The pros and cons of moving to high-health status in pork production


You’ve probably heard that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Dealing with a chronic disease challenge in pork production can feel like that.

“When fighting chronic disease, continuing to do the things you’ve been doing that aren’t working can be frustrating for everyone involved, and you’re going to continue to get the same results,” says Dr. Jeremy Pittman, a veterinarian with Smithfield Hog Production who’s helped multiple production sites work through transitions to high-health status.

While doing all the little things right is important to improving the health and wellbeing of pigs, Pittman says small changes aren’t enough to move the system in the right direction in the case of chronic disease challenges.

“It takes big swings headed out of the park to make major health improvements at the system level and start moving in the right direction,” he adds.

Transitioning to high-health status

There are many reasons you might consider eliminating one or more disease challenges to achieve high-health status. Maybe you want to sell disease-negative pigs at a premium. Maybe you’ve been approached by a genetic supplier or other partners to consider high-health status. Or maybe you’ve tried everything else and are tired of dealing with and investing money in managing disease challenges.

“Every pork system is different, and everyone has different goals,” says Pittman. “Clearly outlining your goals and motivations for transitioning to high-health status and what the return on investment looks like will help you decide if a disease-elimination process is right for your operation.”

Ask yourself these questions when considering disease elimination:

  • What are your operation’s business goals?
  • What are the main drivers influencing profitability? Are you cost-driven or ROI-driven?
  • How will current market conditions and input costs impact ROI?
  • Have you fully vetted the health issues and understand which pathogen is causing the problem?

Transitioning to high-health status is also a good time to think strategically about your entire operation.

“The disease-elimination process could be an opportunity to improve facilities, move high-risk herds to more isolated areas, change your genetic source or make other changes that could impact your overall business model,” says Pittman. “It’s not just about eliminating the pathogen; you must look at the whole picture.”

Labor reallocation

Labor is a significant factor in deciding whether to go through a disease elimination process, especially now when labor costs are high and finding additional labor is difficult. But, while you may need more labor upfront, a high-health status more often than not results in a reallocation of labor rather than adding labor.

“Achieving and maintaining a high-health status means changing how you previously did things and implementing new protocols to support pig health,” says, Pittman. “You’ll likely do more of one thing and less of another.

For example, in a Strep suis elimination, you might reduce or stop animal movements so you don’t spread the virus around. That labor could be reallocated to something else, like sanitation or administering treatments to keep pigs healthy.

Once you’ve decided to move forward with the disease elimination process, identify who the key players are up-front and ensure everyone, from the herd manager to the feed truck driver, knows their job and why it’s important.

“A transition to high-health status isn’t one person’s job,” says Pittman. “Everyone has a part to play, and every job is important for the operation to run efficiently.”

Responding to failures

Pittman says you have to expect some failures during an elimination process. But success is all in how you manage those failures.

“When failures happen, many producers’ first response is, ‘This isn’t working, let’s go back to what we were doing,’” says Pittman. “You have to remember there’s value in the process, or you wouldn’t have decided to do an elimination process in the first place. In the grand scheme of things, you’re moving in the right direction.”

Be clear on what success or failure looks like at the onset of the process. As you work towards disease elimination, if something unexpected happens, regroup and identify what went wrong. What’s the science telling you? Are you communicating or implementing protocols effectively? Do you fully understand the health status?

One of the most common causes of failure is overconfidence, Pittman says.

“At the beginning of the process, everyone is excited and committed to following protocols,” he adds. “But as the process becomes routine, people become overconfident and can start cutting corners or letting things fall through the cracks. That’s when you start seeing failures.”

Maintaining high-health status

Maintaining a high-health status once you’ve eliminated the target disease is just as important as the elimination process.

“If you have a negative herd and subsequently have an introduction of the virus you eliminated, mortality rates and production losses can be higher because the population is naïve,” says Pittman.

Before you commit to a disease-elimination process, consider if you can maintain a high-health status. How likely are you to rebreak? If you do rebreak, what does that mean for your return on investment? Maintaining high-health status for 5-10 years is a different proposition than maintaining high-health status for six months to one year.

Think through management of the entire system to maintain high-health status after an elimination.

“After you go through an elimination process, you need to have replacement animals negative for that disease,” says Pittman. “The last thing you want is to go through an elimination process and unknowingly bring in animals with that disease.”

A lot can change in the 40 weeks or more during the elimination process. It’s important that when you’re ready to receive gilts, their health status hasn’t changed and you’re testing frequently to avoid any surprises.

“Also consider how you’re managing pigs downstream after a disease elimination process. Many times, we focus on the sow farm and don’t put as much focus on the grow-finish pigs as we should,” Pittman adds.

Disease elimination isn’t a black or white process. Like other aspects of pork production, it’s a complex task with many factors. Eliminating a disease might or might not save your operation time or money in the long run.

Remember to think through the preparation, execution and maintenance of disease elimination before deciding if the transition to high health is right for your operation.

“Success involves working as a team to consider all aspects of the disease elimination,” says Pittman. “Your veterinarian can help you rank options from the best to the worst. Based on all the information, you and your team can choose which makes the most sense for your business.”

Are you looking for ways to improve your herd health protocols? The Pharmgate team, including our technical service veterinarians, is here to help.