New virus threatens pigs

BY DANIEL SEIDL | MARCH 12, 2014 5:00 AM

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Iowa farmers may not be bringing home as much bacon this year.

A virus, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, spreading across America’s pig population has infected swine nationwide since it first showed up in the United States last year.

“This is [a virus] that’s very deadly and very serious right now, and will have an effect on the industry,” said Ronald Birkenholz, the communication director of the Iowa Pork Producers Association. “We just don’t know the extent of the impact at this point.”

The virus causes diarrhea and vomiting in the infected pigs and has an extremely high mortality rate, especially in young pigs.

“Nobody really knows how many piglets have been killed by this,” Birkenholz said. “This virus … pretty much [has a] 100 percent mortality rate for piglets.”

This mortality rate can be especially devastating for smaller farms.

Victor Strabala, a pig farm owner near Oxford, Iowa, said his herd became infected in June 2013.
“Everything under 1 week old, you pretty much lose,” he said. “I probably lost 500 pigs.”

Strabala said his farm usually has around 2,500 pigs per year, so this loss represented about 20 percent of his herd.

One of the main effects the virus may have on the pork-producing industry is raising the price of pigs, and Strabala said he has been seeing this.

“Hog prices right now are the highest they’ve ever been,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”

According U.S. Department of Agriculture, the retail value of one pound was $3.758 cents.

Strabala’s herd makes up a small percentage of the total hog population of Iowa, which is the No. 1 pork producing state in the nation. Iowa raises about 30 million hogs each year, with roughly 20 million being housed at any given time.

Gregory Stevenson, a veterinary professor at Iowa State University, said the large concentration of hogs in Iowa could cause the virus to spread rapidly.

“The virus spreads pretty easily in winter months … because our swine are so dense in Iowa,” he said. “When herds are infected with this virus, there’s a huge amount of this virus in herds.”

Birkenholz said many farms have experienced recurring cases of the virus, making it even more deadly.

“We’ve had producers who have had the virus, gotten rid of it, then gotten it again,” he said.
One way the virus can spread from farm to farm is not protected against by standard biosecurity measures used by farms, Stevenson said.

“If a building is full of this virus … it’ll be blown out with … fans,” he said. “Unless the air going into these buildings is filtered, you really can’t prevent it.”

Most farms don’t employ air filtration, Stevenson said, leading to the rapid spread of the disease.
Though the disease has not been seen in America before, there has been a similar disease in the past. Transmissible gastroenteritis has very similar symptoms, but it does not respond to the same treatments. This caused many farmers to mistake the viruses when the current outbreak started, Birkenholz said.

Strabala said he has had a hard time financially coming back from the virus, but he has managed to stabilize.

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