Digging out after a snowstorm

Illinois sow farm rebuilds after roof collapse.

Ann Hess, Content Director

November 19, 2019

9 Min Read
Since the farrowing house roof collapsed on the side housing the older piglets, it afforded the Carthage team the opportunity
Since the farrowing house roof collapsed on the side housing the older piglets, it afforded the Carthage team the opportunity to wean down in age, starting with the oldest piglets. At the youngest, piglets were shipped around 10 to 14 days of age. Courtesy of Carthage System

It was 4 a.m. on Jan. 13 when farm and production managers at one of Carthage System’s western Illinois sites started receiving alarm system calls from the farrowing house. Overnight, 16 inches of snow had descended upon the 5,800-head sow farm, and strong winds were causing uneven accumulation on rooftops and across driveways, making access to the farm difficult.

“I knew it was going to take me awhile to get there when I looked out the window that morning,” recalls Sara Pardall, farm manager for LaMoine Valley Farms LLC. “I called my production manager, Heather Luth. She’s not very far away from the farm, so she went ahead and made her way there. Heather and the [other] employees beat me there. They had to park their vehicles at the end of the driveway and walk to the building, because the driveway was drifted over with snow.”

Normally a 20- to 25-minute drive, it took Pardall an hour and a half to arrive on-site that day. She was halfway down the driveway when she got the call that the roof was starting to sag.

By 7 a.m., the gas lines were shut off and employees were evacuated. Thirty minutes later, the roof was lying on top of the crates in farrowing rooms 10 through 18, leaving the sows unscathed but the site in disarray.

“The only unaffected area on the down half of the farrowing house involved a small 28-crate farrowing room and the on-site holding nursery,” says Claire LeFevre, a veterinarian with Carthage Veterinary Service. “Blowing and drifting caused uneven loads on the rooftop and accumulated up to 5 feet in some areas. Feed lines, water lines and high-pressure water lines were affected and completely broken off in the central hallway.”

Protecting people, pigs
The Carthage team’s first course of action was to ensure personnel safety first within the farrowing house, then sitewide. Temperatures that day ranged from 10 to 25 degrees F, so additional winter weather gear and personal protective equipment were provided to all employees. Snow loads were removed from the other roofs on-site.

Albeit a Sunday, contractors and maintenance teams mobilized immediately, with more than 50 people on location for initial cleanup efforts. All door frames were braced to ensure access to the farrowing rooms, and electrical supplies and plumbing lines were secured.

“I would describe the first days as organized chaos. There was a lot of things happening at once,” Pardall says. “We had a lot of help and a huge support system that surfaced immediately. Several outside vendors and contractors that hadn’t worked with pigs at all wanted to help us out and do whatever they could. I don’t think I’d ever seen that many people on the farm at one time.”

Once the site was secure, immediate weaning efforts started. Almost 5,000 piglets were weaned and then sent downstream to other sites during the first three days. Three days later, another 2,700 were weaned.

“The Carthage team communicated with sites regarding the age of the piglets, so they could make appropriate adjustments to nutrition and placements in downstream barns,” LeFevre says.

Since the farrowing house roof collapsed on the side housing the older piglets, it afforded the Carthage team the opportunity to wean piglets down in age, starting with the oldest ones. At the youngest, piglets were shipped around 10 to 14 days of age.

All hands on deck
After personnel and pig safety, animal welfare, feed and water became top priorities. Pardall’s team took full ownership of the tasks that lay ahead, volunteering to stay late and pitch in where needed.

A veterinarian and production managers were on-site during the first four days and helped direct both animal and human traffic. Luth and Jeff Kayser, production managers for the site, were influential in helping coordinate tasks during the initial efforts. Only one sow had to be euthanized, but LeFevre says it was due to reasons unrelated to the roof collapse.

The chain disk feed system was sheared off in the central hallway, so a stub line was put in place in the farrowing barn on the day of the roof collapse. Staff then had to hand-feed pigs in the farrowing house with carts during the rebuild. This was no easy task. 

“I feel the collaborative efforts and dedication to the farm are a major credit to the character of people in our system, both vendors and team members alike. The commitment shown was really tremendous,” LeFevre says.

“They knew what needed to be done and got it done right. Everyone was extremely cooperative throughout the whole thing, and they worked really well together,” Pardall says. “Differences aside, the team made sure everything was taken care of. I am extremely proud of them, because they just put their heads down and worked through this situation.”

Rooms were finished individually to add farrowing space as quickly as possible. Less than two months after the roof collapse, the first sows were loaded into the new construction rooms.

Seizing space
After the initial collapse, space became a hot commodity. A quick inventory soon revealed that gestation spaces were tight at the time.

