Just as they were on the cusp of profitable returns after years of negative margins, a new threat looms for Manitoba hog producers.
Manitoba officials put the word out late Thursday porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) is here, affecting at least one southern Manitoba hog operation.
The disease, which is responsible for wiping out between one million and four million pigs across 23 U.S. states last year, surfaced in Quebec and Ontario late last month.
It's one of three new and particularly virulent diseases ripping through North American hog herds, leaving devastating losses in their wake. Researchers have in recent weeks identified a separate strain of the PED virus and a new virus altogether called Swine DeltaCoronavirus (SDCV).
Producers here had been intensely aware their herds are not immune. As it spread into neighbouring states and provinces, there has been a major extension effort coaching them on how to go to what might appear to be ridiculous extremes to keep it out of their barns -- but for good reason. While it is not dangerous to humans, and older pigs can recover, PEDv causes up to 100 per cent mortality in young pigs. There are no vaccines yet and no cure.
Besides the economics, the emotional cost is huge for workers who have had to stand by helplessly as hundreds of young animals under their care succumb over the course of a few days. The USDA Economic Research Service's annual livestock outlook released in January noted the U.S. states that have been hit the hardest by the outbreak have shown steep year-over-year declines -- as much as 30 per cent -- in the under-50-pound (22.6-kilogram) pig inventories.
While U.S. hog production is still expected to grow overall in 2014, it won't be growing as fast as previously expected, which bodes well for returns when combined with lower feed prices, a glut of grain on the Canadian Prairies and a sinking Canadian dollar.
As Canada's largest exporter of live hogs, Manitoba has an opportunity to fill some of the market void -- if, and it's a big if --this province's producers can manage to prevent these diseases from wiping out their production, too.
On this front, bio-security has become both their biggest ally -- and their greatest threat.
PEDv has proven itself particularly capable of sneaking through the best defences of a sector that over the past two decades has brought in some of the most stringent bio-security protocols in modern livestock production. A few hospitals in this country might learn a thing or two from some of these hog barn managers about keeping germs out.
Only designated workers are allowed inside barns, and they must shower in and shower out. Sanitation is maintained inside the climate-controlled barns, as well. Masks are frequently used: not to protect the workers but to prevent them from spreading colds and flu bugs to the hogs. Bio-security, after all, has been one of the biggest factors in improving industry-wide production efficiency. Pigs that aren't fighting off bugs grow faster.
The downside, however, is the evolution of a hog population that essentially has no immune system, leaving it highly vulnerable to pathogens.
Just how cunning the PEDv virus is at ferreting out the chinks in the bio-security wall became clear last year when researchers zeroed in on the transportation system as the most likely source of its spread across the U.S. Pigs are commonly moved from farrowing to growing to finishing sites before they are transported to slaughter.
Even though transport trailers and trucks were fastidiously washed after each load of pigs, no one realized until it was too late many truck-wash stations were recycling water.
They have also found these bugs don't mind the cold. In fact, they thrive in ice, slush and mud. Once a site is contaminated, PEDv has been found hiding everywhere from doorknobs in the washrooms to kitchen floors and loading docks. Truck drivers are now advised to leave their vehicles at a site, leaving someone else to load or unload their cargo.
For those who have it, it becomes a nasty game of hide-and-seek, with those who don't watching nervously -- from a distance.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: email@example.com