Biosecurity: More Important Than Ever

( National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff )

As African swine fever (ASF) continues its deadly spread across Asia and Europe, discussions on biosecurity are laced with increased urgency. But even without a foreign animal disease, there are plenty of domestic health challenges that underpin the need for sound biosecurity practices on every farm.

“Biosecurity, by simple definition, is a means to prevent the spread of pathogens from one place to another,” says Andrea Pitkin, Health Assurance Veterinarian with PIC. There are protocols and processes that need to be followed, but Pitkin says biosecurity is a mindset, not just a series of actions. Fostering a biosecurity culture is foremost to its long-term success. 

All farm employees need a determined mindset that says, ‘I want to do these things to protect the farm, the pigs and my livelihood.’

“Sometimes we don’t do a good job of explaining the ‘why,’” Pitkin says. When you explain first why biosecurity is important, then how you’re going to take specific actions to protect the farm and pigs, everyone takes more accountability and gains a better understanding of why their actions are important. 

“It’s so much more than processes on paper,” she adds. “It’s the desire and determination to do the right thing to protect farms.”

High Risk vs. Low Risk
Pitkin, who admits she’s a “self-proclaimed biosecurity nerd,” knows producers don’t have unlimited funds to invest in biosecurity, so it’s a matter of considering high-risk and low-risk scenarios. 

Producers have to look at the most efficient use of their money and how they can invest in the highest risk. 

“Where can you segregate and where should you decontaminate? You can get a lot of different answers, but incoming livestock need to be considered first,” Pitkin says. All trucking and transportation events also need to be well understood. Thirdly, people are a factor in terms of biosecurity concerns, because humans truck the animals and are frequently in and out of the buildings. 

“Producers have to understand your quarantine unit processes when you look at biosecurity risks. These include showering in, decontaminating supplies, moving animals in and out (including mortalities), and more,” Pitkin says. 

She adds that one could argue: If feed is truly contaminated, or if viruses enter via aerosol transmission, those routes are largely out of the farm staff’s control. However, as a farm owner, you can help your employees understand high-risk and low-risk factors. Focus on controlling the risks you can! 

“And remember, don’t get lost in the fact that just because something is low risk doesn’t mean it’s no risk,” she stresses. “Encourage your staff to pick the low-hanging fruit as it relates to biosecurity,  have a plan in place for higher risk situations and think through the low risk concerns.” 

Isolation Imperative
Pitkin says it’s crucial for any farm bringing in live animals from outside sources to adhere to a strict quarantine and acclimation period before entering those animals into the main herd. 

“At PIC, we take a lot of responsibility and accountability in having excellent biosecurity practices and maintaining healthy genetics. But at the same time, things can happen when moving animals to a farm and it’s crucial [for producers to] recognize that any incoming livestock can be a risk. Quarantine periods must be established and acclimation programs adhered to before mixing those animals in with your main herd,” she says.

The general rule is a 30-day isolation period. This timeframe is considered reasonable for PRRS, coronaviruses and other major pathogens that can debilitate a herd. Pitkin says it’s becoming more common for producers to test prior to entry, with a focus on arrival diagnostics.

Some producers have isolation units off-site, while others have chosen on-site facilities. Pitkin sees pros and cons with both options. It’s easier to care for isolated animals if they’re closer, but there’s a higher chance of bringing a pathogen into the herd. Off-site units mean you’re having to drive a vehicle to and from the site, but you also have more time to react and remove animals if they become infected.

“It comes down to management practices and what the farm staff is most comfortable with,” Pitkin says. “However, if you’re in a hog-dense area, I would definitely look at having an isolation unit either on-site or close to the farm.”

For off-site isolation, Pitkin says testing at the end of the isolation period is absolutely critical: You want to know the status of those animals at the end of the isolation period just as much as you want to know the status when they come into the building, in that circumstance.

No ‘One Size Fits All’
Each farm is different in terms of management and facilities, so there’s no blanket approach to biosecurity. The first step is awareness, which has increased in recent years. Biosecurity protocols have advanced along with the industry’s knowledge of how diseases spread, but new technologies are still needed.

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