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Pork producers, veterinarians respond to COVID-19 challenges

Swine Vet Center's Paul Yeske shares lessons learned, future industry opportunities.

Back in March, Paul Yeske never imagined the last large-scale face-to-face swine industry conference he would attend in 2020 would be the American Association of Swine Veterinarians Annual Meeting in Atlanta, but looking back the veterinarian says he probably should have paid more attention to what was happening in Wuhan, China.

"I really should have thought this was a big deal and should have paid more attention at that time, but certainly things did change," Yeske says. "I think the quote out there today is all you have to say is '2020,' and everybody will understand what you mean."

A senior member of the veterinary team at Swine Vet Center in St. Peter, Minn., Yeske virtually delivered the Pijoan Lectureship on behalf of his colleague Tim Loula during the Allen D. Leman Swine Conference this week and shared the lessons the SVC team learned during the pandemic.

Social distancing and sanitizing
Going into the crisis, Yeske says it helped that swine practitioners and producers had a leg up in understanding infectious disease, what it takes to be biosecure and the occurrence of false positives in testing. It also helped the industry was deemed essential and could continue working through the timeframe but notes the SVC team has limited its visits to farms.

"We're doing just the emergency needs, health outbreaks, diagnostics and regulatory visits for moving animals as needed," Yeske says. "Certainly, as things began, employees wondered what would happen if someone on the farm gets sick."

While Yeske says the industry is built for social distancing, they did have some challenges securing personal protection equipment and getting employees on board with a statewide indoor mask mandate. Employees and staff at SVC-serviced farms started working split shifts. Some split staff a.m./p.m., some had employees work a three- or four-day rotation week-to-week with 10-hour days, while others tried having half the staff work one week and the other half the next.

"All of these resulted in longer days, more difficulty in getting things done and some things just not getting done," Yeske says.

SVC also split employees between those who could work from home and those who could not. While rural internet and getting staff necessary equipment was a challenge, it ensured there would be employees available to replace others if someone did get sick.

Clutter was removed from farm offices so cleaning and disinfecting could be done multiple times a day. The SVC team also developed back-up plans for help cleaning, if a number of farm staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Yeske says while SVC already had a good biosecurity culture within the clinic and the dispensing area prior to the pandemic, the team started fogging once a week.  

"We started out with the hurricane fogger. It worked really nicely, but Jeff [Feder, SVC veterinarian] and I can both attest to we set off the alarms on the smaller confined spaces in the offices, so we went to the Miracle Gro sprayer, and then we had good demonstration on how it could be done in the offices and contact areas for farms as well," Yeske says. Feder also researched how to clean up the air within the clinic through filtration and to avoid potential recontamination.

With these extra measures in place and employees working remotely, Yeske questions the missed face-to-face interaction and distractions that can come from virtually meeting. He also wonders about the long-term price in lost education opportunities. While it can be easy to not engage as well in virtual team meetings and training events, could telemedicine become a more popular tool in swine medicine?

"I think, like human medicine, there will be more of that in the future, but I certainly hope that farm visits won't be replaced with tablets or videos, or me sitting on the computer," Yeske says.

Developing a testing algorithm
By far, the biggest impact to SVC's business was the packing plant closures and slowdowns in Minnesota and Iowa.

"The industry was always rewarded for becoming more and better efficient and building better efficiencies, and we continue to optimize that as much as possible. We soon learned that there's a stiff penalty when that comes apart; certainly felt that this spring," Yeske says. "There was no room for problems to develop and I liken it to being on an escalator full of people and the people at the top are not moving away and you're trapped on the escalator. I think everybody this spring felt trapped and felt that pressure."

As plants began closing, Loula, Yeske and the SVC team immediately recognized the importance of working with the plants to help them get back up and operating again. However, one of the challenges, as a veterinarian who is used to testing or monitoring infectious disease, Yeske says, is helping the plant personnel and their medical personnel understand how to use that information to be helpful.

"They're used to dealing with single cases, not herds, not groups, not communities," Yeske says. "Our goal was 'can we build worker and community confidence back so that we can get the plants back up and working and the workers as well?' "

Loula; Dave Bomgaars, RC Family Farms; and Brad Freking, New Fashion Pork began working with health officials from Sanford Health to put together a testing algorithm for plants on how to use the information coming out. Feeling this is not only a good model for these businesses at the time but others in the future.

"Testing the workers, how could we get the plants back up and running, and talking about how to use the different testing, the PCR, looking for the antigen, the antibody, looking for those that had already been exposed," Yeske says.

Preparation for FAD
While many of the plants have caught up and are within zero to 1 ½ weeks of being current, SVC is still seeing some backlog in production. Many of their clients used turning up the barn temperature (like the summer heat) to their advantage and made diet changes to slow down pig growth, while others had no other choice to depopulate. Despite having a few foreign animal disease exercises in 2019, where mass depopulation events were discussed, Yeske says it is much different to go through it.

"We know what works and more importantly, we know what doesn't work, and I hope we never have to deal with a foreign animal disease, but I think we are a little bit more prepared than we were before this timeframe," Yeske says.

Some of the farms were depopulated to stabilize herd health status, for challenges such as porcine epidemic diarrhea and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.

"I've been through a number of different market cycles and I don't ever remember seeing farms being mothballed, like we saw during this timeframe," Yeske says. "Taking some of those herds that have more significant health challenges and just doing the depopulation, but not doing the repopulation at the time. At the time there were lots of healthy, cheap pigs that could be put back in place to replace those pigs, but then just kind of waiting on the market to see what was going to happen."

Future needs funding
Yeske says while the SVC team learned some lessons, some they never thought they would ever have to, it has given them a new perspective on the industry's future.

"I think producers will make sure they've got a good market. That's why we're seeing the mothballed facilities. If you don't have a contract, those pigs aren't going to be made, and we don't see the producers betting on the market, either as much by placing pigs or hoping that market's coming," Yeske says. "We've had some discussion that the packers might build some slack capacity. Again, I think they're built around that efficiency as well, and I think it's going to be hard to see that happen, but may see some smaller plants build some flexibility in, or we may see some of the fabrication allow for some of that flexibility going forward as well."

The herd closures did allow for some health cleanup and may be useful to implement in the future. Yeske suggests funding for a program like the Accelerated Pseudorabies Eradication Program that could help the industry work on other disease challenges. However, he cautions if the industry thinks the government will help out, it may lead to further disappointment and any action will most likely have to come from within the industry on its own.

"What's the future look like? Again, that's a head scratcher for all of us right now," Yeske says. "We've all got lots of questions and I think the Yogi Berra quote that 'it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future' is very true. I think, as we know from the past, those that are willing to adapt will survive and there will be a 'new normal' as we go forward."

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