Thursday, May 30, 2024

Green goals, grey realities: the net-zero quest

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By Katerina Kolemishevska

Editor’s note: Katerina Kolemishevska is Director of Policy Development, Canadian Pork Council (CPC). She can be contacted at kolemishevska@cpc-ccp.com.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood alongside other world leaders in at the COP21 conference in 2015, signing Canada onto the Paris Agreement, which commits us to international net-zero goals.

The call for a net-zero planet has been echoing across countries, industries and communities with more urgency than ever before. As floods, heat waves and wildfires ravage our world, finding an effective but achievable solution to climate change is paramount.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2018 that the Earth has warmed 1.5 degrees-Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, due to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The report emphasizes the need for a “rapid and far-reaching” transition to keep temperatures at current levels. This is how the net-zero concept came to exist and was adopted with the Paris Agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), during which signatory countries, including Canada, pledged to act.

Canada has committed to reaching economy-wide net-zero GHGs by 2050, along with 120 countries, aiming to slash global emissions in half by 2030. The Canadian government has set various legislative measures to meet the goals, with the most important being the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, enacted in 2021. Currently, the government is developing its Sustainable Agricultural Strategy (SAS), outlining the indicators, tools and actions that could help the agri-food sector meet the target.

What does ‘net zero’ really mean?

Manure management strategies align with net-zero ‘insetting’ practices and have widespread application on Canadian farms today.

Interpretations of ‘net zero’ usually refer to reducing GHG emissions to the greatest possible extent and balancing what’s left. Why ‘net’ zero? Even with total de-carbonization of systems that create emissions, there will always be GHGs in the environment. To reach total neutrality – or ‘zero’ – emissions must be completely balanced, which is impossible. As most emissions come from energy-intensive industries, including agriculture, a delicate yet imperfect solution is being sought.

‘Offsetting’ and ‘insetting’ GHG emissions are two basic strategies for agriculture. Offsetting provides an instant way to balance emissions, whereas insetting directly enhances the sustainability and resiliency of agricultural operations.

To be more precise, offsetting allows producers to compensate for emissions already produced by investing in environmental projects outside of their operations, to reduce their carbon footprint. Most offsetting strategies focus on industrial carbon capture and storage. This is contrasted with reducing emissions directly related to agricultural activity and the agri-food supply chain, which is considered insetting.

Insetting incorporates carbon reduction directly into the production business model, such as conservation tillage, crop rotation and manure management. Depending on the operational structure, producers can combine offsetting and insetting practices and tailor them to specific on-farm contexts to drive significant progress towards the broader net-zero goal.

Are some net-zero goals out-of-reach?

Realistically reaching net zero remains a foggy proposition for most Canadian hog farmers, as investment and technology are still insufficient.

The net-zero approach represents a good attempt to tackle climate change in theory, but in practice, the path is burdened with complications.

As it stands today, it seems nearly impossible to maintain global temperatures at just 1.5 degrees-Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This will require significant adjustments for the agri-food sector, including how we produce crops and livestock, eliminate food waste and manage biodiversity.

Transitioning to net zero often requires substantial investments in new technology, equipment and procedures. In its report on “Canada’s road to net-zero,” RBC estimates $2 trillion of investments will be needed to finance the transition over the next three decades. That’s at least $60 billion annually from government and industry to cut Canada’s emissions by 75 per cent.

For agriculture alone, RBC suggests costs will be $2.5 billion annually to cut emissions from 73 megatonnes in 2019 to 43 megatonnes going forward. While current government programs can cover some of the cost, it is unclear how public incentives can guarantee long-term commitment. But what happens with the huge remaining cash gap needed to enable this transition? Where is that money coming from? Current economic conditions, such as inflation rates, don’t make it any better. On the contrary, it makes the money tighter.

Technological limitations also challenge innovation. Despite scientific progress, we are still in the early stages of creating scalable, efficient and cost-effective climate-smart technologies. While other sectors have identified many technologies that could substantially reduce emissions, these are not readily available in agriculture. As energy sources vary from one region of the country to the next, one-size-fits-all solutions may be out-of-reach for farmers.

Across agriculture, carbon capture and storage systems could be a game changer, but land availability is a major concern. The U.K.-based climate policy thinktank, Grantham Institute, believes up to 1.2 billion hectares of land worldwide would be required to grow crops for bioenergy to replace conventional, carbon-intensive forms. That equates to nearly 80 per cent of all the land that is now farmed. Implementation at that scale would permanently damage biodiversity and harm global food security.

And there’s another problem: nitrogen. We still have much to discover scientifically when it comes to understanding biological processes that contribute to GHG emissions, especially the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen encourages carbon sequestration by promoting plant growth, so it must be managed carefully. A recent report by the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlights the lack of clarity on how nitrogen affects soil microorganisms, which impacts soil biodiversity and fertility, crop output and nitrogen emissions. As the nitrogen enigma becomes better-understood, we may find out that the net-zero calculations are even more complicated than previously thought.

The existing knowledge gaps in agriculture make net zero unfeasible with today’s tools. To overcome this barrier, the industry needs multi-faceted strategies to support economic, social and technological advancements.

Find a more balanced way forward

ESG goals have consumed the corporate world. Even within the Canadian pork industry, companies are looking to keep up.

Even if all of the recommended best management practices are implemented, the agri-food sector has little chance of attaining net zero. Despite the associated risks, many agricultural sectors have already committed to pursuing these environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.

While the Canadian pork industry’s carbon footprint is comparatively low, we have significant potential to reduce our overall environmental impact. Hog farmers are constantly striving to improve on-farm practices to lower their input costs and generate positive ecological outcomes.

Yet, some experts consider the net zero commitment necessary to fast-track progress, while others argue that additional regulations and taxes should accompany the pledge; however, relying on legislation rather than cooperation undermines the incentive for producer engagement.

Initiatives that measure and enhance producer sustainability support the broader industry’s transformation efforts. Sustainability as a principle – rather than net-zero commitments – balances all associated factors to ensure the industry’s long-term viability, rather than only targeting GHG emissions in the pursuit of a one-dimensional objective.

Given that the obstacles to net zero are significant, acknowledging them does not justify inaction. Instead, it demands a more realistic approach. Prioritizing best management practices is important, but producers are not the sole drivers of change. We should shift our attention and invest profoundly in research and development to address technological gaps and develop strategies that work for everyone.

The reality of arriving at net zero is grey because, regardless of which direction we take, no solution is completely green. Instead of unreachable targets, we should understand that the path toward sustainability is a series of steps, and every step in the right direction is critical.

PRRS scare leads to H1N2 discovery

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By Cordell Young

Editor’s note: Cordell Young is a veterinarian with Precision Veterinary Services, based in Alberta. He can be contacted at cordell@precisionvet.ca.

Steven Waldner is the hog boss for Fairlane Colony and an Alberta Pork board director. Starting three years ago, Fairlane has progressively and successfully navigated an H1N2 outbreak, providing lessons for all producers who may face similar situations.

When Fairlane Colony in Alberta – a 370-sow farrow-to-finish operation – noticed an unusually high number of sick pigs in its herd in 2020, alarm bells quickly sounded.

“We knew there was a problem right away, so we called our vet,” said Steven Waldner, Fairlane’s barn manager. “She came out to our farm to see what was happening and suggested we start dealing with it right away.”

Initially, Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) appeared to be the culprit, which is bad news for any producer, given the amount of time and resources required to recover from such an outbreak. The farm immediately began to use medication to stem the spread of what was believed to be PRRS.

However, other options still remained on the table. After the outbreak was already underway, Waldner reached out to Precision Veterinary Services for additional support. Our initial thinking was, what if some kind of influenza, not PRRS, was responsible?

Unfortunately, at that time, the perspective on flu vaccines wasn’t particularly promising, but Waldner’s determination and Precision’s persistence remained steadfast. We knew a solution was needed – something that could reverse the farm’s fortunes and save its animals from further suffering.

Attacking the issue head-on

As Fairlane’s production has stabilized in the years following the outbreak, the farm is now prepared to manage any potential concerns into the future.

