ARCADIA, Ind. (AP) — When he got the phone call last January, Randy Salsbery already knew a new swine disease had spread to the United States from Asia and Europe.
“Dad, I think we’ve got it,” his son told him.
Concern gnawed at him. He headed to the family’s hog barn, but nothing could prepare him for the heartache he and his family were about to endure.
Like other farmers, Salsbery worked tirelessly to save as many newborn piglets as he could. But they quickly started dying — very quickly. In four short weeks, he saved quite a few older piglets, but the losses piled up. Virtually every piglet younger than nine days old was dead. Roughly 2,000 piglets. Gone.
“It’s a pretty sick feeling for the people that go in the barns,” Salsbery told The Indianapolis Star. “They worked so hard to get those pigs. Then to see them all dying is pretty depressing.”
In roughly one year, a disease with an unpleasant name and disgusting symptoms has bolted through the U.S. pork industry with devastating effects. It spreads fast and kills the tiniest of piglets. So far, 7 million.
“It’s just heartbreaking to see all these baby pigs gone if you don’t know it’s coming and all of the sudden they start passing away,” said Kenneth Eck, Purdue Extension-DuBois County educator for agriculture and natural resources.
Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) is not a food hazard and it can’t infect people. But hog farmers and consumers have felt its impact. Pork costs are hitting record highs. One Indiana county fair canceled its swine show. Indiana State Fair officials say they will be testing all pigs for symptoms when the fair starts Aug. 1.
In Indiana, the fifth-largest pork producing state, farmers are taking precautions to prevent the disease from crippling their farms.
“When a farm gets hit with disease like this,” Salsbery said, “it affects our livelihood.”
PEDv was first confirmed in the United States in May 2013. Since then, it’s spread to 30 states with more than 7,700 positive samples.
In Indiana, one of the first states the virus hit, it’s struck roughly 45 counties. Since last spring, it’s been a race to find solutions.
“Unfortunately, we’re having to learn by doing, since we’ve never had it here before,” said state veterinarian Bret Marsh.
Infected pigs suffer from diarrhea and vomiting, which leads to dehydration. Once pigs are a few months old, they’re more likely to survive the disease.
Piglets’ intestinal tracts don’t absorb water as easily when they’re young, leaving them more vulnerable to dehydration. They also get their nutrients from milk, which is harder to digest when sick. Any water in that milk is also difficult to absorb, leading to further problems, Eck said.
Farmers basically have to stay up all night giving the baby pigs electrolytes to keep them hydrated, he said.
“But it’s a 24-hour, go-out-and-hold-the-baby-pigs’-hand kind of thing, where they have to be there or else a day later the pigs will all be dead,” Eck said.
Salsbery immediately took steps to expose his entire herd to the disease, so the animals could develop immunity. Sows were able to pass that immunity along to their offspring, but it took a few weeks. So 100 percent of the pigs born for the first three weeks after the infection died.
Salsbery was able to save a lot of pigs older than nine days by weaning them from their mothers, getting them started on feed, keeping them hydrated and giving them some “TLC,” he said.
He estimates that 95 percent of the 2,000 that died were younger than nine days and there was really nothing he could do.
The deaths of his piglets cost Salsbery about $500,000, though he was able to make up half of that by growing the surviving pigs larger in the space freed up by the loss.
Although he cleared his operation of the disease in about four weeks, he’s still worried that it could break out again.
The virus is commonly spread from other infected swine, but can also be carried on contaminated shoes or equipment.
PEDv spreads more easily in cool, damp weather. As the weather warmed with summer, the number of cases began to drop, Marsh said.
“It gives producers and veterinarians a chance to gear up for the second winter with some of the new information that we have,” said the state veterinarian.
Entering the second winter, Marsh is hopeful there will be fewer losses thanks to new information gained last winter and collaboration between producers and veterinarians.
Also in June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would spend $26.2 million to combat PEDv and other swine enteric coronavirus diseases.
The USDA has issued a conditional license for a vaccine developed in Iowa. It’s intended to help sows build an antibody that will then be transmitted to their offspring.
The USDA is conducting a pathways analysis and epidemiologic studies in hopes of learning how the virus came to the United States from overseas, but researchers may never definitively know.
Before the January outbreak, Salsbery limited who could come on the farm and practiced various biosecurity measures — getting his trucks washed at commercial washes, disinfecting equipment.
Since the outbreak, he’s tightened down further. No one comes in the barn unless their livelihood is wrapped up in the health of the pig. And instead of cleaning trucks at a commercial truck wash, he decided to build his own to avoid cross-contamination.
It cost him about $115,000, which Salsbery said will easily pay for itself if it saves him from even one more outbreak.
