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Closed Herd Plan Helps Fight off PRRS

Two diverse hog operations have adopted Babcock Swine's closed herd, internal multiplication system. Combined with good biosecurity and management practices, it creates stable sow herds and wards off porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.Dave Uttecht gets a lot of disbelieving stares when he says his herd is free of many major U.S. hog diseases. But, he's got the test results to prove his

Two diverse hog operations have adopted Babcock Swine's closed herd, internal multiplication system. Combined with good biosecurity and management practices, it creates stable sow herds and wards off porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.

Dave Uttecht gets a lot of disbelieving stares when he says his herd is free of many major U.S. hog diseases. But, he's got the test results to prove his claim. Crossed off his list are porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), Mycoplasmal pneumonia, Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia and transmissible gastroenteritis (TGE).

In fact, he says his 6-year-old hog operation, Heartland Pork, has never experienced any of those animal health problems.

The proof is in the random, representative sampling of his 2,000-sow breeding herd conducted by his veterinarian, Barry Kerkaert, Pipestone, MN.

The payoff for the Alpena, SD, producer has been highly consistent production results:

- Farrowing rate in the low- to mid-80s;

- A more than 10 pigs born alive/litter average;

- Twenty-plus pigs weaned/sow/ year;

- Finishing death loss averaging 1-1.5%; and,

- Less than a 5% sow mortality rate.

At a 750-sow operation near Blooming Prairie, MN, Steve Demmer has managed to avoid further breaks with PRRS, despite being PRRS positive for a number of years.

And, Demmer's farrowing rate has consistently run at 90% for three straight years, with a 10.5 pigs born alive average.

Avoiding PRRS Dave Uttecht admits living at Alpena, SD, (north of Mitchell) with very few pork producers in the vicinity offers an isolation advantage.

He built an 800-sow operation populated with Babcock genetics in 1994. In 1996, he expanded to around 2,000 sows. The last live pigs brought onto the farm were three boars in 1995.

Using the Babcock's closed herd concept, Uttecht breeds all sows and gilts by artificial insemination (AI). All replacement gilts are raised. Semen is supplied by a Babcock boar stud at White Lake, SD.

Closed Herd Approach Babcock first offered the internal multiplication program known as the Performance Indexed Gilt Selection (PIGS) program in 1989. It was offered to customers to reduce the number of live animal introductions (boars only). In 1996, Babcock advised customers to go to 100% AI to reduce the threat of disease while maintaining efficient production and pork quality.

In short, the Rochester, MN-based breeding stock firm's internal multiplication approach relies on producers initially buying replacement gilts from multipliers. Thereafter, semen is supplied by Babcock boar studs to maintain maternal lines to supply replacement gilts. The company's terminal boar lines are used for market hog production.

Once the farm is producing its own gilts, it only has to buy semen from a stud to perpetuate the bloodlines. Thus, a farm can close its doors to live animal introductions, cutting the disease risk and reducing the genetic lag found in typical pyramid genetic schemes, says Kevin Schleusner, Babcock district representative.

The internal multiplication scheme starts with identification of potential replacement gilts at birth. These gilts are indexed as they approach market weight, based on weight, backfat and loin depth measurements. These measurements are evaluated by Babcock technicians. Only the highest-indexing gilts are selected to produce the next generation of replacement gilts. To ensure maximum genetic improvement, only gilts are used to produce each new generation of replacement gilts.

Uttecht is a gilt multiplier herd for Babcock, but he considers that to be a sideline to his commercial hog enterprise. Gilts not sold as replacements are the only pigs Uttecht finishes. All barrows are sold as feeder pigs to area producers. Some are sold outright, others are finished on contract.

Biosecurity is integral to health and production on his single-site operation. Rarely are visitors allowed. The few individuals allowed on the farm must be 72 hours without contact with pigs.

Trucks hauling contract pigs and market hogs are scrupulously washed and disinfected between shipments. Those shipments are also staggered to avoid bringing back any pathogens. Feed and delivery trucks are washed upon entry to the farm.

Internally, employees must shower in and out of the hog buildings. The focus is on controlling what might be spread by feet. There are separate sets of black and white boots for each barn. Black boots are worn outside the rooms; white boots are worn inside. Foot baths are maintained and used religiously. Stepping outside the building proper violates biosecurity and requires showering back in to re-enter, Uttecht stresses.

