Only the bravest or, more accurately, the most fool-hearted would dive into a fresh-water lake without first investigating its depth.

So, it’s with good reason that pork producers and veterinarians would want to test the waters of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome elimination on a variety of cases and a smaller scale before diving deeper. That’s what the PRRS Area Regional Control and Elimination pilot projects are designed to do. What started as a test run in one Minnesota county has spread to encompass eight pilots in various states and regions. The projects are such living entities that by the time you get a report on one, new additions and changes will have already occurred.

The pilot projects share some commonalities. Among them is the fact that Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc. has committed time, personnel and money to support sustainable progress on PRRS and is assisting with the ARCE pilots. BIVI created the Production Animal Disease Risk Assessment Program or PADRAP, which the projects use to profile breeding herds and eventually the grow/finish phase. Three years ago, BIVI handed PADRAP off to the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, which now owns and administers it. The on-farm, veterinarian-driven assessment takes about an hour to complete and the confidential information is entered into a database to identify PRRS risk factors, commonalities and potential solutions.

Another common trait is that the pilot projects are “voluntary programs, they are not government driven,” emphasizes Scott Dee, University of Minnesota veterinarian and PRRS researcher. “There are all types of producers and operations involved.”

Funding is always a challenge, but the National Pork Board, state producer associations and USDA’s PRRS Cap grant have provided seed money. “Again, because ARCE efforts are not a government program, we may have to get real creative,” Dee says. Long-term, producers will have to pay into the effort. “Once some of the positive stories come out, I think producers will drive it even more,” he adds.

Eventually, Dee wouldn’t be surprised to see a market-driven response to PRRS-negative hogs. That’s already the case with weaned pigs.

So, for now, here’s a review of the PRRS ARCE pilot projects as of mid-summer.

Northwest Indiana

“There’s always a mountain to climb when you take on a new project,” says Tom Gillespie, DVM, Rensselaer Swine Service. “But under several rocks there can be a diamond.”

In this case, the diamond was the Indiana Board of Health’s premises identification and map of pork production sites. “If mapping is one-third of the activity to get started, IBOH is a diamond in the rough,” he says

Purdue University’s diagnostic laboratory, a key ally, is supporting the PRRS ARCE project for the Northwest Region, as they’re calling it. To get an idea of the area, consider Illinois to the west, Lake Michigan to the north, Highway 431 to the east and Highway 24 to the south. “It’s not densely populated with swine, except for the southern section,” Gillespie says.

The first meeting was held a year ago to feel out the participants and collect ideas. “It’s still early, but veterinarians and producers are showing a desire to communicate and cooperate,” Gillespie says. Securing veterinarians and producers to serve on the project’s board is underway, as is developing communication strategies. “If producers get an understanding that we’re not going to tell them what they have to do to control PRRS, that we want to be there to support them, then they’re interested,” he adds. Capturing and sharing information to find PRRS solutions is the real driver. 

This summer the goal is to characterize   production sites — breed-to-wean, grow/ finish, nursery only — and so forth. Activities also will focus on determining a site’s PRRS status and sequencing viruses. Purdue diagnosticians will send test results on to IBOH  so the map will be automatically updated.  Another summer goal is to complete PADRAP site assessments. 

Finding funding is a step to be tackled and an on-going limitation. But on the plus side, the area’s agriculture community support is growing, even from other species groups. “It’s been amazing,” Gillespie says. “They see it as a plus for animal agriculture in Indiana.”

This fall will feature a meeting with producers and veterinarians to discuss what’s been accomplished, the action plan going forward and to sign participation consent forms.

As for challenges, “It’s the unknown,” Gillespie says, such as the role of small sites or show pigs and how they impact biosecurity.  “Still, the veterinarians are most concerned with trucks that run up and down the road,” he adds. “There are a couple of packers nearby, so trucks driving through raise concerns.”

