Progress report for ONE20-364
It's common practice for small scale, commercial swine operators in Northern New England to raise their pigs outdoors where they have contact with wildlife, supplement livestock feed with human food waste products, comingle swine with other livestock species and observe minimally restrictive farm visitation policies. This practice is known as “transitional” style hog management, and it leaves Northern New England producers vulnerable to the threat of disease introduction to their herds. Transitional hog management practices are often in conflict with established livestock biosecurity recommendation, which are commonly employed in large scale, confinement hog systems. We proposed that unrecognized infectious diseases threats play a critical role in transitional swine producers' decision not to employ recognized biosecure management protocols, rather than a lack of awareness of biosecurity principles. The objectives of this project were (1) to document and analyze the industry characteristics and behaviors of Northern New England transitional swine producers relative to infectious disease biosecurity management; and (2) to train participants in biosecurity management and document improvement in biosecurity practice. A swine disease surveillance study was conducted in parallel to the behavior analysis to provide a collective view of this industry's herd health status and serve as the basis for creating relevant, relatable outreach materials for preventative herd health management.
The primary objective of this project is to document, analyze and improve the management of Northern New England transitional swine producers relative to infectious disease biosecurity practice. Producers will be trained on effective principles of biosecurity tailored to their farm’s infrastructure and goals.
The secondary objective of surveying the regional swine herd for endemic infectious disease will provide the basis to create outreach materials for preventative herd health management. The results of individual herd disease surveillance studies will reinforce the importance of biosecurity practice and the collective results will provide accurate, regionally specific disease prevalence information to industry support groups such as veterinarians, Cooperative Extensions and Departments of Agriculture in Northern New England.
If this project is successful swine producers in the region will have the tools necessary to maintain or improve their swine herd’s health and productivity, even in the face of emerging and endemic diseases. Farmers will be armed with known methods for preventing locally identified infectious diseases and possible, future Foreign Animal Disease (FAD) introductions. Lastly, the results of this study may be utilized to provide an accurate representation of the Northern New England swine herd and may serve as a model for use in other states or for expanding disease surveillance activities in the region as may be supported by future funding opportunities.
African Swine Fever is an emerging Foreign Animal Disease (FAD) currently circulating in Europe and Asia. According to the OIE’s March 26 2020 report (1) , over 42,000 pigs were lost in Asia alone over a two-week period, with wild boar and backyard swine playing a significant role in the epidemiology of this disease. The North American hog industry is bracing for the possible introduction of ASF and is actively looking to mitigate current risk sources. The New England swine industry poses a threat to the biosecurity of the national swine industry that is larger than its proportional contribution to the national pork supply. This is because most New England swine producers raise their pigs outdoors, feed human food waste products and allow domestic swine to comingle with wildlife and other livestock species. These practices are contrary to the recommended biosecurity practices which are already in place in the commercial hog industry. Diseases of high consequence that are not yet present in New England or the United State are preferentially responded to with effective preventative action.
In addition to minimal preventative biosecurity practices, it is generally uncommon that smaller scale, transitional style hog producers seek a specific cause of herd production loss through diagnostic investigation. This results in a lack of awareness surrounding the specific infectious disease threats in our region, possibly contributing to the perception that biosecurity practice is not a crucial component of successful livestock management. A compounding factor to this situation may be that of the 53 veterinary practices on the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (ME DACF) Large Animal Vet List, only three identify swine as a species their business services. More evidence of this apparent lack of veterinary support has come from swine producers requesting consults from the DACF on general animal management issues despite services from the department being regulatory in nature. A 2019 survey (2) of transitional (outdoor) swine herds in New York State confirmed that producers generally feel that skilled veterinary support for their swine operations is limited.
The USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) reported several concerning trends with respect to swine health and management on small swine farms in the Northeast. (3). The report describes “Despite porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) being widely dispersed throughout the swine industry, no operations … reported a known or suspected problem with the disease in sows, gilts, or weaned pigs…Nearly 10 percent of operations ... did report difficulties with Mycoplasma pneumonia in their weaned pigs. Perhaps there is some confusion between the two diseases, since about 50 percent of all operations reported no familiarity with PRRS.”
This is a concerning conclusion because this chronic viral disease of pigs is likely more prevalent than producers are aware of, aiding its spread in our region and continued negative impact on the productivity and welfare of swine. Our solution will provide swine producers and veterinarians access to regionally specific swine disease information and biosecurity education to aid development and adoption of an affordable, effective preventative health care plan for their herd.
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Recruitment and Surveying
The initial study period (September-October 2020) was spent revising the study survey design and content and creating the partner farmer enrollment forms. These forms were drafted in alignment with State of Maine liability policy and fiscal procedures and with Northeast SARE's requirements.