Early samples for flu strains came back negative, but further diagnostic analysis ended up determining the problem: H1N2, a subtype of Influenza A, which is sometimes called ‘bird flu’ but is endemic in pigs and can also infect humans. Its symptoms can be similar to PRRS, and co-infections of PRRS and H1N2 are not unheard of.

While the discovery was jolting, knowing what was behind the problem ignited a spark of hope. Armed with newfound knowledge, the team launched into action. The farm underwent internal biosecurity changes and an intensive process to initiate flu vaccinations – a critical step towards turning the tide against the illness that had plagued them for so long. The decision to implement vaccinations proved to be a game-changer.

“Vaccination really helped get our production back on track,” said Waldner. “All of the performance metrics got better, and we didn’t need to use as much medication anymore. After that, we were able to continue mostly as normal, with upgraded biosecurity.”

Fast-forward to 2023, and Fairlane’s numbers paint a compelling picture of resurgence, thanks to the effectiveness of the vaccine and the producer’s ability to do what needed to be done.

One of the most significant changes was the number of sows that farrowed early. Using 115 days of gestation as the cut-off, only half as many sows farrowed early post-vaccine compared to before. This matters because piglets born at that point in gestation are often considered premature, have higher rates of mortality and are poorer quality. This had a substantially positive impact on overall piglet viability by reducing the amount of labour and stress that might have been required during the first two days after farrowing and also reduced scouring outbreaks.

Adjusted farrowing rates increased to nearly 92 per cent, which was a dramatic improvement. The average gestation length of just over 116 days highlighted the farm’s change in sow stability, as piglets born alive per litter surged to 15.27, with the mummified fetus rate dropping to a mere 1.8 per cent, which suggests improved sow health and prenatal care. The average litter birth weight also increased modestly from 20.2 kilograms to nearly 20.7 kilograms, underscoring better nutrition and piglet development.

The average number of piglets weaned per litter increased from 12.17 to 12.92, with pre-weaning mortality decreasing to 14.5 per cent from 15.5 per cent, pointing to improved piglet health and care post-birth. Piglets weaned per sow per year also increased substantially from 29.62 to 31, which could be a combination of management efficiency and possible genetic improvements.

The breeding female cull rate also decreased to 41.9 per cent from 50 per cent, indicative of improved herd health and culling decisions. The average number of parities of those sows increased to 5.29 from 3.13, which tells us more of the young sows were able to withstand the demands of production without the additional challenge of H1N2.

Recovery continues, with the power of knowledge

Despite the outbreak, Fairlane’s weaners are looking better than before, thanks to the adoption of the vaccine and improved biosecurity.

Beyond the numbers, the recovery process taught us some valuable lessons, which helped Fairlane right its course in the aftermath, even leading to production benefits.

“We saw a very big improvement in weaning since getting the problem under control,” said Waldner. “The average birthweight per piglet is a bit lower than before, and we don’t quite know why, but it could be the higher number of births. In any case, this hasn’t hurt the piglets’ health or average daily gain on the sow. That part has actually been even better.”

While some residual coughing remains, even today, it’s a far cry from the previous state of the herd. While no flu vaccine is capable of completely removing all the long-term respiratory challenges that emerge, vaccines are a powerful tool for veterinarians to offer producers, and the results speak for themselves. Today, Fairlane’s herd looks much better than three years ago.

In addition to addressing the disease itself, Fairlane’s biosecurity has improved. Hallways used to move piglets from the nursery to the scale are now washed weekly, and new clothing protocols involve a change of coveralls, gloves and boots before moving between the grow-finish, nursery and farrowing rooms of the barn.

Fairlane Colony’s unwavering commitment to finding a solution in collaboration with veterinary support helped the farm battle through sickness and uncertainty to emerge victorious. The journey from a state of crisis to a better, healthier life for the farm’s pigs is a testament to the power of science, understanding disease, resilience and the importance of working as a team.

Fairlane’s experience showcases what can be achieved with the right tools, expertise and dedication to problem-solving. Even in the face of the most daunting challenges, there is always a way forward – a path towards triumph, growth and transformation.

Pork promotion must look to the future

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By Andrew Heck

Appealing to modern pork consumers is harder than ever. The Summer 1993 edition of the Western Hog Journal featured a spotlight on Alberta Pork’s ‘thrilling summer promotion.’ But do the same strategies work today?

Despite its inherent virtues – from affordability, ease-of-use, nutritional density and taste – Canadian pork has fallen behind the pack when it comes to consumer marketing, compared to its protein competitors. While supply-managed commodities undoubtedly have a financial advantage, it is incumbent upon the Canadian pork industry to keep pace.

Pork demand is largely tied to trends outside of the industry’s control, but that doesn’t mean the industry can’t help influence the trajectory. Consumer marketing has ranked lower on the industry’s priorities in recent years than more pressing concerns, like pricing, which has created an opportunity for increased attention and improvement to current pork promotion efforts.

Once upon a time, Canadians could be counted on to fill their fridges and freezers with fresh and cured pork products, ready-at-hand in a moment’s notice for tonight’s family supper, tomorrow’s bagged lunch or a backyard cookout.

Today, the situation is very different. Consumers are much less inclined to stock up on food at all, as grocery prices have soared and as foodservice options have made meals more convenient than ever. About half of Canada’s nearly 40 million people are under 40-years-old, and nearly 95 per cent of the entire population lives in cities, including many new Canadians. While pork appeals to Canadians of all ages and backgrounds, there’s no doubt that younger, urban, culturally diverse consumers and their children will continue to wield increasing influence over trends.

This societal change represents both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, consumers are much better informed than ever before, and they have a lot more choices when it comes to food. On the other hand, the playing field for marketers has become much more complex to navigate. Pork promotion, however, has been sluggish to adapt.

Pork: the other (non-)white meat

Starting in 1987, the U.S. National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) trademarked and aggressively promoted pork as ‘The Other White Meat®.’ The slogan resonated with consumers into the 2000s, but today, it’s antiquated.

With consumers becoming increasingly health-conscious, and as professional nutrition advice began to steer people away from diets high in saturated fat, pork in the 1980s needed a makeover. The solution? Turning pork into chicken – proverbially speaking – as lighter, bird-based options were rapidly taking flight in terms of purchasing habits.

Marketers readily latched onto this revolutionary idea to modernize pork’s image, beginning with a U.S. National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) campaign in 1987: The Other White Meat®. Thanks to concentrated, well-funded initiatives, the catchy slogan spilled over into Canada, becoming a sentiment that would be adapted and recycled for years. While the tagline was officially retired in 2011, its legacy endures, representing former glory that has yet to be recaptured.

Even though the campaign resonated with a relatively homogenous consumer base back then – using traditional media like print, radio and television advertising, along with point-of-sale activities – it was based on a falsehood, as pork isn’t white meat. In fact, many people eating pork today were not even born when the campaign was conceived.

When the motto first came into use, the positive perception of poultry was hard to ignore. One of the main selling features of fresh pork then, as now, is its similarity to chicken in terms of nutritional value and possible methods of preparation. But does that matter? Fast-forward to the age of the internet, and not all consumers are seeking a chicken copycat anymore, but perhaps one that goes toe-to-toe with a comparable yet pricier protein, like beef.

As chicken consumption has continued to rise in Canada, beef consumption has declined, with pork remaining stable. Logically, filling the void left by beef may hold greater potential than trying to cut into chicken’s popularity, which continues to dominate, almost untouched. Plant- and lab-based meat alternative manufacturers recognized this right away, heading straight for the creation of fake beef burgers. And while these companies have struggled to turn a profit and continue to try their hand at simulated pork, poultry, dairy and seafood products, the soy- or pea-based patty has seen moderate success and commercial application relative to other imitation goods.

While foodservice does not directly drive pig or pork prices, restaurants play an important role in how consumers engage with pork, especially as mobile application-based delivery options become increasingly popular.

When diners are looking for a night out and a satisfying meal, heading to the local steakhouse has remained a popular choice for decades. Even when pork manages to make a prominent appearance on restaurant menus, few establishments treat it with the same level of reverence and respect as beef, and the results speak for themselves, when guests are served an underwhelming, regrettable pork plate.

