A year ago, the U.S. pork industry started to see the first signs that swine producers were going to struggle to find locations for market hogs due to COVID-19. Pork processing facilities could not maintain necessary labor forces in the plant, and there was no end in sight. In response, producers got creative with how to slow down pigs, how to cut costs, and how to survive through this unprecedented pandemic. Fast forward a year, and we are looking at a strongly improved cash and cull market as well as rising future prices that have reached exciting levels. However, this year has not been without challenges as rising corn and soybean meal prices can have a large influence on current production decisions, but producers continue efforts to return to full production.
Regionally, the U.S. swine herd health has also been challenged this winter. With this comes a natural desire for most operations to reevaluate their herd’s health protocols to mitigate future health challenges. Fall and winter brought the emergence of a severe PRRS 1-4-4 through some parts of the Midwest, causing severe health outbreaks to both sow herds and growing pig populations. This virus has challenged the norm for PRRS response plans and brought into question current biosecurity, vaccination and treatment programs. Most growers know the issues of a flow or sow farm, but those issues are severely exaggerated with viral outbreaks of influenza and/or PRRS. It provides us a good opportunity to diagnose all secondary bacteria (including specific strains) within a flow and tailor our mitigation strategies against them.
COVID-19 prompted producers to question all costs within their herds, including the use of various vaccination strategies. In an effort to reduce costs, some autogenous vaccines were removed from herds, and producers are seeing the impact of this removal in their grow-finish mortality due to secondary bacteria. These bacteria can be passed all the way from the nucleus herd to commercial pigs through our health pyramids, and this is one of the important reasons to maintain a consistent multiplier on your sow farm.
There is a wide variety of options when it comes to autogenous vaccines, but to oversimplify it, getting the correct strains of bacteria with the right adjuvant will give the pig the best protection. Another option is to re-implement an e. coli vaccine to get the pig off to a great start in the nursery.
Lastly, a lot of producers were decreasing their doses of vaccinations to save costs. This is a good time to re-evaluate how that has impacted your close-outs over the last six months. As the price of hogs continues to increase, decisions regarding the use of antibiotics are critical right now. Over the past year, producers were forced to be selective on their treatment decisions and had to find the right balance of saving the pig versus the cost of antibiotics during disease challenges. As we encounter more severe viral disease challenges such as influenza or PRRS, we are likely to encounter additional secondary bacterial infections as well. Today, taking a more proactive approach to save pigs will have a good monetary return as well as boost moral with growers and caretakers.
In addition to varying health strategies, the industry is adjusting diets back to improve performance and weight gain, with a special emphasis on feed efficiency right now. More grow-finish barns have become available, which has provided the opportunity to add space before this summer. This will prevent the opportunity for summer weights to drop lower than desired on a system during the highest prices of the year.
With the value of pigs, getting all in and all out without any health issues on younger pigs will be extremely important. It will be a combination of not selling the tail end too quickly and making sure the flow works to add new pigs to the barn. Possibly now more than ever, it may make sense for a system to add space before going into summer.
One of the most challenging years in the history of the U.S. hog industry is behind us, and now we can look forward to brighter days. It is sometimes challenging to slow down enough to fully appreciate where we have come from and how decisions have changed so quickly in our operations.