Biosecurity Preparedness, Infectious Disease Prevention, and Farmer Training on Northern New England Swine Farms

Progress report for ONE20-364

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $29,270.00
Projected End Date: 05/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Carolyn Hurwitz
Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry
Co-Leaders:
Carol Delaney, M.S.
Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry
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Project Information

Summary:

Most Northern 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 Midwestern hog industry. This “transitional” style hog management leaves Northern New England producers vulnerable to the threat of disease introduction in their herds. Unrecognized local infectious diseases threats may play a role in the general failure of these transitional swine producers to practice good biosecurity. The objectives of this project are to analyze and improve the behaviors of Northern New England transitional swine producers relative to infectious disease biosecurity management. A swine disease surveillance study will run parallel to the biosecurity practice analysis to provide the basis for creating 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. This proposed swine health study will generate novel data that will inform determination of best biosecurity practice given the regional resources and disease threats, and train farmers in practices that will sustain the health of their herds, who are the basis of their commercial existence. This information will be distributed through professional and industry meetings, digital publication and Extension workshops.

Project Objectives:

The primary objective  is to analyze and improve the behaviors of Northern New England transitional swine producers relative to infectious disease biosecurity management.  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 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 with a robust transitional swine industry.

Introduction:

African Swine Fever is an emerging Foreign Animal Disease (FAD) currently circulating in Europe and Asia. According to the OIE’s March 26 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 larger Midwestern hog industry. Diseases of high consequence that are not yet present in New England can only be responded to with preventative action.

It is not common that Northern New England Swine producers will 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 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.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Farmer 1 New Hampshire - Producer
  • Leslie Forstadt (Researcher)
  • Farmer 2 Maine - Producer
  • Colt Knight (Educator)
  • Farmers 1 Maine - Producer
  • Farmer 3 Maine - Producer
  • Farmer 4 Maine - Producer
  • Farmer 5 Maine - Producer
  • Farmer 6 Maine - Producer
  • Farmer 7 Maine - Producer
  • Farmer 8 Maine - Producer
  • Farmer 9 Maine - Producer
  • Farmer 10 Maine - Producer
  • Farmer 11 Maine - Producer
  • Farmer 2 New Hampshire - Producer
  • Farmer 3 New Hampshire - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

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 in New Hampshire, private practitioner recommendation, industry group recommendations and internet searches for “pastured pork producers” in Maine and New Hampshire. A list of 24 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 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.

The 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 Froms.

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. 

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 have been invited to attend the webinar. The seminar will be delivered via electronic meeting (Zoom) on January 20th 2021, during which participating farmers can remain anonymous while tuning in and contributing answers to audience poll questions throughout the event. Participating farmers will be apprised of the collective farm management, biosecurity and demographic backgrounds reported by the study’s participants; however this information will not be presented in a matter to identify any individual partner farmer. It is imperative to have the participants’ information remain confidential throughout the study and after results are published. Partner farmers will complete 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 initial survey results have been superficially analyzed for the purpose of focusing the Swine Health and Biosecurity webinar and targeting goals for the presentation. For example, no farm reported having a written biosecurity plan, so this item was incorporated into the design of the webinar. All participants were mailed hard-copy biosecurity plan templates and sanitation guidance for note-taking during the presentation. The webinar guidance packet and presentation material are provided to participants for references. 

We plan to further analyze 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 also hope to isolate which biosecurity practices are commonly accepted and identify barriers to those recommended practices which are not. On-farm biosecurity assessments will be conducted throughout the summer and fall of 2021 at the same time as sampling for disease surveillance. Farmers have indicated what season or months would be best for a visit.  Completion of this phase of the study will provide a comprehensive data set for further interpretation of the survey responses collected.

Farmer Participant Profile

Biosecurity Survey

Research results and discussion:

The initial reading of the Farmer Profile revealed that the majority of farmers fell in the age range of 30 to 50 years and this probably made their use of digital surveys seamless.  Their experience in farming was equally distributed in 5 year ranges from zero to 20 years and it will be interesting to see if how this experience translates into any suggestions for change in management for better control of risk after their on-farm assessment.  The top sources of information the participants chose were, in order of responses, 1. Internet, 2. Other Farmers, 3. Veterinarians (see Chart 1. TreeMap chart below).  It was noted that 4 of the 14 participants, or about 30%, did not have a veterinarian.  We hope to connect them with one if they are open to that as our services are for information only and are not to take the place of a veterinary-client relationship.

Chart 1. Treemap of Farmer Profile responses to top three sources of information on swine production and health


Initial evaluation of the participants survey responses impacted the development of this project’s surveillance plan. Many respondents described a more extensive vaccination program than anticipated. Based on the study’s reliance on serology testing for surveillance purposes, the list of infectious diseases to screen for was modified in order to accommodate this; vaccinated animals would confound test results making them difficult to interpret. The surveillance plan was modified to capture new screening data while remaining within the original selection criteria: 

1. Ecology of the organism results in chronic or widespread circulation within the herd

2. Cause chronic production losses

3. Effectively combatted through biosecurity and vaccination programs

Revised surveillance testing is attached.

Revised Test Table for Disease Surveillance 2021

Participation Summary
14 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

A 2 hour Swine Health and Biosecurity Webinar will be delivered on January 20th 2021 to 14 partner farmers enrolled in the study. Their participation in this presentation and poll questions will contribute to the development of the study’s biosecurity guidance documents. 

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.