A list of prospective partner farmers was compiled based on collaboration with Extension staff in Maine and New Hampshire, private practitioner recommendation, industry group recommendation and internet searches for “pastured pork producers” in Maine and New Hampshire. In total, 32 farmers were sent an email to invite interest in participating in the project, with a follow up phone call if an email response was received. Most farmers were busy and appreciated the follow-up calls to further explain the project and build context for this study. Phone communication proved a more successful method of contact for most farmers, likely due to the overwhelming volume of emails received in the course of daily business. The initial time period of enlistment stretched from October to the end of December 2020. From this enrollment effort, 14 partner farmers were recruited and successfully completed the project enrollment forms and two introductory surveys. Four of these enrolled farms declined to complete the project, dropping from the study after the surveys or the instructional webinar. Reasons for dropping out included time constraints, herd health concerns, a family medical emergency, and unknown due to a failure to return communication.
The study surveys were delivered by email using Google Forms (13) or in hard copy (1) as each partner farmer preferred. The first survey was a Participant Farm Profile to get an idea of the size and management of each farm. (See paper version of farmer profile survey below). The second survey was the Farm Biosecurity Profile to assess initial biosecurity knowledge and practice. (See paper version of Biosecurity survey below). The surveys were entered into a Google Form for distribution which caused some of the questions to change slightly to conform to the restricted choices of response types in Google Forms.
The surveys and enrollment forms were all delivered to participants together by email to condense the number of contacts required of the partner farmers and improve the rate of response. The responses to these surveys demonstrate the current level of biosecurity practice implemented on their farms and elucidate participant’s current knowledge of biosecurity principles.
The project leaders called a meeting in December to go over the preliminary two partner farmer survey results with Colt Knight and Leslie Forstadt from the University of Maine. The meeting was a web-based collaboration in observance of prevailing COVID 19 transmission prevention practice. This discussion focused on how best to summarize the data received via survey response and what valuable correlations may be identified. A secondary takeaway from this meeting was a discussion of how to use survey responses to shape the content and delivery style of the project's webinar. For example, no farm reported having a written biosecurity plan, so this item was incorporated into the design of the webinar.
We analyzed survey results to determine if biosecurity practice is directly related to biosecurity knowledge, or if producers are aware of more biosecurity principles than they report practicing. We hoped to isolate which biosecurity practices are commonly accepted and identify barriers to those recommended practices which are not.
The Swine Health and Biosecurity webinar was developed collaboratively by the Maine DACF research team and UMaine partners. Representatives from the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and the New Hampshire Department of Food and Markets were invited to attend the webinar. The seminar was delivered via electronic meeting (Zoom) in January 2021, during which participating farmers remained anonymous while tuning in and contributing answers to audience poll questions throughout the event. The webinar content included a summary of the project's introductory survey results, with associated visuals to highlight response frequencies on topics such as farm management, farm type, biosecurity practice and farmer demographics. This information was presented as a collective summary so as not to identify any individual partner farmer. The remainder of the webinar focused on biosecurity training for a lay person audience. The presentation introduced 5 major livestock disease transmission routes using examples relevant to northern New England swine farms, followed by summary and specific examples of how to implement basic biosecurity principles to mitigate disease introduction via these pathways. Prior to the webinar, all participants were mailed hard-copy biosecurity plan templates and sanitation guidance for note-taking during the presentation. Partner farmers completed live "poll" questions throughout the webinar to gauge their understanding of the information presented, to gather more detail on some of the trends highlighted in the study's first two surveys, and to capture changes in opinion or learning.
The webinar was recorded again after the live presentation using the Zoom platform. In the Outreach section below, find a copy of the pdf of the PPT used for the Northeast SARE Swine Biosecurity webinar and link to the recording.
On-farm surveillance and biosecurity evaluations
On-farm biosecurity assessments and herd sampling for disease surveillance testing were conducted between January and July 2021. Direct phone calls were made to each participant to ascertain possible dates they would be available for this site visit, including considerations for animal management that would be conducive to handling and restraint of adult swine. This phone interview included assessment of
- designated parking areas,
- comfort with use of the snare to restrain pigs,
- permission for photos and video and
- approval of attendance of other veterinarians.
A reminder email was sent to the participant within 5 days of the visit to confirm the time and personnel involved as well as any recent concerns for COVID-19 exposure.
