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Articles from 2006 In August

Slaughter Returns to 2005 Levels

U.S. and Canadian weekly hog slaughter have returned to levels near one year ago. That's really nothing new for the Canadian series (see Figure 1), since it has run very near last year's levels since mid-May. The statement is more significant for U.S. slaughter since a four-week bulge in July, when this year's slaughter ran 3.4% higher.
Of course, the big question is what will slaughter rates do this fall. As can be seen by comparing Figures 1 and 2, Canadian slaughter does not exhibit the strong seasonal upturn in the fall that we find in the U.S. data.
It will be difficult for Canada to match last year's slaughter totals this fall given the levels of pig inventories shown in the Statistics Canada report. That report showed 3.1% fewer pigs weighing over 132 lb., 1.2% fewer pigs weighing 44 to 132 lb., and nearly 6% fewer pigs weighing under 44 lb. Those pigs should reach market weight from July 1 through mid-September for the heaviest category, mid-September to early November for the middle weights, and early November through mid-January for the lightest pigs.
<b>The Role of Increased Slaughter Capacity</b>
Conversely, weekly hog slaughter increases by roughly 10% from August to November in the United States. The June Hogs and Pigs Report indicates that fall slaughter this year should be very near the level of last year.
But an important difference this year is higher slaughter capacity. The Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph, MO, was not a factor in last fall's hog market. Now that same plant is operating one full shift and is in the process of ramping up the second shift. While competitors have known this is coming, they will still have to adjust by finding other supplies.
<b>Cold Storage Stocks Stabilize</b>
This week's Cold Storage Report indicates that frozen meat stocks are becoming more manageable due largely to a continued drawdown of poultry supplies, which were near 1 billion pounds earlier this year. There is still more chicken in freezers now than one year ago (by 4%), but the lower stocks (down 3.6% from last month) are still welcome news. Key to domestic meat prices is the 6.4% reduction in breast meat stocks.
Pork inventories were 8.1% smaller than last year and slightly larger than last month. The most encouraging individual number in the report is ham inventories are 22% smaller than last year -- just as we approach the best time of the year for ham demand and prices. Tighter belly and loin stocks should also be helpful for prices this fall.
<b>Cash, Futures Strengthen Price Outlook</b>
Given recent cash price strength and contract life highs on Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) Lean Hogs contracts, this all points to a much better fourth quarter than expected for hog producers. My forecast of fourth quarter national net weighted average price was $57-$60/cwt carcass weight. Futures suggest that prices could be $5 to $7 higher than that. It is developing into quite a remarkable year.
<b>Positive Price Streak Continues</b>
Iowa State University agricultural economists estimate that Iowa farrow-to-finish operations made $25.87/head in July. That makes 30 consecutive profitable months on this long-running series of cost and returns estimates. This streak is still second to the 33 months of profits from December 1976 to August 1979. Given current futures prices and what now appears to be good corn and soybean crops, it appears certain that a new record will be set. Furthermore, it may be shattered. Should the series get through this fall, it may run most of the way through 2007.
<a href="" target="_new"><img align="left" valign="top" src="" vspace="0" border="0" hspace="3"></a><br><br> Click to view graph.<br><br>
<font color="red">Steve R. Meyer, Ph.D.<br>
Paragon Economics, Inc.<br>
e-mail: <a href="mailto:[email protected]">[email protected]</a></font>

PRRS Research Results Trickle In

Almost $2 million has been spent by the National Pork Board in each of three years of funding the PRRS research initiative.

The National Pork Board has put out a call for projects for a third year to fund porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) research. Additionally, the board is announcing the first round of results from 12 projects funded in 2004. A total of 49 projects have been funded to date. Details can be found at

Why does it seem to take so long to get research results?

There are practical and logistical reasons, says Pam Zaabel, DVM, director of Swine Health Information and Research for the National Pork Board.

For starters, although the first-year call for PRRS research project funding went out in March 2004, those projects weren't actually funded until 4-7 months later. “If you had a 12- to 18-month project, that pushes some of those results up to the first of this year,” she explains.

Second, it's fairly common to grant time extensions to complete research projects — and PRRS is certainly no exception. Pigs don't get sick when they are supposed to, or buildings don't become available, so projects sometimes get off schedule.

Availability of reagents and equipment malfunctions can also delay results. Plus, some PRRS research projects are fairly complex, raising more questions to address, thus extending the length of the trial, says Zaabel.

The adjoining pie chart (Figure 1) illustrates the division of resources for research projects that focus on three areas: PRRS vaccination, elimination and persistent infection. Twelve completed projects in those three areas include:

PRRS Vaccination: University of Nebraska researchers studied development of a new generation of PRRS virus differential (marker) vaccines. In doing so, they have identified genes that help the PRRS virus invade and infect the pig. Producing copies of the virus (with these genes removed) may lead to the development of a vaccine that will stimulate protection and not cause disease.

Washington State University scientists developed new cell lines that are susceptible to PRRS virus infection that, with further research, may be used for vaccine production. (The only cell line that exists for vaccine production is patented.)

Iowa State University researchers have developed a killed subunit PRRS vaccine. When the vaccine was given, the pig's immune system produced a small amount of antibody. If produced in larger amounts, the vaccine would hold the potential of stopping infection.

At the University of Minnesota, scientists collaborating with ATG Laboratories produced large quantities of purified PRRS viral proteins to be available to researchers at no cost for a variety of testing procedures.

Iowa State University workers developed anti-PRRS virus neutralizing antibodies to clear the virus from a cell line. This could potentially be developed into a marker vaccine.

Persistent Infection: These pigs are carriers of the PRRS virus and shed it without showing signs of disease, Zaabel explains.

At the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, IA, scientists are studying the interaction of PRRS virus and porcine dendritic cells as playing a potential role in viral persistence. They have isolated a specific type of white blood cell (a dendritic cell) in pig lungs that may help sequester the virus and transport it to the lymph nodes where it may persist.

A dye tested unsuccessfully tracked the movement of dendritic cells throughout the body.