As these unfortunate eating experiences serve to reinforce consumers’ preferences, beef comes out on top almost every time, which cements in their minds a distinct difference in quality, even if that belief is rooted in a simple matter of technique and presentation.

For a long time, pork was under-classed as subsistence – eaten at home when many people kept backyard pigs for personal consumption or simply didn’t appreciate it fully. Pork’s second-rate historical reputation precedes it, even today, with food safety remaining a common yet dated concern.

Food safety has come a long way over the years, with foodborne illnesses in pork not usually the direct responsibility of production or processing, but cooking. Age-old fears related to Trinchinella bacteria are no longer seen with commercially raised pigs, with other pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria now the focus.

Just 10 degrees-Fahrenheit separates juicy, medium rare pork from dry, well done pork, but health officials around the world have differing opinions on what’s safe.

As a result, there has been renewed interest and push for health officials to adopt lower temperature standards, given the circumstances around modern pork production and processing. Already back in 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered its temperature recommendations for pork to 145 degrees-Fahrenheit, with some rest time, which is consistent with their guidelines for beef and veal. Australian Pork even goes so far as to publish on its website: “Pork doesn’t need to be overcooked to be safe. In fact, pork can be eaten with a hint of pink in the middle.” Health Canada, meanwhile, still places the pork minimum at a stodgy 160 degrees-Fahrenheit, just shy of chicken’s 165-degree threshold.

While it may seem like a reversal of once-trusted marketing strategies, if Canadians – especially the current generation of young and soon-to-be adults – can be convinced to treat pork more like the red meat it actually is, it could showcase the beauty of the product in new ways. Even if a consumer’s preference is to eat out or order in, picking pork could be seen as enjoyable and economical just the same.

Disease provides tangible reason to care

Canadian beef’s triumph over BSE was a massive accomplishment, at least partly due to consumer loyalty, which was built over time by the industry’s own promotional efforts. But would Canadian pork under ASF receive the same treatment?

One area in which the Canadian pork industry has a pressing need to brush up is the situation of a potential foreign animal disease outbreak, like African Swine Fever (ASF).

In the event trade comes to a halt due to ASF, pork supplies already in cold storage will become backlogged, awaiting export, which will cause serious supply chain complications. The only immediate reprieve could be renewed consumer interest in buying up the stalled pork until market activities resume as normal. This sounds doable in principle, but in practice, Canadians are nowhere near equipped to eat up much of the surplus.

Flash back to 2003: a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was first discovered in Canadian cattle, resulting in the closure of global markets to Canadian beef. In response, the industry rallied Canadian consumers to buy beef… and it worked.

Year-over-year, between 2002 and 2003, per capita domestic beef consumption increased from 13.5 kilograms to 14.2 kilograms. While beef prices plunged as a result of the markets lost from BSE, hurting the industry in the direct aftermath, consumers were thrilled to find deep discounts at retail. Curiously, during that same time, per capita pork consumption declined, with chicken consumption remaining stable.

While Canadian consumers’ response to BSE could serve as an analogy for a hypothetical ASF experience, there are some differences: only about half of all Canadian beef is typically exported, with the other half consumed domestically, whereas pork is undoubtedly more export-reliant. Additionally, romantic stereotypes about beef – think of the picturesque ranching lands featuring cattle and cowboys in the Rocky Mountain foothills – are largely absent with pig production, which positions beef much better than pork among everyday consumers who may view pork neutrally or even negatively. ‘Factory farm’ prejudices are one example.

If ASF were to hit Canada, it is doubtful that Canadians would respond as enthusiastically to pork as they did to beef during the BSE crisis, which means it’s in the pork industry’s best interest to work even harder now to build its brand, before the need becomes critical.

While a supply crisis may be inevitable under ASF, anything helps, when it comes to growing consumption levels. Proactive thinking suggests pork promotion is one way to do it, to develop favourable consumer habits and build pride along the way, which has a ripple effect even when crises are not imminent.

Partners must come together rather than splinter

While provinces are fond of their own brands and promotional activities, the strength of Canadian pork lies its ability for partners to pool their resources.

Today, more than 1.4 million metric tonnes of Canadian pork end up overseas, with around 670,000 metric tonnes being consumed domestically; however, not all pork consumed by Canadians is Canadian. An additional 270,000 metric tonnes of imports – mostly from the U.S. – end up here, highlighting the reality of an integrated, international market, as retailers often choose to sell foreign pork. In foodservice, that can improve profit margins, and in grocery, it may be easier to sell at a lower price, encouraging shoppers’ purchases.

If the proportion of Canadian pork consumed domestically versus exported became even a bit more balanced, it could make all the difference to enhancing Canadian food security and public trust, with a financial benefit to follow for the industry. While private businesses like grocers and restaurants are free to acquire pork from any approved source, it stands to reason that retailers could make the conscientious choice to consider standing behind Canadian versus foreign products. While pork may lack beef’s bold appeal, Canadian consumers are generally on board with the ‘buy local’ mantra, which is a naturally favourable position for the Canadian pork industry.

Working with Canada Pork, provincial pork producer organizations across Canada and the Canadian Pork Council (CPC) frequently engage with one another on various promotions, in addition to efforts that take place exclusively at the provincial level. For example, Alberta Pork, Sask Pork and Manitoba Pork join forces regularly to drive initiatives designed for western Canada as a whole, while Ontario Pork and Éleveurs de porcs du Québec (Quebec Pork) have sophisticated programs of their own, tailored to their respective jurisdictions. From having a presence at community events to working with grocers and restaurants to showcase Canadian pork, there is still a place for traditional forms of consumer marketing, although the benefits are typically less impactful compared to decades past. As such, pooling resources for maximum effect, today, possesses the greatest potential.

Through Canada Pork, provincial borders dissolve, and the true face of a united pork front is revealed. To the consumer, it sends a stronger message about the product, through brands like Verified Canadian Pork (VCP), with a value proposition based on quality assurances at the farm and plant level.

From one province to the next, it may be true that subtle differences like feed ingredients, environmental conditions and operational styles contribute to distinctions in the end product, but overall, the average consumer likely can’t tell the difference, may not care and probably doesn’t even know. Suffice to say, marketing at the provincial level, over the national level, divides resources and brings smaller returns than the industry is likely capable of achieving through collective action.

Pork can prevail, but only with fresh thinking

Understanding contemporary demographics is a must. The choices of today’s pork consumer look very different from what they once were.

For the Canadian pork industry to address its current marketing stalemate, it has become clear that collaboration and investment are the best way forward. Paired with modern thinking and novel approaches for an ever-changing demographic, pork has more to offer consumers than most other proteins, but those virtues are not as widely appreciated as they could be.

Successful marketing requires data to strengthen its case. If the direct benefits are unable to be measured, stakeholder confidence is lost, and momentum dies. The Canadian pork industry must take action to understand its audience even better.

The changed landscape requires updated tools and tactics to tap into what today’s consumer wants and will ultimately find, with or without industry input. Finding a way to capitalize on the situation remains pork promoters’ Achilles Heel.

If Canadian consumption of pork can tick upward, even a little, it may generate greater domestic interest in this world-leading product, which is the goal that has eluded the industry as society forges ahead faster than pork marketing has been able to match.

Producers should take blister cases seriously

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By Jette Christensen

Editor’s note: Jette Christensen is Manager, Canada West Swine Health Intelligence Network (CWSHIN). She can be contacted at manager@cwshin.ca.

The presence of blisters alone is not enough to confidently determine the presence of disease, but their appearance should be met with caution and proactive response.

Blisters are a concerning sight for any hog producer. Some are caused by diseases considered ‘federally reportable’ by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), while some are not. Knowing which is which, and how to protect your herd, is key to managing your barn and protecting the Canadian pork industry at large from potential trade disruptions that could be caused by a federally reportable disease outbreak.