Health status is maximized by keeping barns very clean. Uttecht says he rarely finds a coughing hog at Heartland Pork - and that includes coughing from dust exposure. Clean barns are also a plus for employees. All buildings are double-curtain-sided and naturally ventilated; sow barns are tunnel-ventilated.

Additionally, all barns feature shallow, 2-ft., pull-plug manure pits, including sow and finishing barns. Pits are emptied into the lagoon as needed or after each group is closed out.

Barns are connected by a common hallway (except for the finisher which is 300 yards away). Each room is self-contained with separate pits and ventilation.

Dead pigs are incinerated. Rendering trucks are never used.

The end result is exceptional health at Heartland Pork. Treatments are few. As a rule, the only regular sow vaccination given is a combination product for parvovirus, leptospirosis and erysipelas. Sows and gilts are also periodically vaccinated with a product used mainly for streptococcus control. No routine feed medications are administered. Nursery pigs are only given iron.

That's not to say there are no health problems. Streptococcus suis has been an ongoing nursery problem, borne out by an 3.5% average nursery mortality. A few sows and pigs are treated every day for a variety of concerns.

Good health enhances the all-in, all-out pig flow. Some 800 pigs are weaned weekly at 16 days of age, spend seven weeks in the nursery and 17 weeks in the finisher. Pigs that don't make final market weight in 26 weeks account for a paltry 1-1.5%, less than his average finishing death rate of 2%, remarks the South Dakota producer.

Positive growth performance is spelled out in Table 1.

Uttecht and Kevin Schleusner, Babcock district representative, agree that health, backed up by a solid genetic program that emphasizes health, is still only as good as the last blood test. Uttecht has had skeptical veterinarians doubt his herd health claims, but he assures Babcock can confirm the results.

"A closed herd system is a system that protects itself and provides stabilization the quickest," says Schleusner.

Protection from PRRS For Steve Demmer, sow herd stabilization is vital. He lives in a hog-dense area of southeast Minnesota where PRRS is always a threat. That threat became reality during 1993-94, when his herd contracted PRRS.

He had been directly introducing replacement gilts from the finishing floor.

In 1995, he quit introducing live boars to his herd, converted to an AI program and started vaccinating for PRRS. In 1996, he became one of the first Babcock customers to switch to the Babcock closed herd program so his herd wouldn't rebreak with PRRS.

Demmer also developed a rigorous program for on-site-produced replacement gilts. They are vaccinated for PRRS at 70 lb. and 240 lb., and then they are placed in a continuous-flow gilt developer, followed by an isolation "cool-down" barn before they enter the breeding herd. This setup is specifically designed to deal with the problems of different health statuses for PRRS within a breeding herd.

In the remodeled gilt developer, gilts are continuously introduced, adding "logs to the fire" to equally expose all gilts to any farm pathogens. After 90 days, gilts are moved to the old, remodeled, isolation cool-down barn where disease titers have a chance to wane.

The cool-down barn is operated as an all-in, all-out barn. Demmer has boosted the length of time in the cool down barn from 25 to 50 days for added insurance against PRRS.

"You'd think that continuous-flow gilt developers would just wreck your replacement gilts because of the `bugs' continuously circulating in the barn," Schleusner says.

"But, after being in the cool-down barn, I think you get a very well-acclimated female coming into the herd that is stable and that keeps the sow herd stable," he says.

That approach to gilt acclimation also has to weather Demmer's intensive farrowing program. His 28-day batch farrowing system has 130-140 sows bred for 104 crates. Pigs are constantly being regrouped as sows are shuffled out. Weaning occurs on two Thursdays a month.

Once pigs are weaned, they are moved to off-site, wean-to-finish facilities owned by Demmer's production partner. Pigs are double-filled in pens. Eight weeks later, Demmer gets half the production back for his off-site finishers and about 70 head are kept for gilt replacements.

All in all, Demmer is pleased with how the Babcock closed herd system and his acclimation program have managed to keep PRRS at bay.

He remains a skeptic - thinking his farrowing rate will dip and PRRS titers will rise - but it hasn't happened yet.

For more information on the Babcock closed herd breeding program, contact Babcock's main office, (800) 343-4940 or (507) 288-3312, or go to their Web site at