University of Missouri tests determined that PRRS virus may persist in tonsilar fluid for 160 days after exposure following a modified-live-virus vaccine or a live PRRS virus inoculation.

The researchers also developed a scraping method to collect samples of tonsilar fluid from live pigs to test for PRRS.

South Dakota State University and Kansas State University researchers jointly studied the emergence of European-like PRRS virus in the United States. They found that the European-like PRRS virus, similar to its U.S. counterparts, would continue to change genetically.

The group also compiled an extensive reference panel of pig sera to be used by diagnostic laboratories to test for European-like isolates of PRRS.

PRRS Elimination: Scientists at Iowa State University constructed models of chambers to predict aerosol transmission.

University of Minnesota researchers assessed vertical transmission from Parity 1 sows infected with a low-dose, mild strain of PRRS and found:

  • When sows were exposed at 90 days of gestation to PRRS virus, the amount of virus didn't affect the number of piglets shedding at birth or the amount of virus in serum.

  • Four days of age is the best sampling age compared to birth or weaning;

  • Any farrowing of an acutely affected herd can be sampled because the number of pigs infected and the amount of virus does not vary in positive pigs; and

  • Litters infected with PRRS virus have lower growth performance during lactation.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota are testing a pilot project to determine the feasibility of controlling PRRS within a region. So far, producers are sharing PRRS status and control experiences.

The Swine Vet Center of St. Peter, MN, has sampled boars for early infection of PRRS virus using a new serum collection technique that involves puncture of the ear vein prior to semen collection using a blood swab.

This technique has proven to be less stressful for the boars and less dangerous for staff, says Zaabel. Blood swab sampling should replace semen sampling for boar studs.

Pork Board Session

On Sept. 24, during the Leman Swine Conference, the National Pork Board will offer an update on the PRRS, environmental, animal science, pork safety and animal welfare projects they've funded, says Zaabel.

These presentations will contain information that can be directly applied to production units. Producers and swine veterinarians can obtain further information by contacting Zaabel at the Pork Board at (515) 223-2600.

Collaboration Advances PRRS Research Efforts

It takes a lot of teamwork in research at universities and government laboratories around the country and abroad to make progress in eliminating porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), according to Bob Rowland, Department of Diagnostic Medicine/Pathobiology at Kansas State University.

Rowland chairs NC-229, which brings together basic and applied scientists to envision how research translates to the field. The goal is to help producers struggling with PRRS in their operations.

NC-229 was established in October 1999 under the guidance of PRRS researcher David Benfield of Ohio State University. The North Central Regional Association of Agricultural Experiment Station directors initiated the effort, targeting the detection, protection and elimination of PRRS virus, with select universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Research Service laboratories forming the core of PRRS research.

A crowning achievement for NC-229 was the development of the International PRRS Symposium, formally launched in 1999. This meeting grew out of annual research reports given by NC-229 researchers. The annual program is free to the public and is held just prior to the Conference of Research Workers in Animal Diseases (see separate story).

The collaborative nature amongst researchers led to formation of PRRS CAP-1, the first Cooperative Agricultural Project on PRRS, a four-year program funded at $4.4 million by USDA, under the direction of Michael Murtaugh of the University of Minnesota.

This multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional team approach bridges the gap in research, Extension and education on PRRS, while reducing duplication and fostering collaboration, says Rowland.

The PRRS-CAP group attempts to address “outside the box” research ideas as well as help provide a training ground for future leaders in PRRS research, he adds.

PRRS CAP-1 specifically looked at biosecurity within herds, viral spread within herds, diagnostics and monitoring, and regional elimination of the virus from the boar stud and genetic replacements, to the breeding farm and growing pig.

PRRS CAP-2 provides a continuation of the four-year project, funded by USDA at $4.4 million. The project is under the direction of new project leader Rowland.

Specific PRRS-CAP-2 research efforts will focus on:

  • PRRS vaccines: The goal is to develop a vaccine to protect a herd in which the virus has been cleared to prevent reinfection, he says.

  • Immunology: “We still don't understand how the virus interacts with the pig,” points out Rowland.

  • PRRS ecology: “People still don't understand how PRRS gets on the farm, and once it gets in, how does it circulate? Can we find ways to cut it off once it gets in?” he asks.

“Our job is to develop the scientific tools for the control and elimination of PRRS,” Rowland notes.

After PRRS CAP-2 ends, so does USDA funding. Thus, the pork industry should support PRRS CAP-2 and make PRRS elimination a reality, he adds.

International PRRS Meeting

PRRS Eradication — Is It Possible?

That's the theme for the 2006 International PRRS Symposium to be held Dec. 1-2 in Chicago, IL.

This annual public meeting is held prior to the Conference of Research Workers in Animal Diseases. Site of both meetings is the Chicago Marriott Hotel-Downtown (312/836-0100 or 800/228-9290).

A broad range of topics is planned, from field studies to highly technical investigations. Discussions include PRRS diagnostics, persistence and genetic resistance.

Reports will cover PRRS CAP-1 summaries and details of the PRRS research initiative from the National Pork Board. Major epidemiological factors controlling virus spread, elimination and eradication will be addressed.

Organizers are currently soliciting scientific abstracts for presentations and poster displays (deadline is Sept. 8).

There is no charge to attend, but registration is required through the symposium Web site,

For more information, contact conference chairman Bob Rowland at [email protected] or co-chairs Joan Lunney at [email protected] or Pam Zaabel, DVM, at [email protected].

Identification Meeting

More than 50 speakers are on the docket for ID/INFO EXPO 2006 on Aug. 22-24 at the Westin Crown Center Hotel in Kansas City, MO.

The event is sponsored by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture.

Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns will address the group Aug. 23. Other key Agriculture Department officials responsible for implementing the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) will make presentations.

Several industry representatives will discuss the pros and cons of NAIS.

For more details, call (270) 782-9798 or go online to

Detect Pregnancy in Sows

The Classic InSight Preg Checker is designed to be a reliable scanning system.

