It was April 15, 2010.  It started out like any other day, nothing extraordinary, certainly nothing to suggest that several weeks and months later it would create losses pushing the $3 million mark.

The semi-truck and trailer was backed up to Ham Hill Farms’ loading dock just as it had been any number of times before. The market hogs were loaded and the driver headed down the road, but all too soon (really only 100 yards beyond the driveway) the driver veered off the road. As he attempted to get the truck back onto the road, the trailer filled with pigs tipped over.

Personnel from Ham Hill Farms scrambled to assist the driver and the pigs. “Pigs were laying on top of each other; we had to help. It was the humane thing to do,” says Brent Sandidge, owner of the 3,000-sow, farrow-to-finish farm.   

For the next two hours workers extricated, euthanized and moved pigs from the accident site as needed. The crew tried to clean up the truck, the site and the farm’s equipment, as well as honor biosecurity protocols, as best they could. “Staff that came back to the operation cleaned up, changed clothes. Some went home and stayed away from pigs for a while,” Sandidge notes.

On April 20, two Ham Hill sites showed signs of respiratory, flu-like symptoms, but both farms seemed to recover. By May 1, death loss started rising, with major losses recorded as of May 4. About that time, a finishing barn tested positive for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome. By May 9, sows started going off feed, with confirmation of PRRS on May 11.

The herd had been PRRS-negative for five years. “I’m not 100 percent sure that accident is where it came from,” Sandidge says. “I’m sort of glad we don’t know how it was brought in because I’m addressing everything that is a possibility.”

It has been several long, hard months, but as of mid-January, he reports that “the herd is just about to go PRRS-negative.”

The path to PRRS-negative status has cost a lot in terms of commitment, money and stress. It also has proven to be quite the motivator. “A year ago, PRRS was the last thing on my mind,” Sandidge says. Today, he and a few fellow-Missouri producers are working to initiate a PRRS area regional control and elimination project.

Lay of the Land
PRRS can surface most anywhere at any time. The terrain near Marshall, Mo., where Ham Hill Farms is located isn’t conducive to PRRS virus spread. The rolling hills, valleys and trees provide natural obstacles to minimize aerosol transmission.

The area’s hog population is limited. There’s a hog farm 3.8 miles southeast of Ham Hill; a farm that Sandidge sells weaned pigs to sits 2.2 miles to the southwest. To the northwest 6.8 miles is another farm “that had nothing in common at all with any in our area,” Sandidge notes. “It broke as well.” Within about a two-week period, the PRRS virus had spread to 11,000 sows.

Of course, research has shown that the virus can travel several miles through the air. In this case, the conditions were right, as the cold, damp spring weather lingered for about five weeks straight.

“I stepped outside one night, it was about 45° F with a little moisture, and you could feel this light wind. With the farm just south of me, it was blowing right over our sow site,” he recalls. “We had the perfect conditions to spread this thing.”

While no one wants to have to inform neighboring producers about a PRRS outbreak, making that call quickly is important to limiting further virus spread. As soon as his herd broke, Sandidge called fellow producers in the area, as well as the Missouri Pork Producers Association.

Tallying the Loss
While PRRS can pack a hard financial bunch — Sandidge estimates his cost from May to January at about $3 million — seeing and adding up the physical animal loss is equally harsh.

Death loss in the finishing barn reached 20 percent, but sort loss also jumped, running in the $4- to $5-per-head range. “We had pigs that weighed 270 pounds, and a couple weeks later they weighed 240; they literally would lay around and didn’t eat, didn’t get up,” he notes.

Nurseries were hardest hit, with the lowest death loss at 35 percent and the highest just greater than 90 percent.  “It got to the point that one day I was euthanizing pigs and Jeff Sims, our nursery/finishing manager, said, ‘You’ve got to stop; we don’t have enough room on the truck. If you can wait until tomorrow, we’ll have more room.’”

The sow farm’s death loss moved up to 8 percent. In a normal week, the farm weans 1,400 pigs, but five weeks into the PRRS break, only 37 made it to weaning.

During that time, 619,000 pounds of dead pigs were removed from the operation. Removing dead pigs is labor intensive, and watching others become ill and waste away was particularly demoralizing. “That was probably the hardest part — to look in the eyes of 25 employees who were wondering if they would have jobs,” Sandidge says, “and I’m wondering when this was going to stop. It was like the movie Ground Hog Day; it just repeated the same thing day after day.”

Moving Forward
With PRRS you can never be too confident about turning the corner, but Ham Hill Farms’ recovery is progressing well. “We’re now getting some weeks with all PRRS-negative test results, but some weeks still have positive PCRs showing up,” Sandidge notes.

He’s working with his staff and financial consultant to compile a case study of the outbreak, recording the production and financial impact as well as the various steps taken to clean up the herd. “It could be helpful information for others to learn from and illustrate how bad PRRS can be,” Sandidge says.

One area he’s focusing on is the trucking aspect. Prior to the PRRS break, standard biosecurity protocols had Ham Hill employees haul pigs to an off-site loading dock where the trucker would then reload the pigs onto his truck. “Truckers wouldn’t go close to our barns ever,” Sandidge notes. “We thought we had a pretty good system, but obviously it wasn’t enough.” Now, truckers also will have to change into Ham Hill’s boots and clothing before entering the loading dock.

“I believe one of the main culprits in keeping PRRS cycling is the packing plant,” he adds. “The trucks have to go into the packing plant and there are PRRS-positive pigs there. Even if you’re cleaning and washing those trucks, the potential to spread virus is high.” The other question worth asking is, how clean do those trucks really get?

Sandidge wants to see more research, ideas and answers regarding trucks and measures at packing plants.  

Also moving forward, he and five fellow pork producers are pursuing a PRRS ARCE project for their area. A local veterinarian and a feed dealer have signed on to help. Beth Young, DVM, at the University of Missouri, will serve as project coordinator, and the Missouri Pork Producers Association has contributed some funding.

It’s been a long haul for Ham Hill Farms, and in some respects work has just begun. But Sandidge is motivated, and hopes others are as well, to ensure that PRRS doesn’t turn another ordinary day into a $3 million bill.