The Canada West Swine Health Intelligence Network (CWSHIN) includes representation from provincial pork producer organizations, swine veterinarians and government officials, aimed at monitoring diseases both absent and present. For CWSHIN, keeping producers informed about the latest disease-related issues across B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba helps ensure the sector is approaching challenges with as much information as possible, to assist decision-making.

Based on CWSHIN’s disease surveillance efforts, we are looking to grow producers’ understanding of blister-related diseases and prepare them to identify and mitigate risks.

Blisters can look similar yet be very different

Not all blisters are viral, but they can be hard to tell apart. Only through testing are diseases able to be ruled out.

Five diseases affecting pigs cause blisters that look very much alike: Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), Vesicular Stomatitis Virus (VSV), Swine Vesicular Disease (SVD), Seneca Valley Virus (SVV) and Vesicular exanthema of Swine (VES). At first glance, clinical signs of these diseases are indistinguishable. Collectively, they are known as viral vesicular diseases. Other diseases like Porcine Parvovirus and Swine pox can also cause blisters, but these are usually identifiable through other signs. Conversely, some blisters are caused by non-infectious exposure.

Out of the bunch, FMD is considered the most concerning for surveillance. FMD not only affects pigs but other livestock, such as cattle. The virus can also be carried by animal-based food products, including pork, beef and dairy. Inspection officials in foreign countries receiving shipments of Canadian pigs and pork rightly want to protect their countries from FMD – just like us – which makes this particular disease critical for the industry to prevent.

However, because FMD, VSV and SVD are all federally reportable, when animals in a herd have blisters, the discovery must be reported to CFIA. SVV and VES, on the other hand, are less likely to cause a large-scale disruption to international pig and pork movements.

If a producer notices blisters in the barn, how likely is the cause a reportable disease?

Based on what CWSHIN knows, blisters are least likely to be caused by FMD, as Canada and the U.S. are currently free of this disease. SVV is known to be present in some Canadian and U.S. assembly yards, which makes it a possible diagnosis. However, data from CWSHIN’s surveys show that all cases from 2019 to date have had non-infectious causes, making this the likeliest cause for producers to consider, in most cases.

When diagnosing blisters, there are some challenges. While the specific disease can be ruled out, it is more difficult to find a non-infectious cause and make a definite diagnosis – locating the ‘smoking gun’ as evidence. If CFIA suspects that a blister case is being caused by a reportable disease, restrictions could be placed on the herd until these causes are ruled out.

No matter what, it goes without saying, producers would be wise to take blister cases seriously, working with their herd veterinarians to make informed choices.

SVV-positive shipment causes concern

Detection of a federally reportable disease in Canadian pigs could have harsh consequences for the industry. CWSHIN’s surveillance efforts help instill confidence that Canada remains free of diseases like FMD.

Last year, a load of cull sows being shipped across the Canada-U.S. border were stopped by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials under the suspicion of being infected with FMD. Rather fortunately, testing confirmed that the animals were not FMD-positive but were SVV-positive. While SVV is concerning enough on its own, the discovery of FMD could have been significantly worse. Following this incident, assembly yards in Manitoba were required to step up their disease testing. From these yards, many western Canadian shipments of cull sows head south.

This year, after increased testing, sows with healing blisters were once again seen at assembly yards in Manitoba, traced back to two farms. Testing was able to rule out all viral vesicular diseases for both herds, including SVV and FMD. Due to the presence of blisters, these farms required a thorough investigation.

In these cases, a definitive diagnosis would have been very nice to have, to prevent future cases and repeat investigations at the assembly yards and the farms from where the sows originated; however, with the wide range of potential causes other than viruses, it was not possible to reconcile lab tests with the presence of a cause in the barn. For example, one case had lab findings consistent with chemical or thermal burns, but no chemicals were found in the barn. In the other case, hydrated lime was suspected, but there was no lab test to confirm chemical burn lesions. While we were able to confidently rule out viral vesicular diseases, we weren’t able to find the cause – frustrating, but a good example of why this issue is so complex.

Blister cases such as these are likely to be encountered at assembly yards in the future. If or when that happens, a similar process of investigation will take place. From a producer perspective, you risk blisters being traced back to your herd from assembly yards, and this may cause disruption to your cull sow flow.

As a proactive measure, producers should keep an eye out for blisters in their herds, especially when it comes to cull sows. If you suspect blisters, contact your herd vet, and if the advice is to proceed with ruling out viral vesicular diseases, contact CFIA. Your herd vet can help you work with labs to determine the cause of the blisters. The benefit to the entire industry is that, every time viral vesicular diseases are ruled out, we have more evidence of freedom from reportable diseases like FMD.

Reportable diseases unlikely to be present

While the detection of a federally reportable disease is always possible, according to CWSHIN clinical surveys, the chances remain low. Despite the odds, continued vigilance is a must.

CWSHIN’s collaborative approach to disease issues provides benefits to the entire Canadian pork industry. When it comes to disease surveillance, we are working hard to continue to help provide evidence that Canadian pigs are free of diseases that could halt international trade. As producers know, disruptions to the pig and pork value chain have a ripple effect that can hit home fast.

Since 2019, CWSHIN stakeholders have participated in quarterly surveys that rely on clinical impressions to gauge the risk of finding viral vesicular diseases in western Canadian herds. Based on the information from the surveys, CWSHIN maintains a model that calculates the probability of freedom from exactly these diseases. Currently, the probability of freedom is about 96 per cent, which is as high as it can get, considering that no disease is ever completely risk-free from being introduced.

Enhanced biosecurity measures and diligence with assessing animal health are critical steps for disease prevention. CWSHIN is here to be a resource for producers, should there be any question about the health of Canadian pigs.

Fall 2023 – Editorial

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The Fall 2023 edition of the Canadian Hog Journal is here!

From talking to people at industry events, I’ve heard a lot of rumblings about the need for better pork promotion in Canada. It’s a tricky subject. Consumer marketing, done right, is usually expensive. But without the right underlying strategies, it could be wasteful. Still, when it works, its pros vastly outweigh the cons. I delve into what’s behind Canadian pork promotion today, where it could be headed and why it matters.

Emergency preparedness is frustrating yet fundamental. There are plenty of reasons why, but looking across the world, war and disease issues in Ukraine have amounted to an extreme crisis for many Ukrainian hog farmers. What can Canadian producers learn from the situation?

With Seneca Valley Virus (SVV) popping up at Canadian assembly yards last year, there has been growing concern around what further discoveries could mean for the movement of pigs to the U.S. The Canada West Swine Health Intelligence Network (CWSHIN) stepped up surveillance this year in the hopes of catching any new cases before shipments head south.

Encountering an on-farm disease challenge would catch any producer off-guard and could create a significant operational disruption. Veterinarian Cordell Young and producer Steven Waldner from Alberta share their experience battling H1N2 and how good relationships make all the difference.

With ‘net zero’ climate targets all the rage around the world, agriculture, too, is impacted. But for all of the noble intentions to address greenhouse gas emissions, the tip of the iceberg conceals much larger obstacles for farmers. The Canadian Pork Council’s (CPC) Katerina Kolemishevska offers perspective on why Canada’s climate goals are missing the mark for the pork industry.

A new, ongoing series of videos showcases the many people across the agriculture value chain that make it all possible, with their stories presented in an enjoyable broadcast news format. Ontario Pork’s Tyler Calver provides details. 

Swine Innovation Porc research featured in this edition includes project overviews related to using probiotics to combat diarrhea and an ongoing truck washing project that is improving transport biosecurity across the board.

And, finally, from Cargill, learn about the connection between larger piglet litters and lower birth weights, and how to avoid losing money in pursuit of greater efficiency.

The Canadian pork industry features a wide range of expertise, experience and perspectives on matters that affect the entire sector. Your voice counts, and I want to hear it! Share your thoughts by reaching out to andrew.heck@albertapork.com or tagging the Canadian Hog Journal (@HogJournal) in your conversations on Twitter/X and Facebook.

Ukrainian farmers defy odds during war

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By Andrew Heck

At more than 100 metres tall, Mother Ukraine has kept watch over Kyiv since 1981, when Ukraine was a Soviet republic. Originally, her shield bore the communist hammer-and-sickle, but this year, the insignia was replaced with the Ukrainian trident, a national symbol.