“What are we going to do with 500 wean sows?” LeFevre remembers thinking. “Production managers, department managers were all mobilized to look at what available space was on the farm, and where we could possibly make space.”

Cull loads were organized to free up crates. Four days after the collapse, 650 gilts were shipped to an off-site grow-finish facility to make room in the gilt developer unit for weaned sows. Incoming gilt deliveries were delayed and held in finishers.

“Sending gilts off-site assumes an additional risk,” LeFevre says. “If they were to break with a disease, it could affect production if a gap in the gilt supply was created.”

Reestablishing biosecurity
During the demolition and rebuild, biosecurity was strongly enforced. Vendors coming to the site for rebuild efforts were required to meet system biosecurity protocols, ensuring downtime was followed and equipment was only brought on-site when needed.

Rooms were finished individually to add farrowing space as quickly as possible. Each room was then washed and disinfected twice, and veterinarian-inspected before animal entry. Less than two months after the roof collapse, the first sows were loaded into the new construction rooms.

But as fast at the rebuild happened, LeFevre says the farm’s production numbers were impacted during that time. Immediately after the collapse, a drop in lactation length occurred, with reduced farrowing capacity and lengths ranging from eight to 11 days until early March.

“It was very important to us to finish rooms as quickly as we could to increase farrowing capacity and bring lactation length back up, but also without any additional disease introductions,” LeFevre says. “This farm is a commercial farm but does maintain a high health status, and it was important to us to keep it at that level.”

A decreased in total born was observed for females bred during the roof collapse. The farrowing house returned to normal in early April. “There was a 1.5-pig increase in total born and a 1.1-pig increase in liveborn for groups bred following the return to normal flow,” LeFevre says.

For sows with short lactation rates, LeFevre says to breed them. Farrowing rates from sows bred with short lactation rates are OK. Skipping sows will incur added costs in nonproductive days.

The Carthage farm collected a weekly processing fluid sample for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome monitoring throughout the process. Additional clinical signs in the herd directed any further testing of the sow herd. The vet team also had to plan for testing at the finisher site in order to bring the gilts back into the sow unit.

“While wean age was low, wean vaccinations were moved downstream, post-placement,” LeFevre says. “Piglets at 10 to 14 days of age are not the ideal vaccinates, so we moved those downstream until we could get lactation lengths built up.”

Emergency preparedness
Whether it’s a hurricane and flooding or a blizzard and heavy snowfall, LeFevre says it’s important to be prepared for weather emergencies. Make sure feed bins are full and the fuel tanks are filled. Check the generator and emergency back-up systems and alarms. After a major snowfall or wind event, complete a visual inspection of the facilities and check out the attics to make sure everything is compliant.

Pardall advises having a farm-specific emergency action plan showing where key areas, such as propane shut-off valves, are located on-site.

“Also, train your employees on what to do during those extreme events,” Pardall says. “Whether it’s a disease, a roof collapse or a power outage event, it’s really good to train your employees on the first action steps to take in emergency situations.”

Finally, both LeFevre and Pardall say while it was unfortunate to see the facility go through this, it took a team to pull together and start again. During the 29th annual Carthage Veterinary Service Swine Conference, the LaMoine Valley Farms team was recognized for its outstanding teamwork during the event.

“I would describe the whole event as a challenging learning experience. I essentially had to adjust how I managed my farm for three months using half of my usual farrowing capacity,” Pardall says. “It’s really important to stay positive and motivated, and to know that the experience will only be a temporary struggle.”

Winter walk-through

The Pork Checkoff offers this checklist for conducting a basic pre-winter inspection in and around facilities:

  • Inspect curtains for rips and tears. Make sure that curtains operate properly.

  • Check the ventilation system. Fans, louvers and cowlings should be cleaned to remove dust buildup. Also, make sure thermostat settings are accurate.

  • Brush air inlets, such as gable and soffit vents, to prevent blockage.

  • Check pit fans to ensure that they are operating properly.

  • Clean and inspect feeding equipment. Also, establish a feed storage and delivery strategy to prevent out-of-feed events during inclement weather.

  • Inspect foundations and pit walls for cracks and seepage.

  • Evaluate your winter rodent-control program.

  • Check bird-proofing of hog buildings and feed storage areas.

  • Conduct heater maintenance, and check and order propane supply.

  • Repair leaky waterers or pipes, and winterize the system to ensure pipes won’t freeze.

  • Check the overall soundness and security of buildings. Seal cracks to prevent leaks, check door jambs and test security alarms.

  • If you have a backup generator, check to see that it’s in working order and has fuel. Make sure that workers know how to operate it.

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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