When Charlie Hall sells pigs, customers never set foot on his Unionville-area farm.
“We actually meet them half a mile away and transfer the pigs directly from one trailer to another,” Hall said.
The threat of a growing pig disease has local farmers embracing biosecurity measures to protect their farms and livelihoods.
Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, or PEDv, is pushing up pork prices and prompting action on the national level.
Locally, PEDv will bring changes to protocols for the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair in August and has farmers closing their barns to visitors.
“It has really played havoc with the producers of pork,” said Hall, who has 500 pigs on his farm along Rattlesnake Pike.
Bob Cloninger, a veterinarian with Centre Herd Health Services in Centre Hall, works with area farmers and counsels the Grange Fair on its livestock shows.
“It’s a devastating thing for our industry,” Cloninger said of PEDv. “The amount of baby pigs that has been killed across the country is incredible.”
This swine disease was thought to be an Asian and European problem until the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed a case in the Midwest in May 2013. Since then, the disease has spread to 28 states, including Pennsylvania.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said last week that PEDv has killed about 10 percent of the commercial swine population nationwide, including 7 million piglets, in the past year.
The highly contagious virus is carried in manure and can be tracked onto a farm on someone’s boots or truck tires. The good news is it doesn’t affect humans or the quality of marketable pork. The bad news for farmers is that piglets are especially vulnerable, which means generations of animals aren’t making it to market.
“Baby pigs are most affected,” said Robert Mikesell, a senior instructor with Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “Mortality rates in nursing pigs can reach 100 percent across the entire herd. The folks who have sows and baby pigs on their farms are the ones who stand to lose the most.
“There’s no risk for humans, either from pork or from zoonotic transfer,” Mikesell said. “That’s the No. 1 concern.”
But for swine, a small amount of the PED virus can be deadly.
“A thimble full of manure from an infected hog can infect the whole country,” Cloninger said. “And if you have it, you’ve lost a whole bunch of pigs.”
Cloninger said that although pigs cycle through the sickness in about five days, the contagion can live for three weeks in manure. Hall said he’s heard of instances in which infected particles were found in sweepings from supermarket floors.
“It only takes a little speck of infected manure to bring it to your farm,” Hall said.
Penn State requires 36 to 72 hours of “pig-free time” before any individual who has been among swine elsewhere is permitted to visit the university’s pig areas.
Hall said outsiders visiting pig farms must wear protective clothing, including on their feet. Some facilities and farms don’t allow delivery drivers to even get out of their trucks.
“We go through an awful lot of spray disinfectant that is recommended for boots and vehicles,” Hall said. “We’ve had to increase biosecurity on the home operation.”
Mikesell said the preventive measures have extended to youth agriculture programs such as 4-H and the National FFA Organization.
For example, local swine breeders used to bring all of their small pigs to a central spot for tagging, he said, but now tags are distributed and farmers tag their own pigs.
“The smart commercial farms, basically all the commercial farms, have done that,” Mikesell said. “They’ve closed their herds.”
Steve Meyer, of the National Hog Farmer organization, reports that about 5 percent fewer hogs are going to market weekly in 2014 compared with 2013 levels.
“It’s certainly affecting the national supply of pork,” Mikesell said.
And supply affects price. At the Belleville Livestock Market, feeder pigs sold for $40 to $66 a head in mid-June 2013. In a report issued Wednesday, feeder hogs were selling for $70 to $124 each at Belleville.
Dennis Curtin, director of public relations with Weis Markets, said the price the supermarket chain pays for pork hit a record high in March “due to concern and speculation about PED and its impact on available pork supply.”
Curtin said that demand always drives the price of pork up in early summer with the arrival of grilling season. Pork prices remain about 10 percent above 2013 levels, he said.
“It is possible this price volatility will continue in the months ahead, but it is extremely difficult to predict,” he said in an email. “On the one hand, PED could affect the quantity of available pork. But at the same time, pork farmers are bringing larger animals to market — which compensates for the fewer number of animals.”
Jim Mathis, owner of Hogs Galore in Philipsburg, has a farm outside State College. Hogs Galore sells directly to consumers and sells pork wholesale to restaurants and meat markets.