War brings with it no shortage of tragic consequences. Frequently, outsiders observing the Russian invasion of Ukraine are exposed to news reports showing all manner of devastation, including strikes against military and industrial targets, but also civilian areas.

For some hog farmers in Ukraine, life has become nothing short of a nightmare, as their farms have become unwittingly caught in the crossfire. Yet, their resiliency has been remarkable. Facing a true emergency of the highest order, they continue to produce pigs, process pork and supply their mostly domestic market.

From the direct impacts to Ukrainian civilians, to ripple effects across the Ukrainian pork value chain, hog farmers around the world should have their eyes on Ukraine, if they want a crash course in the value and need for emergency planning and what’s at stake when things go terribly wrong.

Massive change comes quick

Ukraine’s pig herd across the country shrunk by 600,000 head between 2022 and 2023. During that same time, the country’s entire agricultural sector lost about half of its pre-war annual revenue.

From one day to the next, Ukrainians’ lives and livelihoods currently hang in the balance.

“All possible risks are there in Ukraine,” said Oksana Yurchenko, President, Association of Ukrainian Pig Breeders. “Despite this, we continue to work with our partners to support producers, whose needs are different in each region of the country.”

Ukrainian producers raise hogs across a large swath of territory spanning from the eastern and central provinces bordering Russia and its ally, Belarus, all the way to the far western provinces, sharing borders with friendlier neighbours like Poland, Slovakia and Romania. While Ukraine is certainly smaller than Canada, it is the second-biggest country in Europe to Russia, stretching more than 1,500 kilometres at its widest. As in Canada, far-spread clusters of production lead to regional differences.

When full-on war struck the eastern part of the country, chaos ensued, as many producers were left to fend for themselves.

“Nobody knew what to do,” said Yurchenko. “Producers stopped breeding gilts to halt the production cycle, and they cut sow herds.”

In addition to immediate production impacts, other factors were at play: unreliable electricity and gas, unsafe transportation routes and even the threat of being drafted into the military.

“Our ministry of agriculture has an agreement with the ministries of defense and finance to make exemptions for up to half of all producers seen as critical to maintaining the food supply,” said Yurchenko. “However, it is an application process, which can be difficult. Older producers are not seen as fit for combat, but younger producers and their workers are vulnerable.”

Because the collective labour pool has shrunk with resources tied up in the war, all facets of the industry have experienced setbacks.

“[Military] mobilization is a challenge. You lose veterinarians and other people when they don’t manage to receive immunity,” said Yurchenko. “Some farms lost most of their employees to the military, which creates difficulty continuing the operation.”

Sporadic explosions and firefights constantly threaten farms in conflict hot spots. Machinery is often stolen by occupiers, whose presence lingers even after they’re gone, with landmines that have been buried. It is estimated that more than one million acres of Ukrainian farmland are actively mined.

“Unfortunately, we have lost about 15 per cent of all farms and about 11 per cent of the entire pig herd, either because of the war or because producers shut down their operations,” said Yurchenko. “Fortunately, no major processing facilities have been affected, as these are found mostly in non-combat zones.”

One of Ukraine’s largest hog farms, Agrocomplex Slobozhansky, was nearly lost as a direct result of Russian occupation but is in the painful process of rebuilding.

Agrocomplex Slobozhansky was one of Ukraine’s largest hog producers pre-war. Spread between two sites in Kharkiv province, the company’s 3,400 sows and integrated operations were delivered a major blow between March and September 2022, as Russian troops were stationed just a few kilometres away, regularly hammering the region to wrest control of it.

Throughout the occupation, Agrocomplex Slobozhansky’s owners kept a diary of events as they took place.

“The farm faced constant shelling, and the surrounding roads were blocked, making supply of critical inputs and shipments of pigs out impossible,” the diary reads. “Farms began to use diesel generators, and the drinking and feeding systems were only run a few hours a day to save diesel. Pigs on both farms began to die, due to lack of water and feed.”

Starting in April, the nearby village and surrounding areas completely lost power. Then, in May, additional shelling destroyed the farms’ feed mill. In a futile attempt to keep up with operational needs, workers began to grind grain for feed by hand. Eventually, the area was liberated, but not without bitter consequences for the producer.

“Now that the region has been freed from Russian troops, the farm currently has 1,300 breeding pigs. Many of the barns have no windows, and there are holes left by shells in a number of the roofs.”

On the bright side, Agrocomplex Slobozhansky was lucky enough not to have lost everything, unlike some others. The company vows to rebuild and repopulate to pre-war levels, at a price tag equivalent to around CAD $25 million. Though, little to none of the necessary funding will likely come from external partners.

“Before the war, we had some government programs to finance new construction and renovations to barns, but that has since ended,” said Yurchenko. “Farms today in the highest-risk areas are rejected for support and denied bank loans.”

From the depths of carnage and destruction to the relative yet tenuous stability of the present day, Ukrainian hog farmers continue to fight for their farms and lives.

Ukrainian industry still sees hope

Eurasian wild boar are native to Ukraine, unlike Canada, but the species presents the same fear of disease transmission, including African Swine Fever (ASF). Ukraine has grappled with ASF for more than a decade. Image © Jerzy Strzelecki

Starting in 2012, African Swine Fever (ASF) quickly became a major concern for Ukrainian producers, when the disease first broke on a small farm in the east. Then, multiple cases in wild boar were discovered in 2014, followed by an outbreak on a 60,000-head commercial operation in 2015.

“Since then, we’ve been working with the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and UNFAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] on improving Ukrainian swine biosecurity,” said Yurchenko. “Even right now, we’re still creating educational materials, like instructional videos, to help other farmers model their operations off of those that have made positive changes.”

From recently adopted protocols like showering in and out of barns, and diligent efforts to fence all outdoor operations, ASF is being faced head-on, for the sake of business continuity under intense pressure.

Throughout 2022, the number of pigs on-farm in Ukraine declined by 11 per cent, to just over five million total. Approximately 35 per cent of Ukrainian pigs are raised on small farms, with producers selling to local abattoirs, and the remaining 65 per cent belonging to the commercial system.

Compared to Canada, the impact of Ukrainian pig production on local food security is proportionally larger, as Ukraine currently exports only about 5,000 metric tonnes of pork annually, compared to Canada’s 1.4 million metric tonnes. Prior to 2015, Ukraine’s exports were six times larger than today, with its biggest customer, Russia, no longer seen as a favourable client.

Beginning in 2014, long-standing political tensions between Russia and Ukraine finally flared up, resulting in the ongoing occupation of Crimea – the disputed peninsula jutting into the Black Sea. The Black Sea connects to the Mediterranean via the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits through Turkey, the route by which Ukraine and Russia move much of their agricultural commodities, like grain and oilseed, to foreign markets. In response to widespread economic sanctions issued against Russia for its aggression, the country banned imports of agricultural commodities from several sources, including Canada, which is estimated to have cost the Canadian pork industry $500 million.

Pork is a staple for many Ukrainians, when it’s available. Much of Ukraine’s pork is sold at small markets where, today, it’s on the higher-priced end, which has presented an opportunity for producers and processors still in business.

The bulk of Ukrainian pork is consumed domestically, and consumer prices are high across the board for all types of food. Despite the cost, demand remains high, with Ukrainians continuing to desire pork. Pre-war, Ukraine consumed 800,000 metric tonnes of pork annually, with 100,000 metric tonnes now off the market, creating a void.

In a rare victory, this high demand, coupled with reduced supply, has created new opportunities for producers and processors outside of the main conflict zones. And while the export-based Ukrainian crop sector has been hurt by an inability to move grain out of its ports, it’s led to lower domestic feed costs for hog farmers. In Ukraine, as in Canada, those costs represent upwards of 70 per cent of all inputs for any given producer, typically.

“It’s true that many producers in the east have either lost or chosen to shut down their farms, but some of them have moved west, which has been seen as an opportunity,” said Yurchenko.

