Pig health still a big reason for veterinary calls

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This information was obtained from a “Skills and Tools for Practitioners” seminar during the 2004 American Association of Swine Veterinarians Annual Meeting.

As a swine veterinarian, when your clients call, you are expected to come to them with specific answers and solutions to their questions and problems, says William Hollis, DVM.

“Often, our herd visits run the range of (focusing on) ventilation, nutrition, production, and disease,” says Hollis, a swine veterinarian with Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd, Carthage, Ill. “The risk is that we may identify a multitude of opportunities for influence and fail to achieve the main reason for the initial visit.”


Clients expect you to bring answers to their questions and proposed solutions to their problems when you make a call to their pork production system, according to Illinois swine veterinarian William Hollis.

“Health is why the phone rings and why we are most often called in as a primary decision influencer,” Hollis says. “There are high-quality specialists in other areas of influence, but if we are expected to solve the health issue,we must understand how these other areas will affect the success of our proposed solution.

“Understanding all of the challenges that lie before a farm and then identifying those areas that will have the greatest impact are key to a successful client relationship. In my experience, it is far easier to come up with hundreds of small problems and identify a multitude of tasks that need accomplished. It is much more difficult to hone in on those key areas that will have the greatest influence and then develop the necessary implementation plan to be successful.”

In short, Hollis emphasizes, swine veterinarians need to get to the point in consultation as quickly as possible. This entails the following emphasis areas:

  • Knowing your clients expectations.
  • Prioritizing the visit. This includes a list of priorities before you enter the facility, adding to the list as you ask questions and make observations, changing priorities as necessary, summarizing and assigning accountability.

Among other things, according to Hollis, answering the following questions can help to prioritize: Do you and the owners have the same health goals and expectations in mind? Do you and the client agree on the direction the system is heading?

The following case examples show that solving swine disease problems continues to be a big reason why the phone rings in a veterinary clinic or veterinary consulting business, according to Hollis.

“We still go to the farm to solve the disease problem. The challenge is to identify all the outlying contributors to disease and then hone in on which is the most important in a step-by-step manner. Our pathologists continue to remind us that we are not taking nearly enough diagnostic samples for making the decisions in the populations we serve. I further challenge that we are not looking at nearly enough opportunities for improving the production system.

“All of us are challenged with setting priorities on these opportunities and identifying which team member will be the advocate at the farm. For the case examples to follow, there was at least one person identified who was the advocate of the implementation of change.”

Hollis adds that it is a helpful practice to fax the on-farm advocate of change on a regular basis. “Dropping routine faxes for checklists or updates on the implementation steps has been rewarding to me as a consultant and has assisted that producer in accomplishing the goal.

Most farm systems we visit have on-farm faxes for reporting inventories, feed, and other items.

Case 1: Easy problem – difficult solution

A 600-sow farrow-to-finish operation, considered an old family production system with a presumed low cost of production. The owners of this herd have utilized Carthage Veterinary Service on a consultation basis only and not for regular health visits. They do most of their own diagnoses and treatment regimens with quarterly or annual consultation advice.

Four years ago, they used considerable consultation on developing a wean-to-finish barn and the design and flow of a wean-to-finish barn. As a single-site farrow-to-finish, they chose to build a four-room 2,000-head barn to fill with 500 pigs per room or two-week fill per room.


A swine health challenge is a primary reason that you will get a call from a client, says Illinois swine veterinarian William Hollis.

The original call to help was due to mid- to late-finisher death loss combined with the suspected observation of atrophic rhinitis. Upon further investigation, the farm had 12 percent finisher mortality for the last four groups and active atrophic rhinitis in the finisher. Pigs were necropsied, and a full diagnostic profile was worked up for the grow-finish population.

On this visit, a walk-through of the breeding and gestation herd identified reproductive failure and an inability to maintain breeding target. Gilts were coming in PRRS-negative and seroconverting to PRRS in breeding and gestation.

A week later, tissue diagnostics identified the presence of Actinobacillus pleuropneumoniae (APP), Pasteurella multocida Type D, PRRS, swine influenza virus (SIV) and Mycoplasma hyyopneumoniae. The problems were easy to find.

Finding solutions
But, as a 600-sow farrow-to-finish operation, solving these problems became quite a challenge. Solutions that are economical and do not require considerable capital outlay are hard to find. Diseases like APP and atrophic rhinitis must be eliminated. There is no way that cost of production can be maintained in today’s market place with these active disease populations in the presence of PRRS and flu. Finisher losses will become insurmountable, and these diseases will prevent profitability and sustainability in this system.

Because of the wean-to-finish site being continuous flow, the continual re-infection of this population had made this disease syndrome considerably worse. The single-site situation created an insurmountable depopulation/repopulation cost of production. However, contract finishing for partial turn and a sequential depopulation/repopulation was discussed.

The sequential depopulation and repopulation of the farm required an off-site breeding project cost of an additional $100 per animal space, or $70,000 for the repopulation of 700 females. The off-site partial contract finishing for five months of production at $12 per head added to the cost of 5,000 animals ($60,000), bringing the total (excluding breeding stock cost) for this 600-sow farrow-to-finish operation of depopulation and repopulation of $130,000, a one-time added cost to the production system.

