Hog sector must be vigilant to stay free of deadly virus

A livestock disease with the potential to severely damage the Canadian hog industry is lurking at the southern border.


It is within the livestock industry’s power to keep it out but only if everything goes right. 


And it will take a concerted effort to make everything go right.


Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PED) caught the United States flatfooted when it entered that country and had spread to seven states by the time alarm bells rang in May.


The virus has now infected hog barns in 20 states, where it has killed thousands of pigs. There is no effective vaccine. It spreads via feces and is usually fatal to nursing piglets, which die from the effects of diarrhea and vomiting. 


In older pigs, it raises mortality rates and limits production. The virus has an incubation period of 12 to 24 hours, and infected animals can infect others for three to four weeks.


There’s a lot that Canadian hog health experts know about PED, by virtue of their training and by watching the havoc it has wreaked in the U.S. over the last eight months.


It has given the Canadian industry time to develop a national strategy, which includes planning, education and protocols designed to prevent PED from entering the country and to control it quickly if it does.


The luxury of time for planning is rare when dealing with infectious livestock diseases. This one could have a debilitating effect on an industry already suffering from years of economic hardship.


Some American hog experts estimate PED could cause a two to three percent decline in 2014 U.S. hog production. The Canadian herd could be similarly affected if the disease were to become widespread here.


Yet even the best laid plans for prevention and control will work only if everyone does their part: producers, livestock haulers, veterinarians, feed suppliers, packers and all other parts of the production chain.


Western Producer reporters have asked hog health experts whether Canada has any hope of keeping PED out, given its ease of potential transmission via trucks, trailers, tires and myriad other vectors.


To their credit, none suggest the task is impossible, though several have ex-pressed surprise that this country has so far managed to keep the virus out.


The trouble is, thousands of animals cross back and forth across the international border by truck every day, and livestock haulers are thought to be the most likely mode of PED transmission.


It’s crucial that trucks and trailers be pressure washed, disinfected and most importantly dried before they acquire the next load of pigs. This is no small task under optimum conditions, and it is even more difficult in cold weather such as what we’ve seen across the Prairies in recent weeks.


The onus is on livestock truckers to see that the job is done and on producers to allow only clean, dry trucks and trailers on their farms for loading. This is where all those years of talk about biosecurity really count. This is where the rubber hits the road.


In the U.S., PED has shown up first in finishing barns, where hog symptoms can be relatively mild. Veterinarians say it is easy to miss or misdiagnose. It can then spread to other pigs, and death losses mount.


Canadian hog producers know their business, and they know their animals. However, it will require greater than usual vigilance and more scrutiny of livestock transport to avoid infection.


If they can, it will be a triumph of biosecurity and proof that all links in the production chain can work for a common good.

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.