Even before the war, Ukraine was a net-importer of pork, mostly from countries like Poland, Germany and Denmark. Still, foreign market diversification remains an attractive strategy for processors, who are working with E.U. officials to implement zoning and prove that Ukrainian pork from commercial farms is free of ASF. While entrance into the E.U. marketplace remains a lofty goal, emerging partners in Asia, like Vietnam and Hong Kong, are already buying Ukrainian pork.

While high prices for pigs and pork are a silver lining for the Ukrainian industry, farms hit with ASF are afforded no financial assistance to recover losses incurred from depopulating and sanitizing barns.

“It doesn’t leave them with many options,” said Yurchenko. “That’s why we’re focused on trying to keep the number of new cases low.”

While the overall situation for Ukrainian hog farmers remains harrowing, with no clear resolution in sight, the industry and the Ukrainian people have looked to triumph, however possible.

Canadian farmers should be ready

Animal Health Canada’s Emergency Management Division helps livestock producers prepare for significant risks, like foreign animal disease outbreaks.

For Canadian hog farmers, the prospect of war may seem far-flung, but other emergencies – such as animal backlogs experienced during COVID-19 processing closures, the possibility of foreign animal disease outbreaks and environmental disasters – provide plenty of rationale for our industry to take notice and learn from Ukraine’s struggles.

Stemming from multi-stakeholder discussions in 2018, the African Swine Fever Executive Management Board (ASF EMB) was assembled to act as a framework for collaborative work to prevent and control ASF, if it were detected in Canada. The ASF EMB is coordinated by Animal Health Canada (AHC), a not-for-profit association jointly funded by federal and provincial governments, industry organizations and other partners.

Similarly, the Animal Health Emergency Management (AHEM) Project was designed to engage and educate livestock producers across Canada in their efforts to minimize the impacts of disease on-farm. AHEM was taken on by AHC in 2020. Both the ASF EMB and AHEM Project were incorporated into AHC’s new Emergency Management Division earlier this year.

The AHC Emergency Management Division’s main task is to support emergency preparedness planning to ensure rapid and coordinated response across industry and governments, with a particular focus on foreign animal diseases like ASF and Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). This, in turn, supports a quicker recovery, which is good for producers, supply chain partners and the Canadian economy.

For producers, the group continues to work with provincial and national pork producer organizations to help with farm-level management, including printed and digital materials, in-person seminars and webinars. Many of the tools being developed can be applied to various types of emergencies, as it’s easier to modify an existing plan than to start from scratch, should the need arise.

For Mikki Shatosky, who works in AHC’s Emergency Management Division, it’s about more than just planning – it’s about understanding how to respond to an emergency. This understanding should begin long before an emergency occurs.

“You have to plan thoroughly; it’s not only about your well-being but also the well-being of your workers, family and all those involved in the response,” said Shatosky. “It could potentially affect your neighbors, first responders and your entire community. Have first responders ever dealt with an emergency on a pig farm? What specific information could be provided in advance to assist them?”

Building strong relationships within your community and with partners, including your provincial pork producer organization, ensures everyone is aligned in their understanding of what could happen in case of an emergency.

“In the event of a disease outbreak, there will be a lot to manage. You’ll need to have an inventory of your animals, equipment and a site map, among other crucial information,” said Shatosky. “The more you can do in advance, the better prepared you will be. When you’re actively facing the emergency, it’s too late. Having the necessary tools ready can be a significant help.”

Emergency preparedness goes beyond the logistical considerations related to your farm. Confronting a crisis often carries heavy mental, emotional and psychological baggage.

“When you add animals to the equation, it heightens the stress level,” said Shatosky. “As a farmer, you raise animals that you sincerely care for. When something goes wrong, you feel personally responsible, but it’s important to realize you’re not alone, and you must take care of yourself. Knowing where to find assistance is vital.”

Shatosky also emphasized the merit of international cooperation for mutual learning.

“Collaboration across borders and international knowledge-sharing are important components of our work,” said Shatosky. “We bring together private practitioners, government officials and industry representatives from around the world to exchange ideas through our programs.”

Whether you are in Canada, Ukraine or anywhere else, no-one is immune to unforeseen circumstances. For hog farmers, effective planning, preparedness and response are your best forms of self-protection.

Pray for peace but prepare for war

Resiliency is essential to emergency response. Planning and preparedness are its precursors. Image © Maksym Kozlenko

There is understandably a big difference between envisioning an emergency and experiencing one. Whether on-farm or in society, as Ukraine is facing, broken spirits must quickly mend and trudge onward.

“During the first months of the war, you would hear the air raid siren and panic,” said Yurchenko. “It’s quite difficult to imagine, but people living here are making the best of the situation. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? Nobody knows. Why not have a BBQ? Life goes on.”

During this time of war for Ukrainians, the fight is actively on. And while violent conflict may not be on the horizon for Canada, peace time in the pork industry should mean taking all measures in advance of a crisis, especially one that interrupts foreign trade. That includes evaluating and upholding the highest standards of biosecurity and animal health, in anticipation of the recovery process. Business resumption will depend on it. 

Better pork quality classification could boost sales

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By Swine Innovation Porc

Editor’s note: This article is a project summary prepared for Swine Innovation Porc, as part of a series of articles covering SIP’s work. For more information, contact info@swineinnovationporc.ca.

Whether pork is purchased from one processor or another, foreign buyers of Canadian pork are looking for consistency, when it comes to assessing quality – something that has missed the mark, in the past.

Focusing on delivering high-quality products makes for happier, repeat customers. When you’re already positioned as a leader in pork production and export, like Canada, there’s only one thing left to do: strengthen that position.

For agricultural commodities, classification and grading systems are the cornerstone of branding and reputation. These systems play a key role in marketing for end users by measuring and communicating the specifications that a buyer can expect.   

One example is the ‘Prime’ and ‘AAA’ grades used in the Canadian beef industry, which are widely recognized as indicators of exceptional quality. For pork, Canada’s grading system has primarily been focused on factors like carcass lean meat yield and weight, leaving a critical gap when it comes to attributes that matter more to pork consumers.  

By looking at the tools used to measure pork quality, however, research is now carving a path towards higher value and competitive advantage, through the process of grading.  

Industry competitiveness benefits from standards

It may sound obvious, but if you have high-quality pork, grading for quality could help grow sales and earn top dollar for processors and the producers who supply their pigs. With that in mind, some industry stakeholders have been championing a primal cut grading system to arm customers with in-depth knowledge of what to expect from Canadian pork products.  

There is now growing recognition across the value chain about the importance of on-farm and in-plant quality assurance programs, which are used to consistently meet the demands of diverse markets around the globe. As a result, two researchers, Manuel Juarez with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and Laurence Maignel with the Canadian Centre for Swine Improvement (CCSI), have been tapped to investigate grading techniques. 

As the researchers began their investigation with processors, they identified significant opportunities for improvement. While buyers are willing to pay for quality traits, potentially increasing processor revenue, those traits are often still being measured with a subjective, rather than objective, approach. Unfortunately, these subjective methods lack the standardization and accuracy that premium buyers request. 

Measure twice, cut once

In pursuit of more objective grading methods, the researchers sought to assess and improve current technologies for gauging quality and identifying areas of the carcass that could be evaluated for loin color, marbling scores and firmness. Although some such tools already exist, they tended to be bulky, pricey and time-consuming, and were rarely used; however, the study also discovered less-expensive options for classification that worked as well or better than the costly ones. These tools ranged from hand-held near-infrared spectroscopy devices to assess colour standards, along with belly sorters based on firmness.  

Before long, processors began adopting these technologies and working with the researchers to incorporate them within their operations. Because flexibility was key to widespread acceptance by the industry, researchers ensured that the chosen tools were adaptable for processors depending on their clients and facilities. The systems work equally well in a small plant processing 100 pigs per day and one with a volume of 2,000. 

For processors, it means they can now classify cuts based on quality with greater accuracy, while using fewer workers to do the job, boosting sales and improving pork prices for the sector as a whole. This should enhance client satisfaction and could benefit producers, as processors could choose to compensate producers for delivering pigs that meet preferred specifications.