Western Michigan

Allegan and Ottawa counties in western Michigan were selected for their intense production in a relatively small area, housing 20 percent of the state’s sows. There are some unique surrounding barriers — Lake Michigan, Allegan State Forest and Grand Rapids’ large urban area. Also there’s a strong history of producer cooperation, as well as veterinarian and allied industry support, says Beth Ferry, Michigan State University Extension educator. “Most farms participated in pseudorabies eradication and understand the benefits of group cooperation.”

There are 10 major sow units in the area, ranging from 200 to 2,500 head; several gilt developers; 50 nurseries and finishers; and three small show-pig producers. About 43 producers have been contacted about the project. “Our biggest asset is the participation of a large producer who’s worked with us from the start,” Ferry says, which was September 2008. He represents about 50 percent of the area’s sows and a similar portion of contract finishing sites. “The remainder of farms also has indicated support,” she adds.

The project’s current goals are to document the PRRS incidence, prevalence and severity, then compare virus strains to detail the infection source. “We want to know whether the disease is spreading farm-to-farm or within a farm,” Ferry says. Another goal is to facilitate communication and provide a forum to share ideas about methods and progress.

Ultimately, the project aims to assist in stabilizing and eliminating PRRS from producers’ breeding herds and, eventually, from growing-pig areas.

Ferry and fellow Extension educator Jerry May are providing program coordination and collaboration. All swine sites in the area, including a few unexpected ones, have been identified and verified as being in production. That information will produce a detailed map. 

The plan now is to form a steering committee “to let them take hold of the project,” May says, “and give us guidance on the next steps to move it forward.” Another goal is to evaluate all of the sow farms via PADRAP. 

From there, the focus will be on producers working with their veterinarians to develop herd stabilization plans. “The steering committee will provide input on protocols, pig flow and biosecurity methods,” May notes.

Western Illinois

This project started out in Hancock, Adams and McDonough counties. Then Henderson and Warren counties were added. “We’re working closely with Tri-Oak, Cargill Pork and Triumph, as these three cover a lot of the pigs in the area,” says Aaron Lower, DVM, Carthage Veterinary Services.

Work is underway to complete the mapping, with 197 sites already identified. “These were found by air, Google Earth and, last summer, an intern drove around to identify sites,” Lower notes. Seven empty sites were included because they may be restocked. Two buying stations and a truck wash also were mapped.

In the past eight months, each county held a meeting and participating producers signed consent forms. While still early in the planning, Lower says several producers with PRRS-positive herds have committed to control and elimination strategies.

“A lot of the sites have unknown PRRS status, so there’s still a lot of work to do,” he adds. This summer, they are collecting samples from production sites (up to 30 head per site) and will run PRRS ELISA and PCR tests. The PCR samples will be sequenced to understand the virus’ genetic diversity in the area and determine if different isolates are moving around.

The biggest challenge in collecting blood samples has been finding the right person to talk to within the site, Lower says. ”It ends up being three or four phone calls before we find out who we need to get permission to go on site and test pigs,” he adds. “We’ve had a pretty good response so far. Most people are interested in participating.”

Following the testing, data analysis is next, with PRRS-control efforts to begin this fall.

Pennsylvania

In 2007, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture provided funds to let faculty  at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine explore the prospect of PRRS area control.  “The goal was to develop tools to improve Pennsylvania’s herd health and keep our industry competitive,” says veterinarian Thomas Parsons, from Penn Vet. “Compared to the Midwest, we face a lot of cost challenges; health was always one of our major advantages.”

He admits the industry was lukewarm initially, but by 2009, several large producers had made progress on PRRS control. They recognized  the advantages of area control and are now driving the efforts.  Today, the project has maps showing swine farm locations and their PRRS status. “We estimate three-fourths of Pennsylvania’s production is accounted for in our database,” Parsons says. That’s 400 sites, 70,000 sows and their production.

The challenge in identifying sites is the vast diversity of Pennsylvania’s swine production. “It will require different control strategies for different geographical areas,” he adds. On the plus side, such diversity could produce tools and strategies that could then be applied to similar areas in other states.

He offers this snapshot: The state’s northern tier is 1,500 square miles, with 17 production sites (one farm every 87 square miles) and one stakeholder. “It’s a good place to start, because you can anticipate success here,” Parsons says.