Each visit took place starting at 9 or 10 am in the morning to be done by noon or 1 pm. Preparation included assembling supplies for sampling:
- 16 G x 4 inch needle with 12 cc disposable syringes
- Red top blood tubes (no additive)
- Sterile synthetic (dacron) swabs (2 per animal)
- Rectal swab vials: 5 samples/pool in 5 cc phosphate buffered saline
- Tonsilar swab vial: 5 samples/pool in 5 cc phosphate buffered saline
- Commercial hog snare
- Commercial hog oral speculum (large)
- Collapsible metal camp table
- Sharps container
- clean coveralls (machine washed and dried on high for 20 minutes)
- sanitized boots soaking in disinfectant solution (Virkon)
- disposable nitrile gloves gloves
- ear plugs, eye protection
- log book
Sampling focused on mature swine as defined by attaining the age of 4 months or greater, with a preference for those herd members identified as "breeder swine" due to their presumed longevity in the herd's population. Mature swine were the preferred sample group as they would be more likely to reflect the herd's stable disease profile through serology testing. In all herds, any pig meeting the age requirement was included in the surveillance group. This resulted in a maximum of 23 pigs and a minimum of 9 pigs sampled at a single site. The cumulative sample size (185 pigs) fell well short of the projected 300 pigs assumed to be needed to draw statistically significant conclusions, according to the USDA Sample Size Calculation Matrix.
Animal handling and sampling collection was performed in accordance with industry standards and protocols for USDA program disease surveillance. At no point were the animals involved in the study removed from their farm of origin or under the care of the study investigators. Pigs for sampling were confined in small groups or singly in the smallest space possible within the available infrastructure. To safely snare one pig in a group of pigs, the farmer and others were enlisted to use pig boards to manage interference from the other animals. This protected both the sampler and the contained animal. If a sow was nursing piglets, she was removed from their area before attempting to place the snare. The snare was applied to the upper portion of the snout and secured behind the canines. The snare was operated by a member of the research team or handed off to the animal owner in cases where they wished to participate. Care was taken to apply steady back pressure in a manner that safely controlled the animal and positioned the head for safe and successful blood collection. 10 cc of blood was collected from the jugular vein or vena cava and was allowed to clot at room temperature for 1-3 hours. Rectal swabs were collected by rotating the dacron swab against the rectal lining and collected into pooled sample tubes, 5 pigs per submission. Nasal swabs were collected by insertion of dacron swabs into the nares and rotating the head of the swab firmly against the lining of the nasal cavity. Both nares were sampled and swabs were collected into pooled sample tubes, 5 pigs per submission. Test sensitivity was increased for the final 7 herds by adapting the nasal swab technique through use of the oral speculum and collecting tonsillar swabs instead. The oral speculum was inserted under the upper canines and rotated downwards against the lower jaw to leverage the mouth open for access to the soft palate. The head of the swab was scraped firmly across the tonsillar area and samples were pooled 5 animals/ collection jar. Rectal swab and nasal/tonsillar swabs were agitated in phosphate buffered saline (PBS), the swab was discarded and the inoculated solution was stored on ice (chilled, not frozen). An environmental fecal sample was collected to represent the intestinal parasite exposure of the sample group. Approximately 10 grams of fresh fecal material was collected into a clean 20ML sample collection jar and stored on ice (chilled, not frozen). All samples were labeled with the sample type, farm name, date of collection and individual animal ID. These ranged from animal names, identifying characteristics, ear notch numbers, farm management ear tags or official ID ear tags. Samples were delivered to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry State and Federal Diagnostic Lab for storage and subsequent shipment to the Iowa State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. The diseases and test types included in our final surveillance program were: Lawsonia intracellularis ELISA, Influenza A Virus NP ELISA, PRRSV x3 ELISA, M. hyopneumoniae PCR, Circovirus INgezim, Brachyspira SD Screen PCR, TGEV/PRCV Differential ELISA, APP ApxIV ELISA, M. hyorhinis IgG ELISA, Fecal Float.
Following sample collection from the swine herd, partner farmers were interviewed on their farm biosecurity practices using a Biosecurity Assessment template from the Healthy Farms Healthy Agriculture website: https://www.healthyagriculture.org/prevent/biosecurity-plan/. Though several outdoor swine biosecurity audit forms where available, the HFHA form was chosen because of it's extensive investigation of common farm management practices characteristic of small farms in the Northeast. We completed the HFHA evaluation through a combination of candid conversation and observation of each farm's management style along with structured conversation guided by the survey questions. The evaluation phase worked well as a two-person endeavor: in general, one investigator led the structured assessment by asking the survey's questions at the appropriate site on the farm and the other prompted the farmer to offer more information on their management style. This portion of the visit took from 1 to 2 hours, based on the interest and time constraints of the farmer being interviewed. Most partner farmers seemed to remain interested in this audit process and used it as a learning tool, asking questions of the researchers and seeking feedback on current or planned farm management practices. Ultimately, we found that the HFHA assessment tool was too long and contained redundancy that did not enhance the value of the audit. The length of the survey made it cumbersome to fill out in the field, and we found greater success conducting field biosecurity assessments in a conversational style, directed by a walk-through approach. During these conversations, we refrained from making specific herd health recommendations such as vaccination plans, instead focusing on farm infrastructure and goals to make specific management recommendations. These farm-specific comments were captured as a typed addendum to each HFHA audit form. The full survey document was completed after the fact based on notes collected during the site visit, and assessment results were recorded on the HFHA evaluation template in typed format and shared with the participant farmer via PDF. All participants were encouraged to combine this information and the results from their herd's surveillance data to partner with their farm's veterinarian to develop a customized disease control plan.
