Outdoor herds ring disease alarm for hog industry

There are 1,200 to 1,300 outdoor pig producers in British Columbia.

That’s a huge number considering that B.C. has only 15 commercial hog farms. Some of the outdoor producers keep their pigs in pens, while others raise them in pasture or in woodlands.

Regardless of the production method, people in the pork industry are concerned that one of these outdoor farms could be infected with African swine sever, which would threaten Canada’s pork industry and exports.

To reduce the risk, the B.C. Pork Producers Association, the B.C. government and industry partners have developed an information campaign to educate small-lot producers about the basics of biosecurity.

They have created a fact sheet for outdoor pig farmers, a pig production manual and information about ASF. They also plan to hold meetings this winter with producers across the province.

Prairie Swine Health Services of Red Deer helped develop the information resources.

However, there’s no guarantee all of the 1,200 pig farmers will get the information because there’s no database of small-lot pig farmers in B.C.

“How do you find where they are?” asked Christine Koch, B.C. Pork manager. “(They are) all over the province.”

B.C. isn’t the only province where farmers raise pigs outdoors.

Egan Brockhoff, a veterinarian with Prairie Swine Health Services, estimated that about 7,000 small-lot pig farmers operate in Canada. That number is based on data from PigTrace, a national swine traceability program.

However, the information within PigTrace is protected by privacy laws.

“Those are confidential databases. So, you can’t send them all emails,” Koch said.

Another communication challenge is that many outdoor pig farmers don’t belong to an industry group.

“(They’re) not a member of a provincial organization. So, they’re not getting that weekly or monthly (update) on biosecurity or animal health that the (commercial) producer is getting,” Brockhoff said.

B.C. Pork and its partners will rely on social media, B.C. Ministry of Agriculture representatives, feed retailers and vets to promote the education meetings across the province.

Getting good information about ASF to the outdoor pig producers is urgent. Likely sources of infection are infected feed, wild pigs and infected pork products such as a ham sandwich from a country with ASF.

Contact with wild animals isn’t a huge concern for farmers who raise pigs inside barns. Commercial hog farms follow strict biosecurity procedures.

Outdoor farms may not follow all those protocols, but it’s possible for small-scale pig farmers to have good biosecurity, Brockhoff said.

“They would all have a fencing system … a two-fence system that kept wild pigs and wild animals away from their pigs … and boot change stations for people responsible for the pig husbandry,” he said. “It’s easily done. We’ve just got to get there.”

Julia Smith, who runs Blue Sky Ranch, a pasture pig farm near Merritt, B.C., said they do follow biosecurity procedures.

Smith and her partner get few visitors because Merritt is two hours from the Lower Mainland. But if visitors have been to another farm, they must wear clean clothes and shoes.

They do feed food waste to the pigs, but only fresh fruit, vegetables and spent brewery grains.

As well, they wash their truck and trailer after going to abattoir.

“We have stopped using one of the butchers that is available to us as they were importing pork from an ASF affected country,” she said in an email.

“Our feed truck does not deliver to any other pig farms. Other than the feed truck and the abattoir, we have very little contact with any potential sources of contamination.”

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