Q&A Series: Swine Vets Speak Out About the Impact of COVID-19

( Farm Journal's PORK )

No one could have predicted the way COVID-19 would change our world in 2020. As the industry adapts and moves forward, Farm Journal’s PORK asked five swine veterinarians to share their perspectives on the future of swine medicine post COVID-19 and what producers need to pay attention to regarding swine health.

Scott Dee, DVM
Director of Research, Pipestone Veterinary Services
Pipestone, MN

Q. What does the future of swine medicine post COVID-19 look like?
A.
I don't think COVID-19 is going to change anything in swine medicine. The biggest challenge will be getting through though personnel issues. We already know how to biosecure farms really well. There haven’t been a lot of issues at the farm, they’ve mostly occurred in the packing facilities. Some plants have controlled it really well and others have had more of a challenge. I think that's the biggest issue, but that will get better and there will eventually be vaccines. I think it will just become a routine vaccination like we get in for influenza. One thing that could have been better during this time is if swine veterinarians could have assisted public health professionals more because of our experience with Coronaviruses, biosecurity and population monitoring. I think we could have assisted there and made it better. In the future, maybe swine medicine will play a bigger role in helping public health.

Q. What is one thing producers need to pay attention to right now regarding swine health?
A.
We have to keep our eye on the ball in regard to foreign animal diseases. My biggest worry is all the focus and pressure we had on foreign animal diseases prior to COVID and now, no one talks about that anymore. We have to bring it back to the forefront and continue to practice the biosecurity that we know. If we were to get African swine fever, for example, on top of COVID, then we'd really be in trouble. We simply have to pay attention at a higher level than I think we are now because everyone's so preoccupied and rightfully so.

Clayton Johnson, DVM
Partner and Veterinarian, Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd.
Carthage, IL

Q. What does the future of swine medicine post COVID-19 look like?
A.
Our role as veterinarians won’t change post COVID-19, our focus will continue to be on sustaining client operations through disease prevention, control and treatment while managing vet med costs and ensuring animal well-being and regulatory compliance. 
Following COVID-19, I expect all of us to be more versed in euthanasia and carcass disposal and to have a clear understanding that our current plans for FAD management are impractical, lack the resources necessary to execute and rely too heavily on government coordination of diagnostic testing and emergency management. We, as practicing veterinarians, need to take a leadership role in contingency planning to be prepared when our FAD responses aren’t executed as planned.  

I also expect producer balance sheets will be in different shape than they were before COVID-19, so we have to expect producers will push for cost of production reductions and we must be ready to offer suggestions. A thorough review of the entire health program is appropriate – what are the lowest value vet med spends we can offer up as cost opportunities when asked? What are high value vet med expenses we need to protect as they will hurt producer economics if removed? The value of gain is extremely low right now and as such, products and management strategies specially crafted for average daily gain (ADG) improvements need to have their value proposition calculated with current and futures market prices modeled in. We can’t have “sacred cows” in terms of product use, if there isn’t data to justify a product’s use, then we need to consider removing it from the vet med spend.  

Q. What is one thing producers need to pay attention to right now regarding swine health?
A.
Right now, producers need to remove all growth promotion strategies used in late finishing. Anything that drives gain is too risky for producers to use given the uncertain availability of shackle spaces in the coming weeks and months. If you haven’t had your vet and nutritionist critically evaluate your feeding and management strategies in late finishing, you need to do so immediately.  

Cary Sexton, DVM
Owner and Practicing Veterinarian, Livestock Veterinary Services
Kinston, N.C.