Automation may be the next frontier

The researchers are excited about what lies ahead, including a robotic arm that could work for plants wanting full automation and a spin-off project looking at the use of a voice-controlled headset to evaluate loins. 

In the meantime, they are pleased with the project results and the ongoing support from industry partners. Considering that these scientists are working to give the Canadian pork sector a competitive edge on the world stage, they feel confident that producers, processors, retailers and consumers will share their excitement.

Reproductive vaccines offer protection to piglets

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By Caitlin Gill, Trenna Brusky & Heather L. Wilson

Editor’s note: Caitlin Gill is Communications Coordinator, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO). She can be contacted at caitlin.gill@usask.ca. Trenna Brusky is Marketing Coordinator, VIDO.

Reducing mortality from PED is a concern for hog producers, and thanks to new research, reproductive immunity is a possibility.

Immunization helps prevent and control infectious diseases and reduces associated economic loss in livestock industries. Innovative immunization strategies provide producers with more effective and efficient ways to protect their animals. These innovations include new vaccines that offer broader protection and new delivery methods that reduce stress on the animals, minimize the need for handling and remove the use of needles to protect the health of the animal and the barn staff.

Dr. Heather L. Wilson, a research scientist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), has spent almost two decades developing vaccines to protect breeding pigs from reproductive diseases and piglets against infectious diseases. Her team is now looking at the technical feasibility of intrauterine immunizationa possible breakthrough that could change the way female pigs are vaccinated, offering new solutions to existing disease issues like porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED). 

Modern systems require new approaches

The industry transition to group housing and farrowing systems in Canada will require a shift in standard vaccination practices to protect barn personnel. The traditional intramuscular vaccine route includes the use of needles, which can break, leading to a food safety hazard and damage to the meat, and could be a risk of needle-stick injuries for the person administering the vaccine. These injuries may be exacerbated by the freedom of movement provided in group housing.

Intramuscular vaccines that are administered at the site of invasion such as the nasal passages, gut and reproductive tract have the potential to be more effective against pathogens targeting those sites. In addition, a needle-free approach for livestock complements the use of group housing systems. Oral vaccines administered in water or feed are a popular needle-free vaccination route because they are safe to administer and have lower labour costs. Unfortunately, it is frequently difficult to achieve protective immunity through the oral route and control the dose administered to each animal.

As an alternative, Wilson and her team are investigating intrauterine immunization – administering vaccines directly into the pig uterus during artificial insemination.

“Incorporating vaccination into a current husbandry practice is critical for acceptance by the industry,” said Wilson. “We are trying to develop an alternative, safe and labour-reducing approach that will protect pigs from infectious disease.”

Disease protection could extend beyond PED

By injecting the vaccine directly into a sow’s uterus, she and her piglets may have a better chance at fending off disease. Image © Haoming Liu

Wilson anticipates intrauterine vaccines can protect against reproductive diseases to prevent fetal death and improve the health of the sow, as well as diseases that impact piglet survival after birth. While intrauterine vaccines do not directly immunize fetuses, the sow’s antibodies are passed down to her piglets when they suckle.

Vaccines are carefully formulated so that they do not harm sperm function following insemination or jeopardize sow fertility but instead protect sows against reproductive diseases. Further, by administering the vaccine into the uterus, antibodies are delivered to the piglets through colostrum and milk after the sow farrows. These antibodies can improve piglet health and growth potential by protecting them against neonatal diseases.

The team developed and tested a vaccine against PED, which can cause high rates of piglet mortality. Trial results indicate the intrauterine-vaccinated sows farrowed healthy piglets with no adverse effects on fertility or piglet growth. In addition, the vaccinated sows had significant levels of antibodies against PED in their blood, uterine tissue and colostrum. The colostral antibodies were taken up by the piglets during suckling, and they provided the piglets with a modest level of protection against PED infection.

Wilson and her team are now working on improving the vaccine formulation so that piglets will be fully protected against PED. They are working with collaborators to encapsulate the vaccine with much stronger ingredients to protect semen from degradation. Once the vaccines are delivered to the uterus, they will hopefully trigger a stronger immune response that leads to increased colostral antibodies to protect piglets.

“We have evidence that intrauterine immunization may be an effective alternative route of delivery for vaccines,” said Wilson. “This could be a safer route of immunization that saves on labour without requiring special training to administer.”

The team intends to expand research beyond PED to investigate whether intrauterine immunization can protect suckling piglets against other neonatal diseases, such as those caused by rotavirus and Escherichia coli (E. coli). The approach could also be applied to other livestock industries that use artificial insemination for breeding.

Farm injury highlights importance of safety

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By Delaney Seiferling

Alberta hog producer Jaco Poot knows first-hand the importance of farm safety, and the potential consequences of neglecting it, following a painful ordeal more than a decade ago.

Jaco Poot remembers the evening of July 29, 2011 like it was yesterday. 

It was a Friday evening, after dinner, and as a hog producer in Bloomsbury, Alberta, his workday was, as usual, not finished.

As his wife and daughter headed into town, he went back outside to his farm to check how full his feed bins were, as he was expecting a delivery the next day.

It was a stressful time, said Poot, who moved to Alberta with his wife from the Netherlands in 1996 to fulfill his dream of owning a hog farm. He was understaffed and grappling with the economic ups and downs that have long been a feature of the hog industry. Because of this, he was trying to cut corners and do as much as he could on the farm by himself.

“Being kind of a go-getter, I climbed the bin there with one hand on the ladder and the other hand knocking on the bin, so you can hear how full the bin is, what the grain level is,” said Poot.

Focused on moving quickly, he misjudged where the top of the 18-foot-tall bin ladder was.

“I mis-grabbed, and bang, I was down on the ground again.”

After that, things were a bit hazy. He thinks he remained on the ground, unconscious, for about an hour before beginning to drift in and out of consciousness.

“Every time I came kind of back to the world, it hurt like hell. I wanted to be back to being passed out,” he said. “At the moment, of course, I didn’t know what was going on, but I was paralyzed.”

As he slowly started becoming aware of what had happened, he realized he needed help but didn’t think to try to locate his cell phone to call his son, who was in the house. Eventually, he somehow dragged his injured body back to the farmyard.

“I was laying on my belly, vomiting, crawling through my own vomit. It was so gross.”

He later learned that he had lost his phone somewhere along the way and that his son eventually found him, unconscious again, and raced him to the closest hospital, in Barrhead.

There, the nurses noticed right away that there was something seriously wrong with his neck and back.

“Somehow, they managed to get me on a stretcher, and they shipped me off to the hospital in Edmonton,” he said.

There, several MRI scans confirmed he had suffered five cracked and broken vertebrae, two in his neck and three in his centre back. He also had a minimal crack in his skull, and a concussion.

Despite this long list of injuries, there was also some good news – he started to get some sensation back in his toes.

“It was a good sign,” he said. “It was just basically from shock that that all feeling was gone.”

He remained in the hospital for observation for several more days, and the medical team confirmed that the vertebrae were cracked but, thankfully, not damaged further.

“I had movement in my toes, my feet, and I was able to stand again.”

After his accident, Poot was rushed to Edmonton to assess and treat damages, followed by weeks of difficult but necessary bed rest at home.

Eventually, he was sent home with a cast on his neck and chest and a warning to stay in bed for eight weeks.

“And that’s what I did,” he said, adding that those eight weeks presented a whole new type of challenge.

“I remember those eight weeks, especially the last couple of weeks, they were worse than the accident, mentally. I’m kind of a physical guy, I want to get going.”

In the end, he made a full recovery and is extremely grateful. But he admits that, in retrospect, he feels foolish for taking such major risks to save time.

“This whole accident is because I was just dumb, too much in a hurry,” he said, adding that, at the time of the accident, he was under more stress than usual.

“I took on more on the farm than I actually could handle, labour-wise.”

He believes that many farmers share the same attitude when it comes to facing challenges such as these.

