Geospatial Mapping Protects Pennsylvania Pork Producers

Dr. Meghann Pierdon, Assistant Professor of Clinical Production Medicine, runs Penn Vet's geospatial information systems (GIS) program to pinpoint current and emerging disease hotspots. ( University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine )

Thanks to research being done at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) Pennsylvania pork producers can find out how their animals became sick, or even stop disease from passing their property lines all together, according to an article from the university.

The program, which is run by Penn Vet’s Meghann Pierdon, VMD, BA, utilizes geospatial information systems (GIS) to pinpoint current and emerging disease hotspots, share information about outbreaks with producers and use community approaches to control potentially devastating diseases. Pierdon uses the GIS data to update a secure website with a map that illustrates, in almost real-time, regions where pigs have tested for disease and identifies areas that may be at risk. The database is updated quarterly to ensure accuracy and communication is open to producers, the university says. 

Through the Penn Vet pioneered program, Pierdon is able to help producers safeguard their farms from the spread of disease.

Almost a quarter of the pigs monitored by Penn Vet’s swine disease mapping program, called the Pennsylvania Regional Control Program (PRCP), were on farms that tested positive for disease in 2012. This program, which is also run by Pierdon and funded by the Pennsylvania Pork Producers Council, has seen that number decline to 15%.

Because of this success, participation in the PRCP program has doubled to include more than 100 farmer, hauler, feed and genetics companies and veterinarian members across the Commonwealth area.

The goal is to provide usable data so farmers can make informed production decisions, the article notes.

 “For example, we can set up protected zones where we only want negative pigs,” says. Pierdon. “Producers can then make appropriate decisions based on that information – such as being careful if buying feeders from infected area or preventing a feed truck that was on a farm with active disease from going directly to their farm – to help cuts the disease spread."

The first disease that Pierdon tracked was Porcine Respiratory and Reproductive Syndrome (PRRS) and today, she’s focusing on Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PED).

Much of the GIS data is gathered from Pennsylvania farms, but because disease doesn’t mind state lines, Pierdon also gathers information from Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. A veterinarian or producer fills out a template with basic data, including the farm’s address, where the pigs came from and where they’ll go next.

“The PRCP has been instrumental in helping the industry understand the scope and impact of this new PED disease and in implementing the best biosecurity measures to stop the spread of the deadly virus,” she says.

Though it is endemic, PPRS is preventable. The idea is to decrease the number of farms affected by an outbreak, Pierdon says. “Then a producer can clean it up and not have to worry that it will come back,” she adds.

The most recent application of the GIS mapping technology has been in helping safeguarding Pennsylvania’s poultry farms from the outbreak of Coryza in the area.

Aside from on-farm outreach and support Penn Vet also works with federal and state agencies. The government tracks foreign disease threats like hoof-and-mouth, so Pierdon’s focus has been on monitoring diseases that are a threat to farmers but aren’t reportable to the government.

“It really is all about improving and implementing biosecurity,” she says in the article, adding that the data she gathers helps agencies understand how industry is structured.

The GIS program could potentially be used to help safeguard other agricultural industries, such as honeybees, but no matter where the system is used, the main goal is to decrease the amount of disease spread and give producers control over safeguarding their farms or operations.

 “We’re not just looking to respond to the disease in the moment, but ultimately, provide biosecurity solutions that can protect our animals, our people and our environment from the next ‘big, bad bug,’” Pierdon says.