Q. What does the future of swine medicine post COVID-19 look like?
A.
I think the future looks cloudy at this time. As we face another time of possible consolidation, serving independent producers makes the practice outlook cloudy. We have very progressive clients that have navigated uncertainty before and I have no doubt will again, but some may not be able or willing to continue depending on the duration and severity of the negative effects to their cash flow and employee morale. We have had the opportunity to participate in more telemedicine consulting, but nothing replaces on-farm visits. We are having to adjust to what our client needs are and how we can best serve them. I don’t know that I know what the exact picture of swine medicine post COVID-19 will look like, but I know that we will have clients that will continue to need servicing to produce their pigs with the best health moving forward. I think the producers that survive will have determined their strengths and how they differentiate themselves from their fellow producers. We will be standing ready to continue working side-by-side with them as we continue to produce the safest, most affordable and nutritious pork in the world.

Q. What is one thing producers need to pay attention to right now regarding swine health?
A.
My recommendation to all producers, regardless of their situation, is to be aware of cost and value of their production. Health is always a major factor in this. I believe anything you are doing when market conditions are sought to minimize loss could translate to more profit when normal market conditions exist. Also, don’t become complacent with common chronic diseases that exist in the farm and allow those to increase cost of production unnecessarily. 

Pete Thomas, DVM
Director of Health Services, Iowa Select Farms
Iowa Falls, IA

Q. What does the future of swine medicine post COVID-19 look like?
A.
In my opinion the next year will continue to be different as producers recover from the many effects that COVID-19 has on their operations. The past couple months have brought many unforeseen challenges to producers and veterinarians alike, and the priorities have shifted week-to-week. I expect many of our normal roles and responsibilities will return to normal over the course of the next year. Many of the same disease challenges that we face today will still be present and we need to get back to focusing on everything needed for optimal herd health. I am not sure that COVID-19 will be gone, and we do not know how long-lasting immunity will be and/or if different strains emerge. I think many of the guidelines to protect human health will remain as part of our new normal for a while (less contact, improved personal sanitation and hygiene).

Q. What is one thing producers need to pay attention to right now regarding swine health?
A.
Right now, it is difficult to focus on all of the best practices when it comes to swine production and health. The back-up in marketing channels can cause us to temporarily lose focus on being world-class producers if we become tunnel0visioned on only focusing on the COVID-19 challenges. I think the things we need to really focus on right now are getting back to good, solid basics in health and husbandry as soon as we get some relief from the current constraints. Also, do not let down your guard on biosecurity during these challenging times.

Lisa Tokach, DVM
Partner and Veterinarian, Abilene Animal Hospital
Abilene, KS

Q. What does the future of swine medicine post COVID-19 look like?
A.
Swine farm health and production continues as normal with additional social distancing rules in place.  We were already familiar with biosecurity and sanitation, we just needed to add the distancing part.  Now swine business is another story... Marketing of hogs ready for harvest has become a very tricky deal in the shadow of COVID-19. Social distancing rules have slowed the harvest speed down and therefore reduced the number of pigs that can be presented for market dramatically. This is causing a great deal of concern as we have high demand for our meat product, but a serious bottleneck in being able to get pigs harvested in a timely fashion. We are dealing with serious welfare concerns as we run out of space. Since most pigs are total confinement, we do not have the ability to expand as easily as perhaps the beef feedlots do. Also, we can only hold market ready hogs for so long or they will become too large to harvest even on a restricted diet. The food chain has been running so tight, we do not have room for these great time delays.

Q. What is one thing producers need to pay attention to right now regarding swine health?
A.
Regarding swine health, producers need to stay vigilant regarding transport trucks. The backlogs from the packing plants are causing extra pig movements and we need to be sure we continue to follow strict biosecurity protocols as to not needlessly spread disease on top of all the other issues.
 

We know that nothing can replace World Pork Expo, but we will be uniting together June 1-6 for PORK Week across all of our Farm Journal platforms to elevate the important role the pork industry plays in feeding the world. Share your stories and post photos on social media using #PORKWeek to help us honor the pork industry. From “AgDay TV” to “AgriTalk” to “U.S. Farm Report” to PorkBusiness.com and everything in between, tune in and join us as we acknowledge the most noble profession there is: feeding people.

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