The “Blue Mountain” area is 500 square miles, with 24 sites (one farm every 21 square miles). It has eight sow herds, 12 finishers and involves three stakeholders. “This is an example that would test whether people will play in the same sandbox,” Parsons says. “If we have success here, we can hold it up to others as an example of collaboration and progress.”

Western Lancaster County is what keeps Parsons up at night. It’s 400 square miles, with 85 sites (one farm per 5 square miles). There are 10 sow barns and 69 finishing sites, with many stakeholders. It’s also the seat of many “Plain Sect” farmers, who tend not to participate in such efforts, Parsons notes. “This would be our most challenging area to work through.” 

This summer, the pilot project will continue to identify all sites, production types and PRRS status, as well as review specific farm attributes to learn more about risks. “It may be optimistic,” Parsons notes, “but sometime this year, the goal is to have the information we need to work out control strategies.”

The challenges that Parsons sees include talking to people who don’t see the need to pursue PRRS control beyond what they’re doing; funding, especially as it relates to PRRS testing on small farms; and the time horizon when you include the industry.

North Central Illinois

The project in this Illinois region started in DeKalb County and moved west, “to pick up some important sites,” says Noel Garbes, DVM, Bethany Veterinary Services.

Why this area? There are good natural barriers and few pigs coming into the area. About seven producers bring pigs in, and “we know the origin and PRRS status of 75 percent of them,” Garbes says. Also, Bethany Veterinary Services works with 80 precent of the production in this area, including direct management of five, 2,500-sow cooperatives.

The region has 20 commercial sow farms, down a bit from when the project started last December, Garbes notes. There are 80 nursery-only sites and 66 nursery/finish sites, which receive pigs from the sow units every nine weeks. There are more than 50 show-pig sites, which change all the time.

“For the past 10 to 12 years, this area has been content to be PRRS-positive,” Garbes says. “It took a couple of new strains last year to change that.” There is one known PRRS-negative, 6,500-head sow system.

As of January 2010, 90 percent of the swine sites were mapped and initial testing for PRRS status got underway. February featured a producer meeting where an advisory board was selected. In March, a boar stud was filtered and repopulated; a gilt site also has been filtered. Currently 10 sites are undergoing PRRS-elimination plans. Several wean-to-finish sites will undergo stabilization efforts this summer. Biosecurity and risk assessments also will take place.

“Our PRRS status (in the area) has changed a lot,” Garbes says. “We’re using a lot of modified-live vaccine to stabilize sites.”

Producers have supported the pilot project, partly because of Bethany Veterinary Services’ history in the area. Biosecurity is an on-going education issue, especially with the show-pig group. The clinic created a pamphlet on PRRS and how it affects small swine units as well as commercial farms. The advisory board cited truckers as another group to talk to about biosecurity and their role. “The 800-pound gorilla is truck washes,” Garbes notes. “We don’t have a good system. They go to a public truck wash. Many just wash the outside of the truck and trailer, then head down the road again.”

Lenders are another group that need to be updated about the project. For example, some producers may have to rent facilities for a time, and lenders need to understand why and how it will pay off in the end.

The next step is to get several herds through PRRS-elimination plans. “We want to have a lot of sow farms coming out of 200-day shut down and showing success as we hit winter,” Garbes says.

Minnesota, North of Highway 212

The first and longest-running PRRS ARCE project is in Minnesota. About 18 months ago, Cesar Corzo, DVM, University of Minnesota, took over the project that started with Stevens County, then grew to add six more counties and has since morphed to include the entire state north of Highway 212. That cutoff also was used during the pseudorabies eradication program. While a majority of pigs are clustered in the center of the region, it covers a lot of territory and a variety of producers. Fortunately, the area includes some committed genetics companies, seedstock and commercial producers, university specialists and veterinarians. “They understand the impact of the disease and the value this project offers for the region and the future,” Corzo  says.