The Classic InSight Preg Checker from PharVision Ultrasound is designed and constructed to be a reliable scanning system that can be used to detect early pregnancy in sows. The easy-to-use, easy-to-clean unit runs on removable, rechargeable batteries. Pregnancy checks can be started at 19-20 days after breeding. A single control knob simplifies operation. The 32 oz., machined aluminum unit utilizes a comfortable grip design along with a wrist strap to prevent dropping. Call (800) 722-6838 or

Parasite Evaluation Program

Intervet announces the Parasite Evaluation program, a free fecal analysis program designed to give pork producers unbiased information they can use to make informed decisions about internal parasite control. Samples are shipped to one of four independent laboratories for analysis, performed by industry experts. After receiving results, producers can compare their needs to aggregate data from their county, state or region. Call (800) 441-8272 to request a collection kit.

Birthright Deck

In the climate-controlled Birthright Deck from Ralco Nutrition, challenged piglets find everything they need to grow and prosper. The unique design controls airflow while it manages heat and humidity. Choose a tank size and provide a consistent Birthright Baby Pig Milk flow of nutrition to the deck to ensure healthy piglets. Front and rear brackets telescope to accommodate any barn configuration. Call (800) 533-5306 or

Theft Protection

Protect all of your commodities with ScoringAg, a database that allows the user to record a stolen animal or equipment instantaneously. Designed by Scoring System, Inc., ScoringAg works by assigning a unique code to each item. The code can be printed out as a barcode from your computer and attached to the item. A radio frequency identification (RFID) tag can be attached to an item or animal for identification. Photos can also be added to each record. Call (877) 684-0018 or

Fly Bait

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved Elector Bait for fly control in livestock operations. This novel bait from Elanco Animal Health is a yellow, granular formulation that is highly attractive to flies. Elector Bait provides ongoing, effective control of house flies through a unique, delayed mode of action, with no known insecticide resistance. Go to

Fiberglass Turbo Fan

Chore-Time has added a 52-in. diameter model to its line of fiberglass turbo fans. This is a fiberglass version of the company's energy-efficient Hyflo Shutter, and features a compressible, one-piece cone that allows the fans to be placed side-by-side in a fan bank, installed 60 in. on center. It also has high air-moving capacity so fewer fans are needed per barn. Consisting of only two moving parts, the Hyflo Shutter's fiberglass doors are pushed open as air is exhausted when the fan operates. The shutter's unique springs draw the doors closed when the fan is not operating. Call (574) 658-4191 or

Compact Lighting

Save energy with Val-Co's 26 watt (1,800 lumens) Dimmable Compact Fluorescent Lights. The lights operate on 120 volts, 200/240 volts-50/60 Hz through a power line communication modular system. The screwing-type adaptor and lamp alters consumption proportionately to the percent you are dimming (100% to 3%) and are flicker free. The light restrikes at any preset level, avoiding the flash effect. The light is available in three colors: warm, cool or daylight. The adaptor has a lifetime of 150,000 hours at 70∞ F. Each unit is sealed against humidity and certified UL, CUL and CE. Call (800) 328-3813 or

Send product submissions to Dale Miller, Editor (952) 851-4661; [email protected]

Benchmarking Priorities

Mining useful information from your production records is an ongoing challenge — but opportunities also abound.

Tracking herd performance over multiple quarters and years helps identify performance trends — both good and not so good.

Carried a step further, if the data is submitted to a service provider, comparisons can be made to other herds that collect and report similar information. The key to gaining the most worthwhile information from these services is prioritizing the traits and data that can be effectively managed to maximize herd performance.

John Deen, DVM, and associate professor of swine production systems at the University of Minnesota, addressed data comparison issues in a seminar presented at World Pork Expo in June. He focused on prioritizing benchmarking data in an effort to maximize reproductive performance.

Deen is most familiar with the PigChamp database and benchmarking program; however, his thoughts on data mining and data comparisons can be applied to most recordkeeping system reports.

Understanding the Terminology

Deen began with a review of two often-cited terms that sometimes create confusion — the “mean” and “median.”

The “mean” is the average of a data set.

The “median” is the middle number of a range of numbers in the data set.

If the numbers are plotted in a normal, truly bell-shaped curve, the mean and the median are exactly the same, explains Deen.

“But, when we see the mean (average) is higher than the median, it means that there are some large numbers at one side (of the curve's highpoint) that move the mean up or down, while the middle numbers stay in the middle.”

Certain numbers, such as farrowing rate, tend to show the median higher than the mean in almost all cases. This just means that there is a “skew” — a sort of long tail on one side of the bell-shaped distribution.

“Frankly, when the median and the mean don't line up, the distribution often shows there are some farms that really perform surprisingly badly,” he says. “It may be because of an outbreak of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) or something that pulls the curve's distribution out.”

There is a natural tendency to look at the mean (average), because people strive to be above average. Deen acknowledges there is some value in this comparison, but, he warns, “averages lie.”

What is more important is the spread of performance still present in the industry. The spread identifies the challenges and opportunities available to owners and managers of production systems.

“We have a changing industry — especially in reproduction,” he explains. “Reproductive capability of our herd is increasing, and that's a part of the reason we are seeing more and more pork on shelves and available for export — even with lower and lower numbers of sows.”

Is Production Static?

“Are we converging or diverging?” Deen asks. “Are we becoming more similar in the way we produce pigs, especially reproductively, or are we changing?”

Artificial insemination and managing sow feed intake are technologies more commonly used today (convergence).

Yet, the industry is also responding to consumer demands, such as outside farrowing, so-called “natural” production, or meeting animal well-being specifications for certain markets.

“When we see divergence, it means we have to compare farms in different ways,” he continues. “The opportunity to benchmark those operations is to do so among cohorts — operations using similar technologies.”

Another important aspect of benchmarking is “capability analysis.” Simply put, how much different can an operation be, compared to the general industry, before you lose the ability to compete? An example would be pasture farrowing vs. farrowing crates in confinement systems.

The answer to that question may come from “system analysis” using benchmarking, which tests whether the business or system is capable of delivering what the owner wants — profitability, stable productivity, etc. — and whether that capability delivers what is needed to compete and survive in the industry.

