Never Surrender: Scott Dee Goes To Battle To Protect U.S. Swine Herd

Scott Dee
( Jennifer Shike, Farm Journal's PORK )

He walked into the barn and his heart sank. It was too quiet. The typical noise from clanging feeders and squealing pigs was absent. The only sounds he could hear were the sobs of a pork producer who had just lost his entire herd of sows and pigs. The “mystery disease” devastating the pork industry had suddenly struck veterinarian Scott Dee’s first client.

“Farm after farm, the disease spread everywhere,” Dee says. “And I couldn’t do anything about it. There were no tests. No medicines. No answers.”

As a second-year practicing veterinarian in Morris, Minn., Dee was completely frustrated with himself.

“I felt so worthless,” he says. “Producers were under terrible stress, and I didn’t know how to fix it.”

Before long, the industry confirmed the mystery disease was Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) virus. Dee decided to go back to graduate school to study this virus and try to stop it. With the support of his master’s degree advisor, HanSoo Joo, and his mentors Al Leman, Carlos Pijoan, Bob Morrison, and Tom Molitor, Dee began a Ph.D. while working full-time.

“I studied the fundamentals of how the PRRS virus moved within populations,” Dee says. “I looked at the role of the gilt in the breeding herd and how to avoid spread of PRRS. I worked on subpopulations theory. My thesis explained how to manage gilts, depopulate nurseries, and develop the theory of subpopulations.”

Questions Lead to Solutions

His PRRS research provided the industry with tools to combat the virus, and most importantly, it was a big step forward in his career.

“A door opened, allowing me the opportunity to view the industry in a way I hadn’t seen before,” he says.

Colleague and friend Gordon Spronk, DVM, says that Dee’s ability to seek the right questions and then find the correct scientific answers to those questions makes him unique. The two met while studying how to control and eliminate PRRS.

“Research is all about asking the right questions and by his nature, he is an excellent scientific researcher,” Spronk says. “He wants to provide the right answers – not only for the sake of science, but more importantly, for the sake of the producer. He wants the producer to have the right protocol in place to prevent disease transmission.”

After practicing veterinary medicine for 12 years, Dee took on a new role as a professor at the University of Minnesota in the “world-famous swine group.” During this time, he mentored many outstanding graduate students who are now leaders in veterinary medicine.

“He spent time at a research barn in western Minnesota for two years, conducting a small-scale study with one of his graduate students on how viruses move around in an area,” Spronk says. “That project established biosecurity protocols and interventions that can keep pigs healthy, even though they may be only 100 yards away from each other.”

Dee is a great teacher, Spronk says. His graduate students still find reasons to come back to spend time with him.

“Scott was never Dr. Dee to his students,” says Andrea Pitkin, a former graduate student and health assurance veterinarian with PIC North America. “He was and continues to be supportive of our careers and personal lives,” she says. “You never made a mistake in Scott’s eyes, you learned a lesson and he made sure you saw the big picture. He always told us not to let school get in the way of our education – there was more to research than sitting in a classroom or lab.”

Real-World Connections

Today, Dee serves as the Director of Research for Pipestone Veterinary Services and continues to conduct research in PRRS virus transmission and biosecurity. His work has progressed into studying Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDV) and other transboundary diseases in feed. He oversees six research facilities and conducts much of his own proof-of-concept work.

“We have a great research team at Pipestone. We are constantly developing research projects to meet company and industry needs,” Dee says. “And right now, my focus is on viral pathogen survival in feed ingredients using transboundary shipping models.” 

Staying connected to real-world production has allowed Dee to recognize the questions that need to be answered.

“I came to Pipestone seven years ago because I loved the culture of the company, the people were science-based and applied,” he says. “I wanted to make more of an impact and felt I could do this more easily in a real-world setting. I also wanted to work with Gordon, he is a great friend and continual mentor to me.”

There’s no doubt that Dee’s scientific discoveries have left a lasting impact on the health of the U.S. swine herd. He hopes his most recent work will help keep foreign animal diseases out.

“Our most recent discovery that certain feed viruses can survive a simulated transboundary journey brings light to a new area of risk in our industry,” he says. “We need to think carefully about the feed ingredients that we bring in to the United States. We’ve opened minds and made people more aware of what comes into the U.S. Now we have to work collectively to keep disease out, so we can continue to export pork throughout the world.”

Honored To Serve

In the early days of his transboundary research, Dee spoke at several meetings to build grassroots momentum about this potential threat to the swine industry. At one meeting, a veterinarian came up to him afterwards and explained that he worked for the FBI Weapons and Mass Destruction Division. He had been following the story and was interested in agroterrorism angles.

He invited Dee to present information on the risk of the transboundary spread of foreign animal diseases through contaminated feed to the FBI at the University of California, Davis, College of Veterinary Medicine.

“The FBI took particular interest in the role of feed ingredients as a means of potential agro-terrorism attacks on the U.S.,” he says. “They had discussed the idea for several years, and the Pipestone data supported the hypothesis that an attack of this type could possibly occur.”

The FBI said the information presented from Pipestone was considered new intelligence to support the concept of purposeful agroterrorism and was most interested in the use of mitigants to neutralize pathogens.

Dee was honored with a Warrior Chip – a special award the agency gives when people find something new.

“This just shows you the diversity of veterinary medicine,” Dee says. “Who would have thought I’d have that opportunity? In the swine industry, there are so many things you can do.” 

Just One Chance

From that tragic day when PRRS struck his client’s herd to now, one thing remains unchanged – Dee’s unstoppable passion to solve problems and find solutions.

It’s no surprise his favorite quote comes from the movie Braveheart, when William Wallace says, “Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live – at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom.”

This quote reflects Dee’s approach to finding solutions to the most pressing issues facing the swine industry.

“We have to solve these problems for our industry together,” Dee says. “We have one chance to do this right and I believe there’s hope. Let’s stick the sword in the ground and go to battle!”