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Budget for Better Health

Factoring the cost of an animal health monitoring program into an operating budget safeguards against a major disease outbreak wiping out farm assets.

When we think about farm financial disasters, the low hog prices of the past two years come quickly to mind.

Animal health disasters also can destroy a farm's assets. Pseudorabies (PRV) and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) are two hog viruses that have put many a farm in the red in the past 10 to 20 years.

Producers can budget for disease outbreaks, says Brian Caldwell, DVM, South Central Vet Associates, Wells, MN. It's seldom done. But producers could benefit from health monitoring and a health contingency plan in their farm's operating budget.

Contingency Plans An example of health contingency plans would be planned depopulations. Two different approaches could be used. Budget for a depopulation-repopulation periodically. Or, for a large operation, budget an amount for depopulating a segment of the system every year against the chance that a part will break with disease.

Budgeting for disease prevention and disease contingency plans is the wave of the future, believes Caldwell. "If you don't have major problems like PRRS, have a contingency plan to make sure it doesn't sink the ship if it should strike.

"In the future, as we are faced with decreasing margins, we have to decrease the risks of disastrous problems. My bet is lenders are going to encourage it because if a major disease outbreak strikes in combination with low markets, it will take extremely deep pockets to survive," he emphasizes.

The Trouble with Health Despite all the advancements in management - multiple-site rearing and all-in, all-out pig flow - some producer clients continue to battle hog diseases today, says Caldwell.

As an industry, production is reaching ever higher goals. But individually, some production systems are struggling to the point of financial ruin due to hog health problems, he says.

A key reason is the industry's rapid growth has lead to some compromises, states Caldwell. Sometimes producers take shortcuts in their hurry to get bigger. They accept lower health status. They add more pigs to one site to reduce fixed costs. They end up with crowded rooms and barns and multiple age groups on a single site.

The discovery of PRRS and other emerging diseases in the last 10 years has magnified the rashness of taking herd health shortcuts.

The problems extend from breeding through grow-finish. "We attempt to correct increases in sow mortality, pre-weaning mortality and lower feed efficiency and growth rates through other management techniques. But more and more we are finding that the many problems all track back to health," stresses Caldwell.

Biosecurity Solution Animal sourcing remains the most important means of defining herd health status. Know the health status of replacement gilts. Check with the source veterinarian and a recent customer to find out if health status has changed, even if you've dealt with a single source for years, he notes.

Follow isolation and acclimation procedures. During isolation, spend the money to test for dangerous pathogens not on your farm. Acclimate stock and vaccinate to expose and protect them from on-farm pathogens.

And, maybe most important of all, allow for a recovery phase, says Caldwell. You want new stock immune, but you don't want them shedding when they enter the herd. This is the one area in which the recommendations for length of recovery time are getting magnified. This is particularly true for PRRS, driven by ongoing research into the persistence of the virus. As a result, more clients add breeding gilts as weaned pigs, allowing for extended acclimation and recovery time before gilts enter the breeding herd.

There are other biosecurity risks. We can't eliminate all of them, so we try to manage them.

Don't compromise herd health. Get timely veterinary evaluations and someone to help you evaluate your biosecurity risks.

And finally, don't rely on close-out records to monitor the health and performance of your herd. That is history. Adopt "real-time" records, daily monitoring of everything from performance to treatments, and evaluate using statistical process control to show where there are problems. Once problems are discovered, act. Don't live on hope, says Caldwell.