Benchmarking Expectations

At the outset, it is important to establish what you expect from the benchmarking process. Dean draws on an old English saying to make his point: “You don't fatten a pig by weighing it.”

Logically, measuring something does not improve its performance. “It simply drives a recognition of the opportunities to change or amplify the strength you have,” he notes.

Therefore, it is important to recognize your motivation to benchmark:

  • Boasting rights — The ability to brag about the trophy for the highest pigs/sow/year or lowest feed efficiency. “This is used less and less, but it is useful in correcting behavior,” he notes.

  • Risk management — Useful in understanding the likelihood of future performance based on past performance.

  • Capability measures — This helps clarify how capable the farm is in keeping up the expected performance.

  • Strategic improvement — This motivation helps identify shortfalls to initiating strategic improvements.

  • Financial planning — Benchmarking can help fine-tune this process.

Maximizing Value

The value of the benchmarking process is limited to the quality of information placed in the database. Standardization is important. Enter gilts into the breeding herd only when they are mated, for example. Standardize starting weights to get meaningful days-to-market and feed efficiency data.

To make good choices in benchmarking, the first step is identifying key parameters that are drivers on your farm.

“There is a complexity in there that is increasing all of the time,” Deen says. “We are seeing some demands within the swine welfare assurance programs, such as mortality rates. We have to identify which of these demands are useful.”

Reflecting on his early years in veterinary medicine, he relates: “When I started out, there was a lot of discussion on (swine) health and well-being. We used the term ‘herd health.’ If the pigs were healthy, you made money.

“Then we turned to ‘productivity.’ We said, ‘if they are productive, you make money.’ But then we saw guys who tracked pigs/sow/year go under.

“So, we decided ‘cost control’ was important. Cost/lb. of gain was the measure.

“Then more and more we were looking at ‘profit maximization’ — getting more, higher quality pigs out the door. Or, we used ‘utility maximization’ — lowering the variability of productivity, and lowering the risk of unexpected events.

“Finally, we talk about ‘robustness, sustainability, greatest good.’ These are the long-term outcomes,” he says.

Some benchmarks didn't turn out to be as useful as they were made out to be. High culling rates, for example, could result from a depopulation/repopulation effort. Low culling rates are unsustainable, he says.

“There are ‘good culls’ and there are ‘bad culls.’ It depends on age. Bad culls are early parity culls; good culls are 7th-parity culls. Culling isn't always a failure.”

Deen's driver of choice to benchmark is ‘farrowing rate,’ for two reasons: “Remember the difference between mean and median. We've got some low-performing herds, 30-40% farrowing rate or less, especially in the summer quarter. We see a number of herds dropping and we get this long tail at the lower end of the distribution curve.

“I consider seasonal infertility to be a bigger disease than porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) because it drives the market price. That's not a popular statement — especially in veterinary schools — but when you lose pregnancies from the summer matings, those are high-value pigs that you're losing. You end up rebreeding those sows and pushing their pigs into November sales, and that's really expensive. Farrowing rate drives culling decisions and it drives choices as far as number of matings.”

Deen's preference for farrowing rate is driven by two points:

  • “You have to look more closely at capabilities to improve farrowing rate; and

  • “Looking backwards, farrowing rate costs you more than is often attributed to it. It costs in lost sows; it costs in lower value pigs out of the barns; it costs in over-farrowing in some weeks, under-farrowing in others.”

Plotting farrowing rate averages on a graph reveals a shotgun pattern. Some large, as well as some small, herds appear above and below the average in the total database. You may have problem weeks that need a closer look. One way of moving the average is to bring up all of the tail-enders,” he says.

Mating performance the week of Christmas, other holidays, or weekends, can cause low farrowing rates, for example. Summer heat can cause low farrowing rate weeks, too, which may be reflected in the proportion of sows bred within seven days of weaning. More sows exceed the seven-day parameter in the summer, so they are rolled over to the next week, and those sows are less likely to perform when they are successfully bred.

“The point I want to emphasize is — averages simply don't tell everything,” Deen reinforces. “And benchmarking is not perfect.”

Finally, it is critical to understand who is participating in the database you are comparing your herd performance to, including any recordkeeping biases that may exist. For example, producers who use computerized recordkeeping systems are more likely to have better productivity than those who do not.

Phosphorus Field Assessment

Nebraska fields listed as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) must have a Field Phosphorus Risk Assessment before manure can be applied after Jan. 1, 2007.

Confined livestock operations with a maximum one-time capacity of 2,500 swine weighing more than 55 lb. are automatically ranked large CAFOs, says Ken Lamb, Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. Some operations with fewer animals may need a permit if there is a direct link between the livestock operation and surface water.

Two phosphorus indexes are approved for Nebraska. For more information about CAFOs or the phosphorus index, visit the University of Nebraska's Comprehensive Nutrient Management Planning Web site at

NPPC Comments on EPA's CAFO Rule

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) has submitted preliminary comments on the federal Clean Water Act rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

“Our initial review of the proposed rule indicates that EPA has proposed an effective regulatory program that maintains clean water while keeping regulatory costs for producers low,” says Minnesota producer Randy Spronk, chairman of NPPC's Environment Committee. “But the details are important, and we will conduct a thorough review of the proposed rule.”

The proposed rule is a revision of a 2003 regulation that called for CAFOs over a certain size to obtain National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits and to implement nutrient management plans. NPPC and other groups successfully argued in federal court that the Clean Water Act only requires NPDES permits for operations that discharge. The court directed the EPA to revise the 2003 rule.

Comments on the proposed rule were to be submitted to EPA by mid-August. View the rule on EPA's Web site:

Ethanol Jitters

Gas prices hovering near $3/gal. have a way of turning talk about energy costs to ethanol and the price of corn.

These conversations generally begin calmly enough. But when industry prognosticators start talking about corn at $3/bu. or more, folks start getting edgy — kind of like a caffeine-induced anxiety attack that I loosely describe as the “ethanol jitters.”

