Dr. Craig Rowles
In the 12 long months since Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDV) first hit the United States, more than 6,000 cases in 30 states have been confirmed, affecting millions of pigs and their caretakers.
Dr. Craig Rowles, a veterinarian who is also a partner and general manager of Elite Pork Partnership near Carroll, Iowa, will never forget the day one of his swine barns broke with PEDV.
“Last Nov. 19, an employee called when he noticed that a lot of litters were scouring that morning,” Rowles said. “As soon as I got there, it didn’t look good.”
He immediately transported some pigs to the diagnostic laboratory at Iowa State University for testing. By 4:30 that afternoon, results confirmed that the pigs tested positive for PEDV.
Back home, pigs were quarantined, and Rowles and his employees started weaning pigs from 10 to 21 days of age. Since the virus is spread through feces, workers exposed all of the sows on the farm using a similar method to what is often used with TGE (transmissible gastroenteritis).
“You want to expose sows as quickly as possible,” said Rowles, who faced additional PEDV outbreaks at other barns on Nov. 28 and Dec. 19. “Colostrum in the sow’s milk protects the baby pigs, and it takes about 21 days for this immunity to develop.”
“Worst Disease” Faced
Phil Borgic, a pork producer from Nokomis, Ill., understands what Rowles has gone through. When PEDV hit his farm in early January, he knew he’d never seen anything like it.
“PEDV is the worst disease I’ve ever faced,” said Borgic, a past president of the Illinois Pork Producers Association. “With TGE, most farms lost three weeks’ worth of pigs, but you were good for two years. With PEDV after 14 weeks, we are still losing pigs.”
Shortly before his farm broke with PEDV, Borgic had expanded to include 6,000 sows in his breed-to-wean operation. After PEDV was confirmed, Borgic implemented a PEDV action plan that he’d developed in late 2013. He called his grower partner to get a building ready for more pigs, including much younger pigs.
“The temperature had to be four degrees higher,” Borgic said. “On Jan. 8, that wasn’t easy.”
Borgic also called in more trucks to haul all piglets that were eight days old and older off the sow farm that same day. The staff worked until 9 p.m. weaning pigs after the extra trucks arrived.
The next morning, staff started inoculating all sows and gilts on the main sow farm and all gilts in the gilt developer. Extra bagged feed at the sow farm was hauled to the grower location, along with additional supplies to try to keep pigs hydrated.
“We stayed in the barn with the fresh-weaned pigs for 96 hours straight to save as many as possible by getting them up to drink and eat every two hours,” he said.
PEDV Takes a Toll
The virulent nature of PEDV can’t be overestimated, said Rowles, who serves on the Pork Checkoff’s Swine Health Committee.
“Remember how Carl Sagan talked about ‘billions and billions’ of stars? It’s like that with PEDV. The amount of virus being shed in the feces is so much more than with TGE,” Rowles said.
PEDV tears up piglets’ intestinal tracts, said Rowles, who has been involved in the pork industry since 1971. “Baby pigs are unable to absorb enough fluids and succumb to dehydration,” Rowles said. “Older animals can survive. Their intestinal tract is more mature, so they can consume enough fluids to compensate for PEDV.”
While the survival rate of older animals is encouraging, the loss of piglets infected with PEDV can be staggering. The financial and emotional ramifications of PEDV have taken their toll on producers and their employees nationwide.
“Farmers work closely with the miracle of birth and want to help piglets get off to a good start,” Rowles said. “When you have to spend most of your work days deciding which animals need to be humanely euthanized, it takes a toll.”
While researchers continue to work on developing a PEDV vaccine, producers and veterinarians continue to battle the virus. Although two of Rowles’ three swine farms have been testing negative for PEDV for awhile, a third farm is still struggling with a more chronic version of the disease.
In response, Rowles intensified his biosecurity program. If it took 2.5 hours to power wash a room before, the crew now spends 4.5 hours, he noted. The process includes a degreaser application to remove biofilm, thorough rinsing, disinfection and the use of heat to help dry the area.
“We also inspect every crate to make sure no spots were missed,” Rowles said. In addition, Rowles’ sows are washed with a sow detergent before entering the barn to remove fecal material, and the herd is closed to new introductions.
Borgic also strengthened his biosecurity program to control PEDV’s spread. “We’ve been washing the facilities and animals to reduce the virus,” he said. “Most of the virus seems to be concentrated in the manure, so we’re making sure we get that washed away.”
Borgic is investing a minimum of 10 percent more labor into his facility just for sanitation. “We’re washing every farrowing room two times and are using four different disinfectants with a two-night downtime,” Borgic said. “Before each group of sows is moved, we also wash them down and wash the path that they’ll walk from the gestation area to farrowing barn.”
While it’s unclear whether PEDV has peaked, producers remain resilient. “We want to get over this disease as quickly as possible so we can get back to producing pigs,” Rowles said.