The annual American Association of Swine Veterinarians’ meeting is always a good opportunity for our profession to exchange ideas and look ahead. It’s key to accomplishing AASV’s cornerstone mission: Increase the knowledge of swine veterinarians.

In a very concentrated timeframe, worldwide experts share current information through a variety of presentations and seminars. As with any meeting, there’s also abundant knowledge transfer that occurs in the hallways between sessions.

For me, the meeting presents a time to recharge. After all, this is a group of people who “live” pigs. The group is fully engaged in focusing on how to improve the health and welfare of pigs, and it’s blended with a desire to have their clients be financially and personally successful.

So what were some key takeaways from the meeting?

There were timely sessions on protecting sow welfare as the move toward group housing intensifies. There were discussions about how to adapt to rising feed costs and alternative nutritional sources. But admitting my bias as a veterinarian, disease is still king. At the production level it drives performance and determines who will raise pork in the future. Moving through the food chain, animal health, disease prevention and treatment play major roles in producing a safe, affordable product for the consumer.

Consider how the past few years of circovirus-related challenges, followed by successful vaccines, have influenced the market and overall live-hog output.

This year, the disease topics revolved around three key areas: the agents, the solutions and the execution.

The first step is to better understand enemy No. 1 — the disease agents. Deepening this knowledge takes time, resources and dedicated people who are willing to fill the gaps one study at a time. This is the skeleton on which solutions are based.

Three viruses dominate the pig disease platform: swine influenza, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome and circovirus. Fortunately, our knowledge is growing.

Marie Gramer, a University of Minnesota diagnostician and SIV expert, shared her understanding of the genome, re-assortment issues, diagnostics and virus epidemiology. The research of Scott Dee, DVM, University of Minnesota, has led to the emergence of inlet filtering to prevent PRRS air transmission between farms. While circovirus vaccination has been a home run, Raymond Rowland, DVM, and his fellow researchers at KansasStateUniversity shared details about their studies to better understand how the virus is spread.

Of course, practitioners must understand disease and production, and work to find solutions. No one is better at this than the keynote speaker, Tim Loula, DVM, Swine VetCenter, St Peter, Minn. Loula explained how this unique skill set will remain critical. He emphasized that simply knowing about a disease, but not being able to offer solutions, is like getting hit by a truck — knowing the size, weight, braking and accelerating specs, but not understanding how to avoid getting hit.

Developing and determining solutions is tough; it requires creativity and involves some risk. However, if we wait for a 100 percent guarantee, the actions will occur too late or simply not at all. Sometimes a 51 percent success likelihood is enough to proceed. Conversely, if we take the approach that all interventions are effective everywhere and are additive, every pig should grow at 3 pounds per day. 

Decision makers, therefore, first have to identify valid options by evaluating solid data from studies in controlled settings. Next, they need to investigate whether the program works in similar systems, and finally, evaluate the process in their own systems — all the while challenging the validity of the data collection and interpretation.

Francois Cardinal, DVM, Quebec, Canada, shared some sobering information on the power of trials. He said, when designing evaluations, showing a significant difference is both a function of the sample size and the normal deviation.   Not finding a difference can result because no true biological difference exists or that the difference is real but not detected. He pointed to examples that needed 300 or more repetitions to discern a true economic impactor.

Finally, Mike Terrill, DVM, Clougherty Packing, shared his experiences as a veterinarian inside an integrated food company. His world is a balance between strategy and implementation. With the changing pig business and labor force, he shared ideas on training people to do something new and keep them excited about doing it correctly everyday. As he pointed out, an excellent plan without solid execution is of no value.

Significant financial stress will continue in today’s pig business. Access to capital and a risk-reduction program are important factos, but controlling disease will remain a key differentiator between production systems.

From attending this year’s AASV meeting, swine veterinarians are better prepared to assist by knowing more about the disease agents and the possible solutions as well as by providing fresh ideas for execution.

Kerry Keffaber, DVM, Elanco Animal Health, is the president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.