The ethanol question presents a real catch-22 to pork producers.

On the one hand, supporting greater independence from foreign oil is certainly the right thing to do.

On the other hand, the competition for corn will surely drive pork production costs higher.

This paradoxical situation is reinforced daily. Pick up most any farm magazine and there's likely to be an ethanol story emblazoned on the cover. Flip through TV channels in search of an evening news program and you're bound to be interrupted by an advertisement for flex-fuel vehicles or a public service announcement singing the praises of ethanol.

When news programming returns, you'll hear reports of escalated fighting in the war-torn Middle East, refueling the uneasiness about our reliance on the world's petroleum supplies.

In business news, we hear that the world's largest oil company, Exxon Mobil Corporation, recently filed their second quarter earnings report, revealing profits 36% ($7.64 billion) above a year ago and the second-largest quarterly profit report in their history.

Rest assured, major oil companies will be lining up to bid up the price of ethanol needed to blend with their refined gas. That will spell trouble in pork producer ledgers.

Must It Be Corn?

The approach to renewable, plant-based fuels is really two-pronged. One is to minimize the petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides needed to raise a crop. The other is a search for crops to serve as a source of the biomass needed for ethanol production.

Certainly, swine manure can help lower fertilizer costs and improve yields. But there's an irony here. While swine manure boosts corn yields and potential profits for investors in ethanol plants, it also lines their pockets with funds to bid up the price of corn.

Are there no alternatives?

The most interesting approach to biofuels production that I've seen recently came from University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman and his colleagues in the College of Biological Sciences. Tilman argues, instead of growing a single fuel-source crop like corn, why not grow many species together, generating more total vegetation and reducing the chances of crop failure in any one species?

Makes sense to me.

Tilman and his fellow researchers recently published a paper in the journal Nature, summarizing 12 years of experiments.

“It shows unequivocally that plots of land with numerous species produce much more biomass and suffer less from fluctuations of productivity than plots with only one or a few species. This makes diverse plantings the likeliest candidates to drive the ‘bio’ revolution,” states Tilman in a university news release.

This diverse biomass source “can be burned for energy or refined to produce concentrated energy in the form of biofuels, such as ethanol or syn(thetic) gasoline and diesel,” he continues.

“Diverse prairie grasslands are 240% more productive than grasslands with a single prairie species,” he explains. “Restoring land so it can produce biofuels is a new idea, but there are many reasons to do it.”

Tilman's work suggests that the multiple-species prairie plants will produce fuels such as ethanol, with greater net energy gains/acre than corn, soybeans or even switchgrass, the source of biomass energy used extensively in Brazil's ethanol production.

I checked USDA's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) website and found the enrollment of farmland at all levels, including farmable wetlands, is tallied at over 36 million acres, with an annual payment averaging nearly $49/acre. The total tab for these diverted acres is projected at $1.76 billion annually, as of June 2006.

Not all of that land could be harvested, nor does it account for the cost of removing, transporting and processing the biomass. But, if we are serious about solving our “addiction to foreign oil,” perhaps harvesting the cover crops on those CRP acres could help recover some of those expenditures. Then, more of our valuable corn and soybean acres could continue to provide food and fiber for people and pigs.

Filters Are First Line Of Defense Against PRRS

Carthage Veterinary Service Ltd. of Carthage, IL, believes adding HEPA air filters to boar studs screens out the virus that causes porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), providing an extra margin of security against contamination of sow farms.

Carthage Veterinary Service Ltd. (CVS) coordinates shipments of semen from two producer-owned boar studs to 110,000 sows across Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.

Many of the pigs produced by this semen are shipped as weaners to Iowa and Minnesota for finishing.

To provide the highest level of biosecurity for their clients, CVS has instituted a very detailed set of guidelines and rules for the boar studs (see sidebar on page 11).

In the past year, CVS went the extra mile, installing a HEPA filtration system in the second boar stud, with plans to install a similar system in a third, 400-head boar stud planned for construction later this summer.

HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance, and refers to technology developed during World War II to remove radioactive particles from the air that could be dangerous to researchers.

Joe Connor, DVM, and co-owner of CVS, says HEPA air filtration systems have proven to be the most effective means of keeping out the PRRS virus. “As far as we know, there has never been a boar stud in the world that has broken with PRRS virus that has had (HEPA-) filtered air,” he reports.

In a number of boar studs in Europe, HEPA air filtration technology has been used successfully for many years to address hog density issues and PRRS infection re-breaks, he says.

Numerous boar studs in the United States have broken with PRRS over the years, including a spate of breaks this past winter. None of those studs, including a break in a Minnesota boar stud this summer, used air filtration systems, Connor adds.

Bear Creek Genetics, LLC

In 1998, about 24 tri-state area producers set up a limited liability company as a user group to build boar studs under the name Bear Creek Genetics, LLC. The first stud of 270 boars was built near Quincy, IL, that same year. It broke with PRRS over the Christmas holidays in 2000-2001, recalls Doug Groth, veterinarian in charge of boar studs and biosecurity for the Carthage veterinary/management group.

Soon after that the stud was emptied and repopulated. It has not re-broken with PRRS in the intervening years, despite being situated in a hog-dense area near a four-lane highway that was completed after the stud was built, Groth explains.

To provide more health assurances for producer-owners, it was decided that the second boar stud should be filtered. Located near Bowen, IL, it is an H-shaped facility that was built in two phases, with 200 boars housed on each side of a center office area. The first leg of the stud of 200 boars was completed in 2002. When the second wing of 200 boars was built a year ago, HEPA filtration technology became available and was installed to help protect the stud from PRRS, particularly because it produces a maternal line of boars, says Groth.

Shortly thereafter, the original phase of the second stud was retrofitted with HEPA filters to provide positive-pressure ventilation throughout the whole boar stud.

“With HEPA filters, we set them up as positive-pressure, tunnel-ventilated systems so we force outside air in through the HEPA filter that is higher pressure than anything on the outside of the building,” he says. “If there is a 30-mph wind outside, I don't want it blowing back in my exhaust outlets, so I have to maintain a positive pressure compared to the outside.”

