2019 is a year Todd Thurman doesn't expect many in the pork industry to soon forget. After all, the world's largest pork producing nation fell victim to African swine fever, losing nearly 65% of its swine herd, according to his estimates.
"That doesn't include what's going on in Southeast Asia, in Vietnam and the Philippines, and also in Korea, so obviously that's a really significant event and one that's really hard to wrap your mind around," Thurman says. "A lot of times when I'm talking to people about African swine fever in China, that's my biggest challenge, just to get them to kind of understand the scale of what happened over there. I spent 130 days in China last year and saw it with my own two eyes and, and I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it too."
The owner of SwineTex Consulting Services, who has spent his fair share studying pork production systems overseas, says if he had to describe the situation in one word it would be "devastating." Prior to founding SwineTex, Thurman spent more than 22 years in the industry working either for or with large-scale pork production systems in the United States and abroad. He has worked in 17 countries and has significant experience in Russia, China, South East Asia, Europe and Latin America.
"There's not a piece of the industry that it [ASF] didn't touch, so it's been extremely impactful to every segment of the industry from the mega producers that you see on the Top 10 in the world list all the way down to the backyard producers," Thurman says.
The question he fields most often from industry members is how did this happen?
"As I think about breaking it down, how did it happen on this scale and how did it move so quickly, it starts with extraordinary pig density," Thurman says. "That's really one of those main factors that helped the virus move."
He also attributes the spread to poor biosecurity and ineffective control procedures.
"You had a lot of panic selling so people would get ASF or they thought they had ASF and they'd try to load all the pigs up and send them to market, which obviously is about the worst thing you could possibly do," Thurman says. "You even had some situations where, and it was pretty well-publicized, where you had gangs of thugs that were running around, trying to convince people that they were going to get ASF to try to buy a bunch of pigs at really cheap prices."
Improper disposal has been another issue in China. Some backyard producers have been throwing pigs in the river or throwing them in the ditch or out in the woods, but improper disposal methods are also being done by the large facilities.
However, Thurman says the biggest issue is what the Chinese call in Mandarin, "pulling the tooth," which Thurman means they are trying to manage around ASF.
"They're trying to go in and with varying levels of sophistication, to identify the healthy pigs and the sick pigs, and pull the sick pigs out and leave the 'healthy pigs' in there," Thurman says. "As you might expect, that's been quite a disaster, and really what it amounts to is kind of a slow burn. Instead of going in, like you should, what they're really doing is stretching it out over a course of a couple of months and that creates a lot of problems."
For someone who has never seen China's pork production systems, Thurman notes it can be hard to visualize. While most pig dense areas in the Midwest are located close to feed and away from population centers; in China the pigs are near the people.
"They are very commonly marketing, processing and offering for sale those pigs within 24 hours and so they have to stay close to the population centers and that creates additional complications, in terms of having that many people and that many pigs so close to one another," Thurman says.
To put it in perspective, Thurman points out China is one of the world's largest landmasses, but the country's pigs and people only reside on half of it.
"Half the pigs in the world live on about 3% of the landmass in the world, so it's just an extraordinary amount of density," Thurman says. "You literally have pigs on top of pigs."
While virus movement has seemed to calm down, since it was first reported in August 2018 and then picked up momentum again in the south of China in the spring of 2019, Thurman says there are concerns a "third wave" is coming. Others have been asking has China bottomed-out?
"It's going to be more of two steps forward and one step back," Thurman says. "The thing that I've been trying to help people understand is, as we start repopulating the herd, it gets more difficult to take that next step because you start running into those pig density issues again."
He also foresees a slow recovery process.
"One of the main concerns I have there is that a lot of the same conditions, that got us where we were in the first place — the reason we had this outbreak in the first place — not a lot has really changed. A lot of those issues are still there and are still complicating everything," Thurman says.
It also doesn't help, Thurman says, that the virus is everywhere.
"It's in the supply chain and every aspect of the supply chain," Thurman says. "It's all over the place and it's just really hard to root it out when it's become so ingrained in all aspects of the supply chain."
Finally, he says there are limitations in terms of breeding stock, as that segment of production was affected almost as much as the sows.
"Most of what is being bred now is just gilts that came off the finishing floor and so that creates a couple of problems. One is their productivity is going to be quite a bit lower on those animals and it's going to take some time to build up a resupply of that breeding stock," Thurman says. "My estimate is the restocking success rate over the entire country at every level of production is probably right around 25%. So about 75% of the restocking efforts that I'm seeing are failing and that's a real difficult hurdle as we start to try to put the herd back together."
Thurman says the profitability levels the industry is currently seeing are both part of the problem and part of the solution.
"Profits of over $400 per head USD consistently with spikes above $600 per head provide a powerful incentive that sometimes encourages producers to take risks that they wouldn't otherwise. That's part of the reason for the poor restocking success rate," Thurman says. "There's definitely an upside to the profits, it provides revenue that producers need to shore up biosecurity and rebuild their herds, but it also encourages bad behaviors and less desirable producers to re-enter the business."