Before leaving each farm, the participant farmer was presented with a supply of basic biosecurity tools intended to help them implement the recommendations discussed with the research team. This biosecurity tool kit included: signage indicating authorized parking areas and restricted access areas, two boot wash tubs and long handle bristle- brushes, and where relevant, weather resistant public health signage educating farm visitors on disease prevention practice.
Site Visit Follow Up
Complete results from each herd surveillance testing effort were generally available within 7-10 days. The raw surveillance report was shared by email with the participant farmer along with the HFHA audit and narrative format recommendations addendum. Participants were most interested in discussing the surveillance results, and these conversations ranged from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Questions regarding disease ecology, treatment and vaccine options and requests for referral for a farm veterinarian were the most common topics visited in these discussions. Most participants verbalized appreciation for the information and time spent both on the farm and in the follow up discussion. The impact of the farm biosecurity audit and recommendations was initially difficult to assess, though delivering these recommendations in tandem with the farm surveillance report provided a concrete point of reference for this conversation.
A final biosecurity survey was developed by the main research team with input and review from our collaborators at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. This survey aimed to capture feedback on the utility of the educational materials provided to study participants and changes in learning and farm management practices. The surveys were delivered electronically via the same Google Forms format as the study's first two surveys. The final biosecurity survey was delivered to partner farmers to complete no sooner than four (4) months after their site visit to allow time for consideration and implementation of the research team's recommendations.
We are in the process of analyzing the final survey responses, in which we asked study participants to indicate completed changes in knowledge or biosecurity practice as well any new intentions to implement practices learned about during the project. Initial evaluation of survey responses indicates that producer connections to swine veterinary resources was positively impacted and that there is strong interest in development of farm "line of separation" maps. More improvement could be made in the areas of feeding food waste to swine and on-farm carcass/ manure composting. Respondents indicated several common sources of concern regarding perceived biosecurity risks, which suggest a valuable target for development of biosecurity guidance checklists to mitigate these concerns.
Individual farm endemic disease surveillance results were shared with each farmer and will be summarized to demonstrate novel prevalence data, sharable to regional swine producers and servicer providers.
Lastly, we questioned the farmers on what support they would like for the future and there was interest in continued connection with livestock specialists to aid them in continuing to bolster their biosecurity planning.
Final results and conclusions will be presented in the final report.
Our project documented industry demographic information, farm management practices and changes in biosecurity knowledge through a series of online surveys. We also documented conformity of self reported biosecurity practice to that observed by the research team through use of a comprehensive on-site farm biosecurity evaluation. Lastly, we documented endemic infectious disease prevalence information for a representative group of the region's swine herd, information that is rarely sought and shared regionally.
The data collection phase of this project has recently concluded, and we are now analyzing this information to determine what impact our educational materials and efforts have had, what demographic, management and disease prevalence data is valuable to share regionally, and what follow up educational materials or experiences are suggested.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Webinar: A 2 hour Swine Health and Biosecurity Webinar was delivered on January 20th 2021 to 14 partner farmers enrolled in the study. Their participation in this instructional presentation was intended to deliver introductory level biosecurity training, familiarize them with the concept of site specific biosecurity planning, and prepare participants for the on-site biosecurity evaluation phase of the project. Feedback solicited from the 10 partner farmers who completed the entire project suggests that the webinar material was perceived to be relevant and understandable. A PDF of the webinar content is available: JAN20_SARE Swine Health Webinar. A recording of the project's Northeast SARE Swine Health and Biosecurity Webinar is here.
Upcoming Education and Outreach Objectives:
1- Development of targeted biosecurity checklists: the format and content of these documents will be determined by the results of our analysis of participant survey results
2- Talks/Presentations: Project summary presentations planned for multiple audiences (regional producers through industry groups and/or Extension, general industry group via MPPA participation in National Pork Producers' Council, regional veterinarians through MeCHAP CE virtual training)
3- Workshops: potential interagency development of on-farm composting/waste disposal training for small scale swine operators