“Hog prices have already responded to PED, have for months now,” Mathis said. “Hog prices are at an all-time high. You can see the response even at the supermarket level.”
He added, “I don’t see any softening in pork pricing.”
‘Protect the pigs’
USDA chief Vilsack has announced several steps the federal agency is taking to help slow the spread and effect of PEDv.
He told the World Pork Expo in early June that the department would require reporting of any cases of the virus, and announced $26.2 million for prevention and research programs, including these and other efforts:
The swine industry is spending “millions of dollars to develop a vaccine for this so we can protect the pigs against this as quickly as possible,” Mikesell said.
‘A learning process’
This year for the first time, the Grange Fair will require livestock exhibitors to sign waivers acknowledging a risk of PEDv exposure and stating that the fair would not be held responsible if someone’s pig gets sick, or if the disease is carried back to someone’s herd.
Fair leaders had considered harsher steps — including demanding that all exhibited animals go directly to slaughter — but chose a less aggressive approach.
“We can’t control what everybody does,” Grange Fair swine chairman Ralph Homan said. “Hopefully they’ll all go to market like they’re supposed to.”
He added, “If someone happens to have a fresh litter of piglets at home, I personally wouldn’t want to take a pig back to the farm.”
Ben Haagen, Grange Fair president and a 4-H leader, has become a student of PEDv risks and how communities are reacting.
And there is no consensus. Some fairs have banned swine altogether; some have done nothing, leaving each farmer to take precautions.
The journal Lancaster Farming reported that the Washington County Agricultural Fair is “trusting exhibitors to make educated decisions about the biosecurity of their farms,” while Kempton Fair, in Berks County, has canceled its swine show.
“We didn’t think anything of it until it hit Pennsylvania,” Haagen said. “Then it became a concern.”
Part of the fair livestock experience is education, Homan said. FFA and 4-H youngsters learn how to raise and care for their animals. And they are taught about protecting their farms from outside threats — including PEDv.
“The whole effort is a learning process,” Homan said. “We wish we didn’t have to learn about health issues and biosecurity measures such as this. But learning that you do is part of the process.”
For Cloninger, there is also a learning process for fairgoers who might be enjoying the rides and food and casually checking out the barns.
“These kids have their pigs. They take them for walks and they learn good animal management practices,” Cloninger said. “Really, it’s about the two-legged animal, not the four-.
“You need to follow good management practices to keep diseases out of your facility. We’re trying to prevent the spread of disease — any disease.”
‘There will be viruses’
Cloninger said he hasn’t seen PEDv on a Centre County farm. He said the county’s swine industry, with about 200 breeding sows, is not large.
“You have to have a pathogen and a population of risk,” he said. “Our population of risk is very, very small.”
He added: “If we had a million sows in our county, we would have an entirely different discussion.”
Still, Cloninger said, Grange Fair is right to take steps.
“Some of these pigs that will be here, I can almost guarantee you, have been exposed,” he said. “That’s because they’ve been to sales. We have the public to protect from hundreds of animals, and we have to protect the other animals in the barn.”
Cloninger said, “You can’t have a livestock show without risk.”
He pointed to a swine flu scare in the region two years ago, when the fair joined with Mount Nittany Medical Center to promote community awareness and took precautions to protect the barns and livestock.
“There will be viruses in that barn that we don’t even know about,” Cloninger said. “We happen to have one right now that is very devastating to baby pigs. A couple of years ago we had swine flu virus, which had even bigger ramifications because you had the risk of people getting sick.”
Hall said he delivered pigs Tuesday to a butcher shop and to a private buyer, taking precautions at each stop.
“We’re doing what we can do, and what the industry is recommending,” he said.
And Hall expects to employ biosecurity measures such as spraying down trucks and wearing protective clothing until he’s told PEDv has been wiped out.
“Some of the big-name swine vets are saying it’s not a matter of if you get it, but when you get it,” Hall said. “So while maybe it seems like all of this concern is going away, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
“Unless you really want to be risky, there should be no return-to-farm animals,” the Hogs Galore owner said. “It can pretty much put you out of business. And we like what we’re doing and we want to continue doing it.
“Everybody’s got a closed herd now,” Mathis said. “Everybody’s hunkered down in their processes.”