Every time Zack Talbert and his wife attended Sunday services at the Vineyard Church of Central Illinois in Urbana, the pastor there always made it a point to greet the couple and to wish Talbert well in his studies in swine veterinary medicine.
The pastor's name was Happy Leman, and he always told Talbert he had the utmost faith the young man would do well as a veterinarian. After all, his brother, who had passed away, had a very successful career in the practice, authoring dozens of scientific papers and manuscripts, teaching and advising many students at the University of Minnesota, and serving as a consultant to several large pork production systems throughout the U.S.
It wasn't until Talbert started the paperwork to enter the Morrison Swine Innovator Prize at the 2019 Allen D. Leman Swine Conference in St. Paul, Minn., that he made the brotherly connection between Happy and the legendary Al Leman.
"I was like, this has got to be him," Talbert says. "It was like God was telling me, 'Hey, you need to go do this right now, you need to look into this' — and that's kind of how it really stimulated my mind to look into it, and that's how I am here now."
The Morrison Swine Innovator Prize honors the legacy of the late Bob Morrison, a University of Minnesota professor who coordinated the Leman Swine Conference for many years. The winner receives a cash award of $7,500, plus complimentary registration and travel costs to attend the conference.
The third-year University of Illinois veterinary student not only won this year's Morrison Swine Innovator Prize for his prong-and-pulley device that ensures more accurate fumigation on fomites for biosecurity, but he's also working on a patent for the prototype.
"I started seeing there was an issue based off of a study that was conducted last year; and then every time I went to a farm, I always made a point to go to the fumigation room and see how it was set up," Talbert says. "It just really interested me, especially with the ongoing fear of African swine fever entering naïve countries. Everybody's so worried about biosecurity; but if it's not effective, there's really no point of doing it."
Tracking and swabbing
A native of Armington, Ill., Talbert grew up with cattle and pigs, but his experience raising pigs was limited to his family's dirt lot. After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington with a bachelor's degree in biology, Talbert applied for veterinary school, but also took a team lead position with The Maschhoffs.
"I guess that was the first real opportunity that really opened my eyes to raising pigs in large quantity," Talbert says. "I went from having the dirt hog experience to the full confinement experience, with lots of pigs on wean-to-finish sites."
That summer, Talbert learned he was accepted to the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, and he soon found himself working in the lab under the leadership of associate professor James Lowe. His main research focus was to track cull sow movement across the U.S.
"That kind of stimulated my mind, thinking about the whole biosecurity aspect and why everything is important — to get the idea that if we can control their movements in disease outbreak situations, we'll be able to control, hopefully, the disease from getting farther than it originally started from," Talbert says.
After working in Lowe's lab, Talbert decided to spread his wings. He applied for the Iowa State University Swine Veterinary Internship Program, where he was placed with a familiar system, The Maschhoffs. This time, as an intern, Talbert was tasked with sampling for Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae at a boar stud unit.
"I kind of got interested in this, because at the lab I was working in with Dr. Lowe, they were using disinfectant just to see how it would work on the boxes or stuff coming into farms; and there's some disinfectants that works, but from that project I was able to see that while the disinfectant works, they weren't able to get all surfaces exposed," Talbert says. "That led me into thinking about how I could fix that issue, which led me into my invention."
Only 50% fumigation
Talbert set out to prove his theory that not all surfaces of fomites were getting disinfected using the current practice of placing items on wire shelving in a fumigation chamber, to remove harmful pathogens before entry into a swine barn.
He set up a fumigation testing room at his house; and using food coloring mixed with water to put in the fogger, he was able to show that only 50% of objects are disinfected using current methods. It wasn't until Talbert was on a trip home from Iowa one day that he began thinking about how to fix the issue.
"I had a little small box in my car and was kind of messing with it, and I set it up on its corner," Talbert says. "When I did that, I noticed that when this box is resting on its corner, every single side was able to be exposed. That's when I started thinking, we have to set the boxes like this; and the supplies coming in, we have to set them on their corner."
Recognizing that gravity would be an issue, Talbert drew up plans for a steel prong system that holds objects aloft. Using a pulley with a motor, the system turns the objects rotisserie-style during fumigation to ensure all surfaces are covered. His dad and brother, both ironworkers, took the plans to the family shop and welded Talbert's first prototype, a single box holder with multiple prongs.
Full, faster coverage
From there, Talbert took the system back to his home testing room, and using the same size of boxes that typically come to farms each day, he placed grid paper on each side of the box. As the boxes rotated through the pulley system, he placed them through his food coloring fogger test, finding nearly 100% of the grids received coverage.
With this method, Talbert was not only able to achieve full-coverage fumigation, but he was also able to do it faster. Most industry disinfectants come with recommendations for sitting anywhere from 10 minutes up to an hour after fogging in the fumigation room to ensure disinfection effectiveness.
Talbert was able to get full fumigation coverage on fomites through his system in under two minutes.
Future biosecurity ideas
After veterinary school, Talbert hopes to work primarily in the swine industry while keeping a hand in a mixed-animal practice. He is also considering exploring externships to expand his skills and perhaps identify additional opportunities for biosecurity innovations.
Talbert's technology has since expanded to a three-prong, four-box holder series. However, he says the prong-and-pulley system can be customized for both large and small fumigation rooms. With the patent pending, Talbert is currently exploring the best parts to use for the system to be the most efficient.
Once he has those, he will build a demo for a veterinarian who has already approached Talbert with interest in testing the product out in a commercial pork production system fumigation room.
"If they like it and there's a need for it, I want to continue building it, just to make it easy for people and to eliminate pathogens potentially from coming in there in the future," he says.