The studs also feature cool cells on the end of the buildings, plus misters and stir fans to keep boars relatively cool on the hottest days in summer.

The ‘HEPA Room’

Groth says to convert a standard, negative-pressure ventilation system to a positive-pressure system for HEPA filtration in the older section of the second boar stud actually required that a separate “HEPA room” be built.

First is a panel of cool cells on the outside wall of the 15-ft-addition. Inside is a bank of four, 6-sq.-ft. metal air plenum chambers that house the electric fans that pressurize the air so it can be forced through the large HEPA filters into the main room of the boar stud. A series of 2-in.-thick pre-filters capture large particles such as dust and bugs, before air reaches the HEPA filters. There are nine HEPA filters in each air plenum.

HEPA filters are about 2 ft. sq. and a foot thick and consist of a “metal frame with a lot of pleats,” explains Groth. “They are 99.9% efficient in capturing most dust and virus particles down to 0.3 microns. The air coming through is as clean as you see in hospital rooms.”

HEPA filters and the prefilters can both be purchased from a number of commercial ventilation companies.

Each air plenum chamber operates independently, says Groth, so if routine maintenance needs to be performed, or a motor freezes up in one of the plenums, that chamber can easily be shut down at the computer-operated control pad.

Meanwhile, the other chambers continue to function normally, keeping air flowing and filtering systems working. The heating system is also engineered to run through the HEPA filter system.

A standby generator can be activated in the case of a power outage.

Energy, Filter Costs

In comparing energy use in the first, non-filtered boar stud vs. the second, filtered stud, there is surprisingly little difference in cost.

Boar studs cost about $3,000/boar to build. It cost around $600/boar to install the HEPA air filter system in the second boar stud.

Each HEPA filter costs from $200 to $400 and prefilters run $8/each. Prefilters need to be checked and changed about every quarter, while the HEPA filters are still functioning properly and have yet to be changed after one year of operation, remarks Groth.

He says some adjustments will be made to reduce the cost of installing the filter system to around $400/boar for the third boar stud. Key will be using one set of controls instead of two, because the third stud will only have six air plenums, compared to seven at the second boar stud.

“When we put in four air plenums in the original construction of the second half of the second boar stud, we never got above 60% capacity on each of the air plenum units,” says Groth. “We found out it wasn't necessary to have that fourth plenum and the 30% or so extra capacity.”

Testing Results Positive So Far

Veterinarians Groth and Connor caution it's only been a year since the HEPA filters were installed at the second stud, and there is no real way to know their true impact. But they believe that the filters have at least contributed to keeping out PRRS virus so far.

Semen collection is done at night when boars can stay cooler, especially beneficial in summer. Semen is collected four nights a week.

To test for PRRS, every third boar collected is serum-tested during semen collection using the ear prick method developed by Darwin Reicks, DVM, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, MN.

But instead of using the ear swab to collect serum, Groth has switched to a plastic tube that uses capillary action to suck blood from the ear vein. It improves the quality of blood samples, reduces contamination and ensures adequate quantity, he says. Blood samples go out fresh early the next morning to the University of Illinois diagnostic lab at Champaign-Urbana. Results are e-mailed to the clinic by 5-6 p.m.

As assurances grow, testing will be reduced, which will in turn reduce the added cost/dose of semen to customers, says Groth. Testing by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) costs $22-25/sample.

Maternal and terminal boar semen are serum-tested for PRRS, both pooled in groups of five boars. For a “suspect” serum sample, each of those five boars would be tested individually.

Groth emphasizes that all five boars would be immediately sent to market if a pooled sample initially tested PRRS positive. “I don't care about five boars compared to 400 boars on one site,” he notes. “Suspects” sometimes occur in PRRS testing, and could point to a low-level infection, but more likely mean something didn't turn out right with the testing procedure.

“There is a standing order at the stud that when staff get an e-mail notifying of a test result pending or a suspect sample, employees are to automatically repeat the sampling procedures and send them off so they arrive at the diagnostic lab by noon the next day,” says Groth. Stud staff are trained to bleed boars from the jugular vein for followup PRRS tests.

Boar Stud Biosecurity Measures

Doug Groth, DVM, Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd., says HEPA air filtration is really only a part of the biosecurity equation at the Bear Creek boar studs, in west central Illinois.

“We said we were going to do everything we can to protect the boar stud because of the large number of sows that we are servicing, and that is what we are doing,” he asserts.

Starts with the Boars

Biosecurity is for boars, too. PIC boars are introduced to the studs 5-6 times/year at 6-7 months of age from PIC trailers that have been through a cleaning and baking procedure.

Each stud has a separate 40-head (first stud) and 48-head (second stud) isolation building where boars spend their first 45 days becoming acclimated and trained for collection.

They are vaccinated for parvovirus, leptovirus and erysipelas and swine influenza virus. Boars are bled twice upon entry, and when they leave isolation, for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, pseudorabies and brucellosis.

Boars are transported by designated trailer from an on-site equipment barn a few hundred feet to the main boar stud, after isolation/acclimation are completed, explains Groth.

When boars are culled, each stud has its own designated clean hog cart or trailer to load up and haul culls off-site. They are loaded onto a different clean trailer a mile or more away to ship to market.

Cull boars are shipped about once a week. Cull trailers are never allowed on the boar stud site, stresses Groth. And cull boars are always removed at the end of the day so employees working with them can go home for the day to create downtime.

Limiting Traffic

Visitors are strongly restricted from contact with boars in the stud. Groth jokes the visitor's log simply reflects his many visits to the stud.

But actually, biosecurity restrictions are serious business — Groth and others must strictly follow a 48-hour downtime between visits to the studs. That means he may in fact only get to visit each stud once a week or less.

Employees can travel between the first and second boar studs, provided there is 24-hour downtime.

All people traffic must shower in and out of the stud. If anyone steps outside the stud for any reason, they must shower back in. One employee was fired for not doing so.

“We are serious about biosecurity, because if something contaminates the stud and we can't sell semen, there is no cash flow,” says Groth.