This is a one-time hit of about $10 per pig in a system that currently sells 12,000 to 13,000 pigs per year. With disease and death loss in APP and atrophic rhinitis, combined with the desire to possibly eliminate PRRS, this was an honest opportunity worth investigating. In addition to the sequential depopulation and repopulation, we evaluated the possibility of a cooperative ownership in a sow farm.

Gilts and an off-site breeding project were available to provide a pool of pregnant animals to repopulate the sow farm. The quick math for this situation was the off-site breeding project cost and partial finishing contract cost in comparison to an outside source of wean pigs. The fiercely independent nature of this family made it impractical for them to purchase weaned pigs from an outside supplier.

The sow farm that we evaluated actually had a lower investment cost because they were going to contract farrow with an existing herd. That herd was going to allow a long-term contract where the cooperative sow farm could own the females and set their own price of the pig and contract to pay to that producer a long-term fee per pig for the production of those weaned pigs.

In this scenario, we projected it would cost $250 per sow for the initial capital investment, followed by the purchase price of approximately $29 per pig through the system. This was the more appealing approach because this producer was able to take ownership of the system, be on a board of directors and lower pig costs while improving pig health.

Furthermore, we were able to fill that wean-to-finish barn with a single fill and greatly improve the efficiencies through that barn. The producer made the decision to purchase 700 shares in the sow cooperative at a one-time investment of $250 per sow share ($175,000) and continued to purchase wean pigs at $29 per pig. While the original cash outlay was greater, the returns appear to be paying dividends with the long-term health and stability of the herd dramatically improved.

In addition, the system will now be able to maintain throughput of approximately 15,000 pigs per year as opposed to earlier throughput of 12,000 to 13,000. All nursery, converted farrowing, converted gestation and wean-to-finish spaces will be at capacity and maintain excellent levels of efficiency.

Case 2: Hard problem – easy solution
In this case scenario, there are 20,000 pigs on-site in a converted nursery-to-finish site with ownership in an off-site sow farm. The off-site sow farm ownership allowed this producer to bring in high-health PRRS-negative pigs and vaccinate for Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae with the low pig density in his region. He had been able to maintain PRRS-negative pigs and a relatively flu-stable population with no vaccination. We had greatly increased his pig density on-site and allowed greater throughput.

The phone rang because nursery mortality continued to run at 4 percent. Considerable challenges in starting pigs on feed, combined with difficulty maintaining the nursery population at a stable health status, had created ongoing, nagging challenges to this producer.

On-farm diagnostics showed a population of approximately 10 percent to 15 percent of each nursery group under weight and having difficulty starting on feed. Weaning weights had been 12 to 13 pounds, with the average age at 18 days. Other members of this sow farm system had little to no problem starting pigs and little to no mortality among their nursery groups.

Serum and tissue samples were harvested for further diagnostics. A walk-through of the rooms created some suspicion that rooms were under-ventilated as converted farrowing did not have additional ventilation added and the original nurseries did not have any winter or minimum ventilation. Pigs were crowding in certain pens and piling at edges.

Further communication with barn staff turned up little to no report of feeding behavior or understanding of pig movement throughout the pen.

When reviewing treatment sheets, we found that the entire pharmacy had been thrown at the pigs, with anywhere from 3 percent to 5 percent of the population receiving injections and multiple paint stick colors used and multiple bottles emptied throughout the various different treatment sheets, barn sheets and rooms.

Pigs were dying at all phases in the nursery. In essence, there was no specific pattern or timing of the death loss.

Gross necropsy showing plural adhesion and epicardial fluid caused suspicion that Streptococcus suis (Strep) or Haemophilus parasuis (H. parasuis) could be the problem. Water medication was placed immediately to solve this “easy problem.”

Three to five days after the visit, the producer reported the pigs had recovered and looked excellent. However, seven to 14 days after medication, the pigs returned to poor quality health. There were fuzzy, feverish pigs, and an increase of paddling, causing a move back toward injectable treatment.

At this time, we identified Haemophilus parasuis, Streptococcus suis Type 2, and Pasteurella multocida. Fortunately, the pigs were PRRS-negative and flu-negative, both serologically and by tissue PCR.

Strep and H. parasuis have continued to linger, and the producer was still calling and asking for another water medication. On a return visit, we focused entirely on the placement of inlets, the inlet space requirement for a population of this size, as well as the variation in cubic feet per minute (cfm) requirements for season. We calculated the number of fans, the number of inlets, the temperature and cfm requirements to maintain these populations at an optimum effective environmental temperature.

The problem we solved was poor ventilation. Due to drafts, pigs were being dramatically pushed into their uncomfort zone, driving them off of feed. We have since created a warm, dry, and draft-free environment.

Solving this problem was actually easier than I expected once we identified high-quality air environment as our goal. Pig mortality has decreased and injectable therapy has been reduced. We have backed off to a single three-day pulse of a water antibiotic, proven sensitive on isolation, and we are maintaining a treatment sheet in the barn for routine therapy. We also monitor both the pen layout of pigs and the temperature in the room. Fan speed and inlet space are adjusted on a daily basis as we evaluate the buildings in relation to changing seasons.   

5 steps of successful consulting

Illinois swine veterinarian William Hollis boils down swine veterinary consulting into the following five steps:

1. Get on the farm on a regular basis.
2. Get to the point of why you were called (health).
3. Identify opportunities for the improvement of health and production.
4. Identify an on-farm advocate for change.
5. Report on the implementation plan for success.

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