,” he said. “It is quite rewarding to work with the Russian culture.”

Be prepared for ASF

Van Blarcom is optimistic that if ASF does end up infecting US herds, producers will be able to recover like the Russian company.

“Start thinking about ASF and talk to your veterinarian about what you can do to be prepared,” he suggests. “You can fix the rodent holes and other little biosecurity things. Talk to your feed mill and make sure they are not using pork-based byproducts. Consider a perimeter fence.

“Prepare now and hopefully it will be a long time before we see ASF here,” he added.


Keep guard up for strep, parasuis in newly weaned pigs

Newly weaned pigs face many challenges — new environment, feed, pen mates. They also face the challenge of bacterial infections like Streptococcus suis (strep) and Haemophilus parasuis (parasuis), the two most common systemic bacterial diseases found in weaned pigs.

Strep and parasuis can both flare up when immune systems are stressed, according to Daniel Gascho, DVM, Four Star Veterinary Service.

“Where do strep and parasuis come from?” Gascho asked. “They are always here. A lot of research has been done that shows almost 100% of pigs have strep by the time they are weaned.”

Expect the same for parasuis, he warned.  Swab samples taken from the floors and walls of most nurseries will be positive for parasuis without the pigs showing a sign of the disease.

Strep, parasuis symptoms

The most common symptom of strep is swollen joints in nursery pigs.

“It’s that pig with the fat hock, a little lame, doesn’t want to get up,” Gascho said. “We call it dog sitting, where their back end is down and propped up on their front legs.

“Also pretty common and what most people think of with strep is the neurological form — a pig that’s paddling, eyes twitching, maybe going in circles, head pressing. You’ve all seen this.”

Nursery pigs sick with parasuis look depressed, gaunt and are slow growing. A necropsy of a pig infected with parasuis will have lots of fibrin, a protein associated with blood clotting.

“Just like strep, parasuis can get into joints and…can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause some meningitis and swelling of the brain,” Gascho explained. “This is why it is very important to diagnose these diseases. The treatment or prevention may be completely different.”

One other caution: Just because strep was diagnosed in the nursery a year ago doesn’t mean the symptoms you’re seeing are strep related.   Producers will “come out money ahead in the long run” if they get an accurate diagnosis and use the right treatment protocol for the pathogen at hand.

Ounce of prevention

While many nursery pigs carry these bacterial diseases, they don’t all get sick. Gascho recommended “an ounce of prevention…to prevent their immune system from getting depressed, because any stressor will trigger these diseases.”

For example, nurseries that are too cold, too hot, poorly ventilated or overcrowded could compromise a pig’s immune system enough to activate a disease outbreak.

“There are always some stressors that we can’t avoid,” he added. “Weaning alone is a huge one. They just went from milk to pellets or ground feed. The best thing you can do is to do everything perfectly that you have control over.”

If flare-ups occur, try to prevent it from happening in the next group. Use all-in/all-out management and thoroughly clean between groups.

Management options

In some cases, autogenous vaccines can be very useful, especially for strep, Gascho said. The key to making vaccines work is diagnosing the type of strep.

“A few years ago, I did research on strep and at that time, there were at least 134 serotypes of Strep suis alone,” he said. “It’s very critical you diagnose the strep because if it is the same strep every time, then it’s a great candidate for a vaccine.”

In very severe cases of strep, infected sows can be treated with an antibiotic for strep right before farrowing to decrease shedding. “If you have a really bad strep, this might be an option,” Gascho said. “If you can cut nursery mortality by 3%, you easily cover the cost of treating all sows in the herd.”

Pigs showing neurological symptoms must be treated with an antibiotic as soon as possible.  “Time is of the essence,” he said, adding that using a corticosteroid was “very critical in these cases to help reduce swelling of the brain. It won’t treat strep but will buy you some time to allow an antibiotic to work.”

He suggested using an appropriately labelled antibiotic for treatment of strep and follow directions.

Watch for dehydration

“Another big thing to consider is if the pigs can’t walk, they can’t drink and they will die of dehydration,” Gascho said. “Even if they can walk, but are unstable and getting beat around, they don’t stand a chance in the main pen with pigs.”

He recommended putting these sick pigs either in a hospital pen or in a small pen in an aisle with a little water while being treated. After a few days, they should be strong enough to join the other pigs.

“The big picture is there’s always a treatment to try” for strep and other bacterial diseases, Gascho added.

“Don’t give up. Find [the affected pigs] as soon as possible and know when your individual treatments are not keeping up. It doesn’t take very many dead pigs to justify the cost of treating the whole room…And no treatment in the world will make up for preventing them from getting sick in the first place,” he concluded.

Batch farrowing benefits Indiana hog operation

Batch farrowing made sense for Nate and Doug Hoeing’s sow operation. The brothers run a 1,200-sow operation on a family farm in Rush County, Indiana. Farrowing sows once a month instead of weekly offers a couple of major benefits.

“The batch system is labor saving,” Nate said. “We can do the work ourselves and only need hired help at weaning to move sows and load pigs. The rest of it we can handle.”

