Routine herd serological testing to prevent herd health wrecks has been little more than a pipe dream for many veterinarians.

But a new producer attitude appears to be emerging. 'It has become a lot easier to sell prospective serology now because the capital investment is larger, and along with it, the risk of loss has become greater,' states Richard Collins, DVM, Dixon (IL) Veterinary Hospital.

Simply put, prospective serology involves testing for, managing and attempting to eliminate diseases before they produce catastrophic outbreaks.

Retrospective serology, on the other hand, is 'fire engine' diagnostics. In these cases, veterinarians are called out to mop up after an outbreak has flared up.

Adopting prospective serology or monitoring herd health to prevent wrecks could mean big payoffs in higher health, fewer treatments and increased productivity, says Collins, admitting diagnostic costs will climb some.

There are other side benefits to herd health monitoring. Getting rid of numerous health concerns 'allows the good managers to express their abilities because they are not dealing with disease and poor production and gives them a chance to really shine,' he says.

Collins believes one of the things that doesn't get addressed enough is how working with healthier pigs gives a producer a better outlook on life and the quality of day-to-day work improves dramatically.

'One of the real problems is turnover in people in the hog business, and I think a lot of it is driven by health of the pig,' he says.

Dig Deep For Clues To try and keep an operation on track healthwise, Collins sometimes has to dig deep for clues. Often, there may be few signs that a pathogen or two is lurking and may cause problems.

There are autopsies, tissue analysis, serology and slaughter checks to be done. 'Plus, we are always adjusting feed medications, vaccination programs and pig flow to try and optimize production and decrease disease,' he explains.

Most of the time, prospective serology will tell you if the disease organism is there and/or whether a problem is getting worse. It can also be quite useful for checking the health status of incoming breeding stock, says Collins.

There is a no-nonsense approach to the testing program at Baby Bacon Inc., an Amboy, IL, feeder pig cooperative. A rigid, long-standing program of testing all incoming boars, including doing the prospective serology, are huge factors in the clean bill of health of the 500-sow herd, Collins says of his client. Only boars are brought in from off the farm and they come from only one site of a major out-state breeding stock company. Gilts are raised internally.

At Baby Bacon, incoming boars are profiled during 30-day isolation. Co-op manager, Pete Rood, stresses boars are tested for a wide range of diseases including parvovirus, encephalomyocarditis virus (EMC), leptospirosis including bratislava, swine influenza virus, Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia (APP), Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) and transmissible gastroenteritis (TGE), including its cousin coronavirus.

'If they don't pass the tests matching our health, then we either retest them or ship them,' says Rood. 'If those incoming animals don't make the grade, they are out of there,' he stresses.

The current testing protocol at Baby Bacon, developed jointly by Collins and Rood, calls for quarterly blood testing four young gilts about 7 months of age before they are bred, four sows at 1-2 years old and four older parity sows in the herd. 'That gives us a pretty broad serology of the sow herd even though the numbers are far from statistically significant,' says Collins.

Collins stresses prospective serology is by no means a perfect science. He views it as a tool to disease management. For example, the quarterly bloodtesting program at Baby Bacon provides a relatively accurate picture of whether or not titers (numerical measure of the strength of a pig's response to either infection or vaccination) indicate a cause for concern.

As an example of how it has worked, when Mystery Pig Disease (predecessor to PRRS) appeared in the late 1980s, bloodtesting was done and titers for the EMC virus were identified at the feeder pig co-op. It has been vaccinated for since that time. Still, the actual PRRS virus has never been identified in the farrow-to-feeder pig herd and the operation does not vaccinate for PRRS.

Rood says the co-op herd was also negative for parvovirus back in 1982, when he was the new, 22-year-old manager. Practice was not to vaccinate, and it wasn't long before the naive herd broke with the virus, quickly impacting gilt and young sow production.

'From the testing that is going on right now, it would appear that the virus is not on the farm again,' says Collins. He admits it is a gun that is waiting to go off and it has not been decided how to manage the problem except that a vaccination program has been started.

Because of prospective serology, Collins knows that those low parvovirus titers are from a killed virus vaccine, and not infection. He says it is the first farm that he has ever dealt with to actually test negative for parvovirus. The herd is also negative for APP. The herd is positive for TGE and its cousin coronavirus, a respiratory form of the virus, he reports.

Long-Standing Commitment Collins took over as veterinary consultant to Baby Bacon this past summer, replacing Wayne Brown, DVM, who retired. Brown used prospective serology from the moment Rood became manager of the co-op in 1982.

The co-op reflects a commitment to excellence that starts with its owners. The co-op is owned by six of the eight original owners in 1978. Originally, owners were to receive feeder pigs from the co-op at 55-60 lb., finishing them in their own facilities.

But as the owners have gotten older, and their facilities have become outdated, more and more of the feeder pigs are contract finished, explains Rood.

Their philosophy has been to produce top-quality feeder pigs. And PigChamp records show that performance has been very consistent during Rood's time as manager.

Staff at Baby Bacon carefully protect their investment with stringent biosecurity. All staff, co-op owners and even Collins must abide by 48 hours away from other pigs before they are allowed to enter the hog units. All must shower in and shower out. Visitors are strictly forbidden.

So has prospective serology played a strong role in keeping the feeder pig co-op going when many others have faded away over the years?

Rood says there is no real way to know. Collins adds: 'It is like buying fire or hail insurance. You may go 10 years or more and not collect on it, but you still buy the insurance.'

He concludes it all comes down to a question of economics. 'Ask yourself how much is herd health security and avoiding wrecks worth to you?'

Producers have been used to spending money after wrecks. Now we are asking them to think about spending money up front to protect their investment, he says.

Obviously, to Rood that security has value.

Collins notes that in just the past six months, producers have suddenly started inquiring about the benefits of prospective serology.