“You keep going and you keep going and you keep going,” he said. “The workload you take on as one person is about double what you would do as hired person. So, you make it a habit of working 80 hours a week, and you start paying the price for that after a while because you become kind of blind for danger, you become overly tired.”

This message should be taken to heart by everyone who works in agriculture, said AgSafe Alberta executive director Jody Wacowich. Poot’s story is a perfect example of how easily things can go wrong, and what the major risk factors are at this time of year, including the stress and ensuing fatigue that can come with busy times.

“The number of farm accidents and fatalities peaks during busy, stressful times on farms,” said Wacowich.

A tired worker is three times more likely to have an on-farm accident, and that tiredness is four times more likely to cause impairment than drugs or alcohol. Studies also show that 20 per cent of all vehicle fatalities can be attributed to fatigue.

Poot’s story also highlights the dangers that come with working alone.

AgSafe Alberta is available to help producers plan for mitigating safety risks, including falls, by offering resources on its website and farm safety planning courses.

“A shocking 50 per cent of farm accidents occur when the victim is working alone and is rendered in a position where they can’t call for help,” said Wacowich.

She encourages farmers and ranchers to mitigate risks by identifying work-alone situations in their operations and what measures can be taken to address the hazards.

Finally, the third risk factor highlighted in Poot’s case is the dangers associated with working from heights on farms. In 2011, two farmers in Alberta were killed as a result of falling from grain bins.

“As grain bins are getting bigger, some up to 60-feet high, these risks increase, although even a fall from 10 feet can be fatal or critical,” said Wacowich.

As a best practice, farmers and ranchers should endeavour to have fall protection measures in place when workers are at risk of falling from three metres or higher. Wacowich also urges farmers to take further safety precautions by consulting the many free resources AgSafe Alberta has made available to farmers and ranchers in the province. 

“We’ve spent a lot of time identifying the most common hazards farmers and ranchers face throughout the year, and there are simple and effective ways to address these risks,” she said, adding this information is all available on AgSafe Alberta’s website.

“It’s just a matter of planning ahead and making sure these safety programs are in place before an incident happens, so everyone can go home at the end of the day,” she said.

In the meantime, Poot has a simple safety message for farmers: “Just slow down. Use your head, count to 10.”

He has adopted this mentality on his own farm and will continue to share his story with other farmers in the hopes that it might prevent another injury or even a fatality.

“When you’re in bed after the accident, you realize what life is worth as far as family and values, and this farm that is so important to you, it’s actually not,” he said. “But it takes an accident to realize it, and that’s the sad part.”

Digital solutions help improve farm biosecurity

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By Treena Hein

Practical steps to reliably track biosecurity protocols, including the use of technology, are essential to eliminating gaps and giving farms their best chance at staying disease-free.

As the importance of biosecurity continues to be increasingly better understood, biosecurity practices have evolved to become more efficient and effective for producers.

Farm Health Protect – a digital solution offered by Farm Health Guardian – is currently being used on about 600 swine properties in Canada, including about three-quarters of Manitoba pig farms, along with 100 more in the U.S. Farm Health Protect, formerly knows as ‘Be Seen, Be Safe,’ is a Canadian-made subscription-based system that offers a range of biosecurity services.

First and foremost, it confidentially records farm visits through a computer-based application, relying on GPS beacons attached to farm vehicles and property that are used for ‘geofencing.’ The GPS boundaries of the property are entered into the system, which then records every time the boundaries are crossed by a system vehicle or device. In addition to keeping a record and offering instant analysis of farm visits, Farm Health Protect can also immediately establish geographical control zones in case of disease outbreaks, sending alerts and reference maps to producers, and more.

The system automatically records the date and time of entries and exits by farm employees and regular service visitors, like trucks for livestock transport and feed deliveries. Upon arrival, visitors receive a notification via the app asking them to answer customizable biosecurity questions. They will then receive approval to enter or be denied until the issue can be sorted out.

Barn visitors are required to fill out a digital visitor logbook, located in the barn entrance or wherever visitors are required to sign in. This can also be customized in terms of check-in questions to ensure visitors meet the barn biosecurity protocols.  

The system can also be used for things like enforcing property downtime requirements and rapid-targeted or system-wide communicating with farm workers and other people in the system. This functionality can be used in the case of an animal health concern when employees and visitors may need to be notified in real time.

“An example of this would be messages about manure spreading in a certain area,” said Rob Hannam, CEO, Farm Health Guardian.

Overall, Hannam explains that Farm Health Guardian helps farmers and agri-food companies better understand what’s happening on their properties and make better management decisions, proactive or otherwise.

“Part of this includes notifications if there’s a breach of biosecurity,” said Hannam. “We’ve developed a feature that will provide alerts to notify people if there’s been a breach such as a truck wash, downtime between barns, health pyramid or the order in which trucks are going from farm to farm.” 

On-farm implementation finding success

Farm Health Protect is highly accessible, with real-time data available to users at their fingertips.

Topigs Norsvin Canada has been using Farm Health Protect on their breeding farms in Saskatchewan and Manitoba for close to two years at this point. The company’s veterinarian, Brad Chappell, says it was implemented as part of Topigs Norsvin’s ongoing prevention of disease on its premises and its preparedness for the potential arrival of foreign animal diseases.

“We’d always been very detailed about biosecurity, but it’s impossible to track all farm traffic and do a rapid search of visits without the electronic records that a system like this provides,” said Chappell. “It’s a big step up from that piece of paper in the barn. Minimum once a week, I look at who has come on the properties and into the barns to see if there was anything unusual – was anyone is denied entry, to see what was delivered. It’s helped us analyze whether there are things coming in that don’t need to. Every visit is a biosecurity threat.”

The installation was smooth, and implementation among the staff required higher-level oversight to ensure everyone is trained and using the system without issues. Going digital with this aspect of operations has been a change in workplace culture for Topigs, and any culture change takes a little while to achieve.

“The other nice feature is you’re able to ask questions of people before you decide to admit them,” said Chappell. “We have service people who need to go into the barns, and they may be new to the job, and the system ensures they read the rules – no pork meat for lunch, for example – but we also ask questions to make sure they are abiding by the rules.”

The Maschoffs, based in Illinois, are one of the largest family-owned hog production networks in North America. They recently trialled Farm Health Protect because the geofencing and tracking system allowed more transparency with feed and livestock trailer movements. The current scope of the pilot project involves more than 100 properties with geofences, 18 users and 29 trailers with GPS installed.

“Since the start of this year, the system has logged more than 12,000 visits or geofence crosses,” said Kayla Henness, one of the Maschoffs’ veterinarians. “The platform is simple to use, and the ‘Outbreak Report’ feature has been helpful during a health investigation. We are working closely with Farm Health Guardian and moving towards utilizing the platform for truck wash compliance audits, biosecurity breach alerts and people entering sow farms. Our learnings throughout this pilot have ranged from which GPS devices work best, misses on truck movements, as well as transparency to people movements.”

Farm Health Guardian’s reach keeps growing

Chappell has suggested that it would be nice to have a set of questions for property entry in addition to the ones for barn entry.

“I recently presented at a conference in the U.S. about how we use the system, and a person suggested after that it would be useful to be able to take a picture of what service people are bringing into the barn, to have a record of that, but also perhaps it would encourage them to only bring in the equipment that’s really required for the repair or maintenance,” said Chappell. “As people use it, they get ideas for added capabilities and some of those are already going into further product development.”

Farm Health Guardian also recently announced a merger with U.S.-based NoveTechnologies to launch Protocol, a biosecurity management system that utilizes facial recognition technology for controlled barn access. The two companies have joined forces under the Farm Health Guardian banner and operate out of Ontario and Nebraska.

Maple Leaf Foods has also embraced Farm Health Guardian as a traceability and biosecurity digital technology partner.

“Working together, Maple Leaf Agri-Farms has provided Farm Health Guardian with recommendations to adapt and customize the digital biosecurity system for pork production operations across North America,” said Hannam.

With producers constantly looking to get an edge on biosecurity and make it simpler to manage, Farm Health Guardian is one company leading the way to serve farmers while helping to protect the industry at large.