“Plus, now we have a larger group of pigs at weaning and they are easier to sell,” he added. The Hoeings wean about 2,000 pigs at a time, which are more easily placed in large finishing barns.

Growing in use

Batch-farrowing systems are on the increase, according to Doug Powers, DVM, Four Star Veterinary Service. He works with the Hoeings and other clients who are using the system.

“About a third to half of our clients are going to a batch system,” he explained. “They get a bigger group of pigs to fill a 2,500-head wean-to-finish barn as quickly as possible. At the same time, they don’t leave any small pigs behind to transfer disease to the next group.”

Batch farrowing isn’t for all operations, though. The size limit for the system is about 2,500 sows, Powers said. After that, it’s difficult to make it work.

How it works

On the Hoeing farm, the brothers are busy 2 weeks of the month when they begin weaning. Starting on a Monday, they move sows and weaned pigs out of the farrowing crates and completely wash the barn. By Thursday, sows ready to farrow are moved into the clean facility. Usually 190 to 200 sows farrow in each batch.

On the weekend, breeding starts for sows moved out of the farrowing barn. A typical breeding group is 210 to 220 sows. The brothers also get ready to start processing litters, which takes place that next week. Any sows not farrowing by Thursday of this week are induced.

“Then things slow down for a couple of weeks so we can get other things done,” Nate said. The pigs are weaned at 17 to 24 days of age.

Strong litters, sows

The Hoeings use three farrowing barns and fill all of them up at the same time. Their gestation facilities include rooms with 600 individual crates and an updated pen-gestation system that holds 400 sows.

They moved to self feeders in farrowing to help sows improve their condition and to increase weaning weights.

“On the day the sows farrow, we feed them very little,” Nate explained. “On day 2, we give them 5 pounds and then they go on a full feed (ad libitum).”

This feeding regimen improved the herd’s overall sow condition. The last group of sows averaged 14.5 pounds per weaned pig weight and weaned between 11 to 11.25 pigs per litter.

One disadvantage to a batch system is if a sow doesn’t breed, it won’t necessarily cycle back in a regular breeding week. To help them cycle within a group, an altrenogest supplement is fed to the sows. Unbred sows are culled.

High health

The farm has a high-health status. It was depopulated in 2018 and repopulated with high-health gilts. Today, it is negative for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome and mycoplasma. The herd has very few scours or respiratory issues.

The Hoeings powerwash and disinfect the facilities between batches and have extra time to allow the rooms to dry. And because all pigs are moved out of the facilities, none remain to transfer disease. All of this adds up to good herd health.

For the brothers, good herd health and the batch system frees up time for them to do their other chores, like manage a herd of 100 brood cows, and help their father with his crops.




Three-step approach for spotting sick sows

A three-pronged approach to observing sows can help identify illness, lower mortality and increase productivity, according to a leading vet.

Bill Minton of Four Star Veterinary Service, Chickasaw, Ohio, said taking a closer look at pigs during farrowing, gestation and lameness can reveal potential problems before they become serious, Pork Network reports.

And by training staff to look and respond to signs of sickness quickly, producers can improve animal well-being and their bottom line in one move.

Farrowing watchfulness

Farm staff should regularly check to see how the gilt or sow adjusts to being in a farrowing crate and whether she is eating and drinking, cleaning the feeder, or is in distress, Minton advised.

Most operations have someone in the room during the farrowing process, checking the sow regularly. If too much time passes between pigs being born (more than 20 or 30 minutes), someone should manually check the sow.

Post-farrowing care

Make sure all the afterbirth has passed and that the sow is well and eating normally — especially during lactation, Minton emphasized.

Check that sows are comfortable and monitor their body condition, especially at warmer times of the year, he added.

“At some farms we take a rectal temperature routinely at 24 hours post-farrowing to make sure we don’t have residual complications and that she’s properly cleaned. Uterine infections will show up on temperatures of 103 degrees or more,” he explained.

If a sow has a high temperature, it will be put off from eating and drinking, which will affect milk production.

Lactation care

During weaning, make sure the udder is functioning properly and do everything possible to enhance appetite for increased milk production, Minton said.

Gradually reduce room temperature to keep sows comfortable, and address signs of shoulder sores and lesions as they appear.

Prevention is the key to minimizing the number of sick sows during farrowing and lactation, he said, which means early detection is critical.

Gestation observation

Minton said that a thorough, daily observation during feeding will have the biggest impact on evaluating sows. Farm staff should listen for abnormal sounds like coughing and panting, and look for abnormal stools and signs of lameness, he added.

“Record and follow-up on suspect sows,” he says. “Make a note and call it to someone’s attention or take proper action.”

Eliminate lameness

More than 50% of sow deaths are caused by lameness, but early intervention and aggressive treatment could reduce that figure significantly, Minton said.

“If you have a 2,500-sow operation and you’re not treating 8 to 10 sows on a daily basis, you’re probably not treating enough,” he said.

Lameness can be caused by housing, diseases, injury, nutrition, environmental issues or genetics.

“Look for sows that have difficulty standing or rising,” Minton advised. “If animals shift their weight or tap their feet, look for swelling, cuts or bleeding. If an animal avoids the group or is walking slowly, check them out more closely.”

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