Work routines provide the foundation for successful sow operations. Daily and weekly activities are predictable. Schedules, while tight, provide enough flexibility to deal with minor challenges. The approach allows employees to function efficiently and, in general, contentedly.

Then porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) hits and work routines and predictability fly out the window. Worse yet, some of your best employees may start edging toward the door.

“Any disease break is demotivating to employees,” says Neil DeBuse, a Northfield, MN-based consulting veterinarian. “But a PEDV break goes beyond that, to the point of being demoralizing.”

Farrowing barn employees, who justifiably pride themselves on saving newborns, are helpless in the face of 100% death loss, and likely to be asked to speed the inevitable by euthanizing pigs under a week old rather than letting them die through dehydration. Even when they know it’s the right thing to do from a welfare standpoint, it’s counter to their nurturing instincts.

“Transferring hundreds and sometimes thousands of pigs at once to the compost pile isn’t just a financial hit to the operation,” DeBuse points out. “There is a human toll as well.” Feedback to develop maternal antibodies in sows by intentionally making them sick can create similar employee stress in gestation barns.

 

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While these steps may not be avoidable, their impact on workers can be manageable.

“In any disease, 50% of the loss is in how we react to it,” DeBuse says. “There are going to be changes in work procedures, and extra demands on employees packed into a short time frame. Communication is critical. It’s the job of the manager to help employees understand why they are being asked to do things differently, and to keep them as focused and upbeat as possible during the process. The goal is to move on as rapidly as you can by doing everything right. You can’t let the situation become endemic.”

Realize that some employees will adapt better than others. “You’ll find some who can’t handle it,” DeBuse predicts. However, staff turnover will only compound the problems. “Rather than losing them, consider reassignment to a different area for the time being.”

For employees on weaned-pig bonus arrangements, there’s a financial threat as well. Even though the operation is taking a financial hit in lost production, it’s important to not penalize employees for something out of their control. “It’s probably going to be a five- or six-week period before things get back to normal,” DeBuse notes. “You may want to exempt those few weeks from the bonus calculation.”

Nearly all operations are reassessing biosecurity measures in the face of PEDV, whether they’ve experienced an outbreak or not. Employees are a critical but potentially overlooked link in this process, too. The best biosecurity measures are worthless if all team members aren’t onboard.

“Biosecurity has a cost both in human resources and dollars,” Iowa State Extension veterinarian Jim McKean points out. “Any successful approach has to be both reasonable and enforceable.” He recommends first thinking in terms of a “line of exclusion” designed to keep disease organisms on one side and the pigs on the other.

Since PEDV is primarily transmitted through contaminated manure, this means providing a workable barrier which can be crossed without taking infective organisms along. McKean says something as simple as a bench spanning the full width of an entrance room, or alley to prevent walk-through, combined with a required change of boots and outerwear from one side to the other, can minimize the risk of transmission without requiring extensive renovation. Think of it in terms of a “clean/dirty” line, he says. Step-through boot baths are not a good alternative. McKean notes that, while disinfectants play an important role in several areas of cleanliness and bio-security, studies have shown that even relatively clean boots need to remain in a disinfectant bath for at least 45 seconds to impact transmission.

Load-out chute traffic should be one-way; all protocols need to be established, written and communicated. But, McKean cautions, “teach your employees ‘why’ as well as ‘how.’ If they don’t understand why, they’ll likely cut corners.” Also, don’t expect them to follow biosecurity rules if you don’t.

Consider different-colored boots and coveralls for different areas of the operation, McKean continues. This makes it easier to keep boots and clothing separated, while also providing a quick, non-threatening visual confirmation that protocol is being followed.

While the seriousness of PEDV shouldn’t be underestimated, panic isn’t the answer, either, DeBuse adds. “Effective biosecurity doesn’t deal well with hysteria. There were some pretty wild claims early on about the prevalence of the PED virus in coffee shops, convenience stores and the like that were overblown. Caution is good, fear is not.

“On the plus side, producers seem willing to share information about their PEDV status and experiences with neighbors. That’s a huge help. You’ll only increase the cost of disease by refusing to recognize and deal with the people side.”    

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