Hamilton County hog farmer Jay Rulon also made adjustments. He did everything he could to stay educated about the disease as it spread throughout the state and nation — joining teleconferences, following information from various organizations and veterinarians.
Rulon and his daughter Karissa, 15, usually attend more than 15 swine sales a year. This year, they didn’t visit one. They prohibited all but one trusted friend from visiting their farm, and only set foot on a couple of farms where they knew the owner had taken proper precautions to prevent PEDv.
“It’s life in farming and ag and livestock,” said Rulon, whose herd has not been infected. “If it’s not one thing, it’s something else that’s out there, and we took extra precautions not to get it.”
Ultimately, shoppers are paying for the outbreak. Store pork prices have increased by nearly 10 percent in the past year, according to the USDA, and are still rising.
Because of the high piglet mortality, the number of market-ready hogs could fall by more than 10 percent this summer compared to 2013, according to the USDA.
The heaviest loss was over winter. Purdue agricultural economist Chris Hurt estimates that the national baby pig loss was about 8 percent from January through March. In April that dropped to 7 percent and in May, about 5 percent.
It takes about six months for pigs to grow from birth to market, so that shortage of pigs starts hitting the market this month.
Though producers grew their pigs about 4 percent larger, there’s still about 4 percent less pork on the market, Hurt said.
“So we anticipate that those retail prices are going to continue to rise at least through October, then we can see them kind of level off in November (and) December and maybe begin to come down a little bit at about the first of the year,” Hurt said.
But it’s not just about a decreased supply. For a couple of reasons, people want more pork. Some other countries are buying more American pork due to shortages at home; and Americans see pork as an alternative to beef.
At $5.91 per pound, beef is at a record high, so consumers are substituting pork, Hurt said. Even though pork is also at an all-time high ($4.10 per pound), it’s still a cheaper option.
That increased demand means increased prices.
Another factor: the “tiny, small” supply of meat. In 2007, the United States had an available supply of meat of about 220 pounds per person. This year, there is 198.3 pounds per person.
“Over time, the amount of meat available for consumers goes down and then what happens when the supply drops? Prices go up,” he said.
One way to bring down prices is to increase supply, but Hurt said the earliest the industry will be able to start increasing supplies would be spring of 2015.
“So it’s not going to be fast, and we haven’t gotten to the top yet,” Hurt said.
And because the price of pork is rising, many farmers, despite the trauma of losing parts of their herds, will come out OK.
Pork futures, which approximate what farmers are paid, are “extraordinarily” high, at $1.32 per pound, said Hurt. Previously, the records were closer to $1.
So pork producers can expect to have record profitability this summer, Hurt said.
Some farmers will face a loss. But the higher prices will compensate the average producer. And those whose farms weren’t hit with the virus could see a windfall.
“Who is paying for PED and the high prices? You and I as consumers,” Hurt said
The Board of Animal Health hasn’t advocated for canceling swine shows at fairs or eliminating exhibits to prevent the spread of PEDv, Marsh said, because sound biosecurity practices “to this point have worked well.”
But at least one county fair isn’t taking any chances.
Pork producers persuaded DuBois County 4-H Fair officials to cancel the show there.
Whenever you have multiple people coming together in the hog industry, “there’s a greater chance of catching something there,” Eck said.
The producers don’t participate in the show, and some participants argued for continuing it. What ultimately tipped the scales was a drastic drop in interest in the show.
Last year, 92 kids participated in the program. Only half that many signed up this year, a drop that Eck attributes to families concerned about PEDv.
Jay Rulon’s daughter, Karissa, is entering her seventh year in 4-H in Hamilton County, but has shown livestock for more than a decade. This year she’ll bring the maximum of four pigs to the Indiana State Fair, where she and her father trust staff to take measures to prevent the spread of PEDv.
The Indiana State Fair is being cautious. As animals check in, staff will inspect them for symptoms and then continue to monitor the livestock for any unusual signs. It’s a plan they’ve had in place for several years, said fair spokesman Andy Klotz.
Because these measures are in place, Rulon isn’t worried about the fair.
Marsh said some exhibitors may opt to not participate while others could choose to have a “terminal show,” meaning the animals will be slaughtered when it’s over.
For those who do attend and intend to bring their animal home, he recommends isolating fair animals to monitor them for any symptoms before reintroducing them to the herd.
If something goes wrong at a farm with only a few animals, the result wouldn’t be as devastating as it would be for a commercial farm operation. So those whose bread and butter is hog operation wouldn’t be attending the fair, Eck said.
“You can’t risk it,” Eck said. “That’s what some farmers were saying. ‘We’re not going to bring anybody there. We just can’t afford to.’ “