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

November 4, 2019
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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.