Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus infects 30 states, including Michigan

OSCEOLA COUNTY – Raising and showing swine came at a higher cost than usual this year for many local and statewide residents.

The effects of the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus, an aggressive virus introduced to the United States last year, are being felt in at least 30 states, according to Same Hines, executive vice president of Michigan Pork Producers Association.

The virus, which affects only piglets and poses no threat to other animals, humans or food safety, causes diarrhea and dehydration so extreme that young pigs cannot survive.

PEDV has killed an estimated 8 million baby pigs nationwide to date, a number Hines said is nearing 10 percent of the national annual herd production.

“It’s pretty widespread, actually,” he said. “All the herds are essentially susceptible and naive to it. It’s been something that almost every major pork operation in the country has had to deal with.”

PEDV was first detected in England in 1971, but American herds have no immunity to the virus, Hines said. According to one researcher tasked to analyze the virus by the National Pork Board, one teaspoon of contaminated pig manure carries enough PEDV to infect the entire U.S. swine herd.

Hines said it is hard to identify the exact number of Michigan farms affected by the virus, since farmers and operators were not required to report PEDV until a few weeks ago. As of this April, Hines said there were 93 positive tests confirming infected herds in Michigan.

“The only way we could track it was if a test came back positive. The challenge there is there may have been multiple tests to confirm the same infected operations,” he said. “From here forward, if you had a verified outbreak confirmed by testing, you would have to report that.”

With the number of available hogs taking a nosedive, the prices for market, feeder and show pigs have spiked, and Hines said they are likely to keep climbing.

Gerald May, an MSU Extension educator out of Gratiot County, said prices for pork will be at their highest when the affected herds make their way to market this summer.

“It’s still out there spreading. I think if you look at what the economists are saying, the largest death loss was during January and February of this year,” he said. “Most of those pigs would come to market in the summer. That’s when the lack of pigs will impact the market the most.”

May also said while the effects of the virus have caused prices to rise, other market variables take their toll on the price of pork independently of diseases or environmental factors.

“In late March and early April, prices on market hogs were extremely high, and that was driving the price of feeder pigs up,” May said.

Higher hog prices do not necessarily mean local fairs and auctions will take a hit, however. May said that what buyers are willing to pay at auctions fluctuates with the general market price of pigs. Even in the midst of a pig shortage, May sees no reason hogs will not do well at fairs and auctions this year.

“I think everyone that wanted a feeder pig for show was able to go out and purchase one,” he said.

MSU Extension Swine Educator Elizabeth Ferry said fair-goers still had to pay more out of pocket than usual this year, even if that number is hard to pinpoint.

“I would definitely say that prices for show pigs were up this year because of the PED virus or the scare of the virus,” Ferry said. “My best guess is that prices are probably up by a quarter, but that’s really hard to say.”

Luckily for members of 4-H and others who raise pigs, there are ways around the higher prices. Ferry said pig prices will vary depending on whether someone buys a show pig or a regular market pig with the intent of showing it.

Often, families or parents can find less expensive options on smaller, local farms.

“It all depends on what the kids want,” Ferry said.

Since PEDV is relatively new to the United States, Michigan farmers may have a hard time protecting their herds. Hires said the federal government is still working toward creating herd management plans for operators to use for prevention and aftercare.

On June 5, the USDA issued a federal order allocating $3.9 million to be used by the Agricultural Research Service for the purposes of finding a vaccine. Other funds have been designated for support management and control, development of herd management plans and sample collections.

Since then, a vaccine has been created by Harrisvaccines, a manufacturer based in Iowa. The vaccine was granted a conditional license on June 16, and Hines said that while it is available to farmers and operators, there are feelings of apprehension about its success.

“I know of some operations that have used it,” he said. “There likely will be more. Historically, vaccines used to try to mitigate a corona virus have been less than successful.” With the vaccine still in its early stages, Hines said one alternative is for operators to expose their mature pigs to the virus before they give birth in the hopes that they begin to build immunity.

“It’s about the only option we’ve got right now,” he said. “If you’ve got sows a few weeks away from farrowing, the best option is probably to expose them and have them run through the virus, and they will pass on some immunity to the piglets.”

May expressed doubts about the success of virus exposure, saying there is no way to predict how long immunity will last before the herd is overcome by the virus. Once the virus is active within a herd of pigs, May said it will continue to resurface periodically and can decimate a herd population.

“That’s a practice that’s being frowned upon. There was the thought among producers, but the concern is that within the swine industry they don’t know how long that immunity will last,” May said. “You run the risk of bringing it in and then it just becomes endemic within your herd and continues to infect.”

Instead, May suggests farmers and operators increase their vigilance over herds and practice bio-security, or the process of keeping the herd safe and sanitary. Since PEDV is most often transferred at markets and on transport vehicles, May said farmers ought to completely disinfect trailers and trucks and allow them to dry before loading more pigs for transportation.