As we prepare for the upcoming winter months, it is easy to get caught up in the many threats posed by dropping temperatures and seasons known for increased movement of diseases such as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome which often have large economic consequences for farms.
One systematic method of conducting farm visits uses the four circles approach including a breakdown for evaluating the outside of the site, the inside of the buildings, the herd at the individual pen level and the evaluation of individual pigs within the pens.
As veterinarians, production personnel and caretakers our primary focus of routine farm visits revolves around the inner most circle, the pigs themselves and rightfully so. While visiting farms we are zoned in on pig health, disease management or elimination programs, increasing production performance, or upcoming pig flow plans.
The reality exists that before we reach even the pen or individual pig level, there are often many missed opportunities when it comes to facility management, biosecurity and seasonal preparation that have direct consequences on the health and performance of the herd.
External biosecurity and winterization preparation
Most major biosecurity items on the outside of farms such as feed spills, open bin lids and incorrect compost management can be picked up on a drive around of the site. However, there are many smaller items that require a further perimeter inspection on foot. In fall, visits should always include identifying biosecurity risks in addition to winterization and filtration risks for filtered farms.
Many of these items are included on routine checklists but these may not be farm-specific. Ensure that checklists are not narrowing or limiting the focus of the visit. Appropriate items to have on seasonal checklists include dismantling of summer equipment such as cool cell pump and reservoirs, checking cables and curtain pockets on curtains, and preparing equipment for cold weather. Generators and tractors should be routinely tested and serviced but additional precautions must be taken to prevent diesel fuel gelling and ensure block heaters are in working order. Water treatment systems should also be winterized to prevent freezing.
On closer perimeter inspections, the integrity of items such as gas, feed and water lines along with bird netting and roof tin must be inspected. Look for holes in the eave area along with paying attention to any ridge vents in poor condition. If an immediate threat to facility biosecurity or safety is identified, these should be a become a team priority to correct before leaks evolve.
As facilities age, it becomes especially important not to overlook these items and prevent needing to repair or replace several items at once.
Farm-specific transport needs
One often overlooked item in winter preparation is communication directly with the truck drivers dedicated to specific sites. More often than not, sow units have dedicated truck drivers who haul loads out of a single farm several times a week. Dedicate time to talk to these individuals about any holes needing filled in on-site, farm access roads requiring attention or equipment like loading dock bumpers needing repair prior to winter. Have rock or ice melt on hand to address icy conditions.
On a broader level, production and management companies must renew connections with local road commissioners and highway departments in preparation for inclement weather and develop plans to clear roads for the safe transport of animals.
Setting expectations with pumping crews
Once harvest begins and crop land becomes available, manure pumping crews are eager to begin work and get sites pumped out for winter. Be aware of pumping activities on farm visits. This often adds several additional personnel, equipment and vehicles on farms for several days. Recent evidence suggests that farms are at an increased risk for disease breaks within 30 days of fall pumping activities.
Prior to fall pumping, set expectations for manure pumping crews. Review downtime requirements, biosecurity on site, pumping order for assigned sites and pumping equipment sanitation. Filtered farms also add another level of care to be taken to avoid entrance of unfiltered air. Allowing unfiltered air to enter a filtered farm negates the farm's investment in filtration and added disease protection especially for negative pressure filtration systems. Review how to place temporary covers on pits during pumping to reduce unfiltered air infiltration.
Crews are often lined out according to available ground and weather conditions as these dictate which sites may be pumped. However, following a biosecurity pyramid based on farm health status is also extremely critical. Work with your herd veterinarian to determine the best order for pumping sites based on health status. Log the frequency of pumping events at each farm over the year, review and work to reduce these frequencies. Opportunities to reduce pumping event frequency may include reviewing farm water usage and identifying areas of weakness inside the farm.
Check in with farm teams
While the focus on the facility and animal care is important, it's necessary to touch base with the farm personnel. As we navigate through the pandemic this year, most sites have added additional precautions to manage and safeguard the site from COVID-19 cases and keep teams healthy. Remember to keep teams actively involved in farm biosecurity measures and winterization as well.
Throughout the last year, farm telemedicine has greatly increased allowing for effective meetings in a variety of formats. Ask about needs for winter clothing, functionality of space heaters in higher traffic areas and other items that increase worker comfort on the farm. It is also worth reviewing common clinical signs of disease in swine and farm-specific filtration procedures in farms that are filtered seasonally.
Recognize that every site is different and has unique needs. Continue to challenge your team to go beyond normal expectations on routine visits to broaden the focus of our farm visits to ensure our facilities, pigs and personnel are fully prepared for the upcoming winter months.