Getting the dirt on cleaner trailers

By Swine Innovation Porc

In the process of combatting swine disease transmission, researchers have been looking for new ways to improve livestock trailers for biosecurity reasons.

Porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) – which causes vomiting, diarrhea and often mortality – has wreaked havoc on pigs around the world, and science is helping to combat it on several fronts. Most recently, researchers targeted a common mode of disease transmission – livestock trailers – as they strove to improve cleaning methods and boost biosecurity in Canadian swine transport.

What started as an effort to save time and money when cleaning trailers took on added meaning in early 2014, when PED arrived in Canada. The disease that first hit North America in the U.S., costing their pork sector billions of dollars, was here, and producers were in panic mode.

PED prevention partners

For guidance on how to proceed, the federal government and pork producers asked the University of Saskatchewan to lead efforts to stop the transmission of PED and other diseases that can result from transporting animals. 

Researchers consulted with a PED advisory committee comprised of members from across the country, including transport companies, provincial pork producer organizations, processors and veterinarians. Together, the parties identified priorities around PED prevention, starting with how to clean trailers thoroughly enough that no trace of the virus remained on board.

Working with the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI) in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, scientists devised a high-pressure washer and vacuum system that would reach every corner of a trailer and blast out clumps of manure or any other material that might harbour PED.

The washer was a good start, so the next step was developing a remotely controlled system that would allow complete cleaning of trucks without the need for human workers entering the trailer. This involved trying different technologies, including a small robot vehicle used by the military to pick up explosive packages and safely detonate them. Eventually, the project partnered with Truck Wash Technologies Inc. in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to advance its gantry-style wash system for their purposes. This system moves across the length of the trailer in multiple passes, simultaneously cleaning the exterior and interior. 

Feeling the heat

Researchers were also tasked with finding the optimal level at which to heat trailers, so that if any trace of the pathogen remained after washing, it would be deactivated. Collaborating with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan, the research team concluded that heating the trucks at 75 degrees-Celsius for 20 minutes would be sufficient to eliminate the threat. 

The challenge with heating was that some areas of a trailer – such as behind gates and walls – can be harder to warm sufficiently. In response, the team looked for sensors that could be installed in trailer trouble spots and monitor temperatures. Though they found a company that specialized in sensors to assist in this effort, it overlooked one small detail: pigs eat sensors. 

Undeterred, the University of Saskatchewan engineers collaborated with the sensor company – Transport Genie in Burlington, Ontario – to develop sensors and insulate them properly to protect against curious snouts. The new sensors deliver GPS traceability of swine transport trailers, continuously measure environmental conditions during transport of animals and verify that trailer trouble spots reach the required time and temperature during heat treatment.

Idle threats? Not a chance

Thanks to this project, the risk of transmitting PED and other pathogens during transport has been drastically reduced, saving producers millions of dollars per year from illness and death loss. Findings from the study have raised the biosecurity bar, and heating trailers at 75 degrees-Celsius for 20 minutes is now the industry standard.

Based on this project, Prairie Swine Centre has developed guidelines to assist designers in considering animal welfare and biosecurity with new trailers.

As a further benefit, scientists are working with trucking companies to install their sensors, not only for biosecurity, but to warn drivers when the temperature and humidity levels are endangering pigs. Apart from enhancing animal welfare, this move will aid both trucking companies and processors, as each is responsible for the pigs once in their possession.

Led by Terry Fonstad at the University of Saskatchewan, this study drew on funding from Swine Innovation Porc (SIP) and expertise from several corners: Prairie Swine Centre, PAMI, Truck Wash Technologies Inc., Transport Genie Ltd., the PED advisory committee and VIDO.

Arms race

As the world learned the hard way from COVID-19, we must always stay a step ahead of the enemy. In that spirit, researchers are addressing what happens if a trace amount of virus survives washing and heating of the trailer and embeds itself in a biofilm for self-protection. A biofilm is a thick layer of organisms that gather to form a colony. 

With the attention garnered by their findings, researchers are now fielding calls from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) about other diseases of concern, such as African Swine Fever (ASF), and how to defend against them.