The project is working to define and update farms’ PRRS status in the newly added areas. Organizers are using the Minnesota Board of Animal Health database and linking a name and phone number to each site, and then mapping the locations. “We’re going to have to decide how many pigs represent a dot (on the map), because it’s not the same for all,” Corzo says. It would provide a much-needed perspective for priorities and progress.

There are 368 locations with 78 identified as sow farms, which could include 10 sows or 5,400 sows, he adds. There are 200 finishing units, five boar studs, 11 show-pig producers and eight buying stations. There also are 40 sites for which they have only Google Earth coordinates. “These numbers are changing every month. Our current best guess is there are 66,645 sows and 202,515 nursery pigs,” Corzo adds.

With such a large area, as more farms are identified, a big challenge will be to get out to test animals. So far, 58 percent of the locations have been tested, of which only 5 percent are PRRS-positive, 52 percent are negative and 43 percent are unknown. The maps showing location and PRRS status have a lot of impact. “It gets attention and motivates producers and veterinarians to work out a plan,” Corzo says.

People, not the virus, are at the core of future challenges. “Some people are simply not interested,” Corzo says. “They haven’t heard anything about the project, they don’t care about the disease or they prefer to talk to their veterinarian.” For some veterinarians, interest and involvement in the effort is a work-load issue. So, getting people to read letters, attend meetings and commit to the program continue to be challenges.

Cuming County, Nebraska

“My project has been about 10 years in the making,” says Alan Snodgrass, DVM, West Point, Neb. An Iowa producer wanted to know how to get PRRS-free boars through Nebraska and in to Colorado. “So he planted the seed, and it’s just that in recent months I’ve had someone to guide me through it.”

This northeast Nebraska county encompasses 25 miles x 25 miles, and is about an hour north of Omaha and an hour south of Sioux City, Iowa. There are 200 permitted livestock sites, and 134 swine sites have been located so far. “There’s a one-time inventory of 189,750 hogs in the area,” Snodgrass adds.

There is one on-farm boar stud, which sells some semen. From there, the sites break out as 19 percent breeding, 20 percent nursery or wean-to-finish, 40 percent finishing and 40 percent unknown.  “We do get a lot of pigs from outside the area, but the most pigs move within the county,” he says.

Regarding PRRS status, 40 percent of known sites are PRRS-positive, 24 percent are negative and 36 percent are unknown.

Other factors in the county include multi-ple truck washes and multiple feed mills. There are two slaughter facilities within a 30-minute drive, and two major highways (32 and 275) run through the area.

Why Cuming County? Strong livestock producer groups lead the list. “There are lots of cattle feeders that also have sows,” Snodgrass points out. “There’s a vocal group of financially stable family farms and aggressive pro-livestock zoning.” There’s also an active Extension agent, and Nebraska Veterinary Service has strong influence as the primary swine veterinary provider in the area.

Since the first producer meeting 18 months ago, a large percentage of farms have been mapped via Google Earth. There’s now a working group, representing all sectors of the county, that includes producers, managers, a feed mill representative, Extension agent, a show-pig producer and a veterinary student.

The area has issues with show pigs, including a PRRS-positive show-pig producer, so there’s been strong focus on that group. There is an effort to test show pigs for free. County 4-Hers have to go through a four-hour swine training class and PRRS is now one of the topics. “For kids who enter a PRRS-negative pig, we will put all the names in a drawing for a $500 scholarship,” Snodgrass notes.

This summer’s goals are to get participation consent forms signed, as well as to locate and characterize all swine sites.  Snodgrass would like to have PRRS status updated by this fall and risk assessments done by year’s end, followed by agreement on site-monitoring programs and final goals.

Communication and education are always part of the challenge. Next steps include annual risk assessments and PRRS-status updates, and plans for active response to outbreaks or virus introductions. “You don’t want to over-challenge or underproduce,” he adds. “But we want producers to have ownership in this and believe we’re moving in the right direction.”

Kit Carson County, Colorado

Pancake flat, Kit Carson County, in the eastern plains of Colorado, will host a PRRS ARCE pilot project. “There’s nothing to stop anything out there,” says John Waddell, DVM, Sutton Veterinary Clinic, Sutton, Neb. “But there are almost no pigs out there either.” There is a desire to expand the effort to Cheyenne County directly to the south but participation hasn’t surfaced.