All exterior doors are clearly marked “do not enter” and kept locked.

Stud labs for semen analysis are operated as separate shower-in, shower-out facilities. The second stud uses an underground pneumatic tube to transport semen shipments from the collection area to the lab.

Other Measures

  • Perimeter fencing and charged, high-tensile wire fencing surround the first and second boar studs, respectively.

  • All supplies entering the stud are fogged and disinfected prior to use.

  • Feed is delivered first thing Monday morning to a bulk bin about 150 ft. away from any stud buildings, and flows through feed lines into the feeders.

  • Building perimeters are kept well-landscaped and rocked. Bait stations are positioned at least every 50 ft. for rodent control. Once a week, bait must be checked and restocked.Weeds are kept well mowed.

  • For manure disposal, the studs use dedicated pumps so that none of the manure handling equipment of contract haulers enters any buildings. Manure gravity-flows out of 2-ft.-deep, pull-plug pit systems to a concrete basin, where it is pumped out every 12 months and knived into adjacent ground using a dragline hose system.

Boar studs must follow a weekly checklist that includes a review of biosecurity procedures and environmental conditions inside the studs, concludes Groth.

PRRS Control Efforts Suffer Setbacks

Attempts to clean up porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) in the United States encountered some new breaks in 2006.

A year ago, the Carthage (IL) Veterinary Service, Ltd. (CVS) came close to achieving a milestone. The large sow system it services and manages in Illinois and Missouri nearly became PRRS-negative for the first time since the virus struck the region decades ago.

Keith Erlandson, DVM, in charge of PRRS control programs for CVS, says 95% of the system had achieved negative status when a number of disease breaks occurred earlier this year, mainly during the winter, when virus survival is much higher.

The CVS staff have not been able to figure out exactly how the breaks occurred, he says, except the follow-up blood testing of all farms revealed the reinfected herds came down with a new strain of the virus.

“For a lot of people around the country it has been a pretty bad year for PRRS,” says Erlandson. He estimates their sow system has now dropped to about 75% free of PRRS.

CVS's Joe Connor, DVM, says the movement of the PRRS virus this past winter into previously clean areas of the sow systems has caused particular frustration, raising questions about what additional steps may be needed to prevent introduction.

In the late 1990s, most PRRS breaks were linked to incomplete testing that resulted in PRRS-positive gilts entering the sow system. But those slipups have been easy to track down, whereas this latest series of breaks has proven to be a “big mystery,” he says.

Connor recalls a survey of biosecurity practices in the highly integrated poultry industry a few years ago. The survey revealed that even with intensive biosecurity efforts, lapses were discovered in videotapes of barn activity, and the failure rate of procedures was quite high.

For PRRS control, training of farm staff becomes critical to assure understanding and follow-through of biosecurity practices.

Connor points out that eliminating PRRS virus is different than ridding the industry of pseudorabies. “What we are missing is a vaccine that can reduce shedding, decrease the challenge dose in the virus, and a differential vaccine.” Animals vaccinated for pseudorabies could be differentiated from those infected by a field strain, he explains.

Sow Centers

Sow center units range from 2,600 up to a few with 6,400 sows. They are organized as limited liability companies, each owned by about two-dozen area producers and overseen by a board of directors.

Professional Swine Management, an arm of CVS, provides management services, including handling day-to-day operations, management of the gilt flow, accounting, bookkeeping and personnel issues.

In turn, producer-owners receive large groups of 21-day-old weaned pigs to finish out on their farms.

Cleanup Procedures

Of the sow farms that have broken with PRRS this year, one herd was depopulated and four are in the process of being rolled over, says Erlandson. Depopulations are very costly, but can still be the right decision if the disease load is high enough, causing production to suffer.

Success rate is running about 90% on rollovers. Since the capital investment is small, if the herd breaks again, it's worth it to simply start the process over, he says. A rollover takes at least two years and plenty of patience to complete, says Erlandson.

A PRRS break at a Carthage-managed sow center serves as an example of how a PRRS rollover works.

“The sow center was a PRRS-naïve population to start with, when the PRRS virus got introduced about eight weeks into breeding,” he recalls. Veterinary staff collected serum from sows and older pigs to use for serum therapy. All animals on the farm were then “mass-inoculated” with serum containing the PRRS virus.

Every pig down to the youngest replacement gilt (21 days old) was inoculated with virus to make the whole herd positive for PRRS at the same time to create herd stability, says Erlandson.

The farm was able to continue in production, uninterrupted, unlike a depopulation where everything is shut down. No gilt replacements were introduced for six months. Replacement is targeted at 50% annually.

To resume gilt introductions, naïve gilt replacements raised in rented, off-site finishers were brought in, en masse. Gilts in all phases — from the youngest weaners all the way up to mature gilts — were introduced at the same time, he explains.

“When we start rolling in naïve gilts, we treat the farm as having two populations: a positive population and a negative population,” explains Erlandson. “We will go so far as making sure that a negative (naïve) gilt never shares a water trough with a positive animal, although flow may dictate that. They are right across the alley, but they never share a water trough.

“And when farm staff goes out to treat, they carry a positive treatment kit and a negative treatment kit, so there is no chance that a negative animal is going to be ‘shot’ with a needle that was just in a PRRS-positive animal,” he says.

At farrowing, known PRRS-positive and PRRS-negative populations were kept segregated. No crossfostering was allowed between the two groups. For accurate identification, all positive sows were identified with a commercial paint marker. Gestating sows of different PRRS health status were also kept physically separated.

About a year ago, some two years after the control program started, the last PRRS-positive sow was rolled out of the sow center. “The negative sows, while they may have been housed throughout the cleanup effort in the same barn as the positive sows, never came down with the virus,” observes Erlandson.

Serum Therapy Do's and Don'ts

Serum therapy shouldn't be tried without the consultation and direct involvement of a veterinarian, cautions Erlandson.

Take action quickly after a PRRS diagnosis has been confirmed. “Serum therapy can be a useful tool, but it has a fairly limited scope of usefulness, and should be considered as a targeted approach to a specific problem,” he says.