The pigs in the area are made up of 4-H pigs on 40 to 50 different sites — “we think,” Waddell adds. There’s one commercial producer who chose the area for its almost pig-free status. That producer has 15,000 sows in three breeding-gestation-farrowing sites; two, 8,000-head nursery sites; and three, 8,800-head finishing sites. The system has a dedicated truck-wash facility and a feed mill.  Weaned pigs head to Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas. The producer uses internal multiplication, so there have been no live-animal introductions in five years; he does use fresh boar semen. There has been a history of PRRS virus introductions from unknown sources, which “gives us some pause,” Waddell adds.

There are few people in the area — Kit Carson County’s population is 8,011 and Cheyenne County’s is 2,231. Fortunately, there is an active county agent. The area does have some major roads in it, such as Interstates 80 and 385; I-70 runs through Burlington and the heart of the area. The roads lead to several packing plants, including Guyman, Okla., Crete, Neb., and St. Joseph, Mo. Thus transport of market hogs through the region is a concern.

Like some already mentioned, leadership made this area a PRRS ARCE project candidate. “The commercial producer is highly motivated and has a positive image within the community,” Waddell says. “The Extension agent is excellent and gets the 4-H families involved. There is a willingness to cooperate.”

Among the project’s early goals is to focus on 4-H swine — determine site locations, pig source and origin, as well as health status for both Kit Carson and Cheyenne counties. Efforts include educating 4-Hers on biosecurity and the importance of animal health to their projects. Organizers are using a program that NPB and AASV designed called “A Champion’s Guide to Biosecurity,” which includes a PowerPoint and take-home materials. The county agent set up a Youth Quality Assurance Workshop and the attendees received free PRRS testing for their pigs. On-farm visits included more biosecurity chats, a survey and a “Change the Game” t-shirt. BIVI also offered free Circoflex and Mycoflex vaccine if the member enrolled in the ARCE pilot project.

As of early summer, 25 sites were enrolled and 83 pigs sampled. PCR testing showed one PRRS-positive; the rest were PRRS-negative.

Next step is to monitor PRRS within the production sites. “I can’t stress enough the importance of knowing the exact time and location when something happens, to head off a much worse problem,” Waddell says. PADRAP assessments will continue — “they serve as an education tool and signal what might or did go wrong if there’s a break,” he adds.

Transportation issues are a long-term priority. “We really want to know what’s going down the road,” Waddell says. “Could changing a route allow us to close one more hole?”

The plan is to resample 4-H pigs before they head to slaughter, providing paired serum samples, as well as get samples from pigs not previously tested. “We’ve also thought about a prize for 4-Hers whose pigs test negative in the beginning and at slaughter,” he adds. 

In the end, with so few pigs and such committed participants, Waddell concludes, “If this project doesn’t work, I’m not certain there will be one that will work.”

Other Prospects

There are a few other projects in the works, maybe many more by the time you read this.

The Ontario Swine Health Advisory Board is overseeing the development of a PRRS-elimination pilot project in the Niagara region. There is a 12-step project outline in place and producer meetings will be held this fall, reports Jane Carpenter, DVM with the Ontario Pork Industry Council.

North Dakota organizers held a producer meeting last winter to learn more about PRRS ARCE programs and are interested.

In Iowa, Butch Baker, DVM, Iowa State University, and the Iowa Pork Producers Association are working to get a PRRS ARCE pilot project moving. “Iowa was last in the PRV clean up and doesn’t want to be last this time,” he says. A producer meeting is next, with Iowa County a prospective site.

NPB and AASV are collecting research proposals to analyze and update the economic impact of PRRS in the United States, with a target completion date of Feb 1, 2011. The last analysis was in 2005 and showed that PRRS cost the industry $560 million a year.

Snodgrass sums up the ARCE projects this way: “This is a creative way to fight a disease. We don’t have a silver bullet, but as we start to put all the weapons together and the data that we collect and share, we will find the best way to control PRRS.”