If a herd is already positive for PRRS, and another strain of the virus gets introduced, extra time will be required to identify the new strain.

“I think this process works best when there is just a single introduction into a naïve or negative herd,” stresses Erlandson.

Secondary Invaders

Secondary invaders complicate the PRRS challenge. Swine influenza virus (SIV) and Mycoplasmal pneumonia are the chief issues, but porcine circovirus-associated disease is also starting to create problems in PRRS-infected herds, says Erlandson.

Gilts, especially, should be targeted for mycoplasma vaccination as early as 21 days old (when they are selected as replacements), with a booster shot three weeks later. Sows should be vaccinated before farrowing. Weaned pigs should receive a one-shot mycoplasma vaccine during that first week of arrival at a producer's farm.

It's known that sows can shed the PRRS virus for quite a long time. If SIV strikes, it decreases immunity and can prolong PRRS shedding. CVS mass-vaccinates sows seasonally for SIV, except for summer. This approach provides consistently high maternal antibodies and protection in sows and also provides strong protection for piglets, vs. a prefarrow vaccination program that only protects 5% of the sow herd at a time. The proof of success is the fact that the sow centers have gone three years without a flu break.

CVS also advises employees to be vaccinated against influenza, thus providing protection from infection for both people and pigs, says Erlandson.


Transportation biosecurity is key in a sow system that sends out large numbers of weaned pigs to its owners every week.

“We insist that the loadouts at the receiving farms be washed and disinfected prior to arrival, or that the producers use designated pig trailers,” says Erlandson.

The sow system is also building a two-bay truck wash and drying bay that is being paid for by producer-owners. “That is going to give us a lot more confidence in the area of pig transportation,” he says.

Producer sow center owners are limited to visiting sow farms once or twice a year. “We understand that the owners have made a significant investment in the sow herd, and want to check up on it, but we try to limit the visitors to the sites,” says Erlandson.

Meetings with farm employees and truckers are frequently held to emphasize biosecurity protocols and the importance of downtime.

Sow Center Owner Enjoys PRRS Freedom

Randy Scheetz of Burnside, IL, has raised hogs since 1970. For about half that time, he has struggled with the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus as a farrow-to-finish producer and later as a feeder pig finisher.

But as a shareholder in three sow centers managed by Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd., he has enjoyed freedom from PRRS for four years. He finishes out feeder pigs from two of the sow centers. The third sow center, near his home, delivers 21-day-old pigs for finishing in two, 1,200-head, wean-to-finish barns.

PRRS freedom allows Scheetz to keep costs down in those wean-to-finish barns in several ways:

  • No vaccinations from the time the 15-pounders arrive at his farm until they head to market at about 300 lb.

  • Pigs are medicated with chlortetracycline and tiamulin in the starter feed for about three weeks to control staph and strep infections. Pigs are also given aureomycin as a water-pulse medication, usually during that first week to control mycoplasma.

  • Pigs are overpopulated in the wean-to-finish barns. When groups arrive, Scheetz stocks 45 head/pen, using the buildings as nurseries until pigs reach about 100 lb. Then 15 head are pulled out of each pen and moved to a 450-head, off-site finisher, leaving 30 head/pen in the wean-to-finish barns.

    “I can utilize this space as a nursery and utilize my wean-to-finish barns more efficiently by filling it an extra one-third full, and it is not costing me a dime in extra facilities,” explains Scheetz.

    During this stress period of moving and sorting, pigs sometimes develop a cough. If caught on the first day, they can be successfully treated for mycoplasma using chlortetracycline, he says. These pigs will be treated for three to five days.

  • Pigs will be treated for ileitis with tylosin for the last two weeks or so of their finishing period.

“Randy is a producer who really understands the disease dynamics that goes on in his farms, and we have worked with him to develop a targeted medication strategy to take care of these problems before they really crop up,” says his veterinarian, Keith Erlandson.

Eliminating PRRS and switching to a gruel feed if pigs start stalling have both worked to nearly eliminate fallback pigs. Culls/death loss combined range in a respectable 3-6% of finishing pigs.

Filling barns in seven days or less with healthier pigs has reduced sorting to once during finishing, remarks Scheetz. Only a handful won't reach market weight, he says, and those tail-enders are fed out in a Cargill-style finisher.

PRRS-negative sows lead to PRRS-free pigs and Scheetz says even on a cheap feed that he uses to capture higher returns, the 21-day-old pigs reach 300-lb. finishing weight in five months. They are marketed at around six months of age.

Erlandson says Scheetz' decision not to overcrowd pigs is another big factor in keeping down disease levels in his wean-to-finish barns.

“Instead of feeding out 2,400 pigs, which he is entitled to get at a time, he has chosen to feed out 1,800 head in the wean-to-finish barns and sell the remainder as feeder pigs,” he says.

Alternative Vaccine Produced for PRRS

MJ Biologics has utilized a new, breakthrough process to capture the viral components necessary to produce a viable, alternative vaccine to combat porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS).

The Mankato, MN-based company's autogenous (custom) vaccine is produced using the Selectigen MJPRRS Technology, a new, patent-pending method in viral manipulation and subunit vaccine manufacturing.

The process selectively collects and concentrates viral antigens that were formerly trapped inside the structure of a killed virus, allowing for greater antigenic mass in production of the vaccine.

Unlike traditional PRRS vaccine production, where viral cells are harvested after complete release from the host cell, Selectigen MJPRRS Technology harvests cells at a point in time during incubation that concentrates relatively high viral antigen components in a free form.

The intricate process of extraction requires several extra steps beyond the production of traditional vaccines to dramatically increase viral antigen concentration in the final product.

The vaccine production process was invented by Han Soo Joo, University of Minnesota, and is exclusively licensed by the University of Minnesota.

For more information on the Selectigen MJPRRS Technology and other autogenous biologics, contact MJ Biologics at (507) 385-0299 or go to For sales information, contact distributor Newport Laboratories of Worthington, MN, at (800) 220-2522 or go to