PORTSMOUTH, Iowa — Jamie Fahn checks sows as trucks clatter by his farmstead, heading east or west on Iowa Highway 44.
“We don’t do things like most people,” he says. “But it works for us.”
Fahn and his wife Mary run a farrow-to-finish operation near here in Shelby County. All of his sows are housed in open-front buildings, while the farrowing house and nursery are confined. Pigs are finished in a newer curtained building and an older finisher.
Fahn also farms with his brother, Jay, and Jay’s wife, Linda. He normally farrows around 100 sows.
Fahn says minimizing disease in his operation presents a challenge.
“We have trucks and hogs going by the farm all the time,” he says. “My philosophy is you know you are going to get something, but I need to be flexible enough to take care of it immediately when it happens.”
Fahn says he has an established biosecurity protocol. Farm visitors wear plastic boots, and he maintains a strict vaccination schedule with his pigs.
Despite the visibility, he says disease breaks have been minimal.
“Sometimes we go a couple of years without anything,” the Southwest Iowa producer says. “We’ve had PRRS, and a few weeks ago we dealt with some influenza. We’re just like anyone else, but we work hard and pay close attention to make sure we can deal with it quickly.”
With outdoor sows, Fahn says his biggest challenge is keeping respiratory disease out of his herd.
“We really don’t have many reproductive challenges, other than the seasonal problems with high temperatures,” he says. “We don’t have scours in the farrowing house. I think the key is to pay attention, and when you see something that looks wrong, treat it aggressively.”
PRRS continues to be the major thorn in the side of pork producers, says Chris Rademacher, Extension swine veterinarian with Iowa State University.
He says the ability of the virus to consistently mutate vexes both producers and veterinarians.
“Two years ago a new strain emerged and has been a little less predictable,” Rademacher says. “Two winters ago, it was pretty bad, but this past winter was more mild.”
He says the new strain does not appear to spike sharply in the fall and winter, but may stay longer on the farm.
“It goes away quickly by spring,” Rademacher says.
Installing filtration systems has proven to help keep PRRS out of buildings, he says.
“In Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and Nebraska, we are still predominantly power ventilated, so it’s easier to use filtration here,” Rademacher says.
“It is expensive and there are no guarantees, but those who have been doing it long enough say breaks of PRRS are occurring every three to four years, rather than every six to 12 months.”
After a devastating outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) less than four years ago, Rademacher says the industry appears to have a handle on the disease that killed millions of baby pigs in 2013 and 2014.
“It’s very seasonal, something we only see in the fall and winter,” he says. “It’s kind of transitioned into what TGE (transmissible gastro enteritis) had been prior to this. With improved biosecurity, we have really learned to control it.”
Another disease that appears to be growing is the Seneca Valley virus. Rademacher says while this virus is not as deadly as others, its resemblance to foot and mouth disease makes it a priority.
“It’s obviously a big concern because of what foot and mouth would do to our industry,” he says. “That’s why it needs to be reported and investigated immediately.”
Unlike PRRS and PED, this virus is more prevalent in the summer and favors sow buildings and finishers.
Rademacher says there is some talk in the industry about increased incidences of salmonella, but most producers continue to deal with more common diseases like mycoplasma.
Fahn takes other steps to ensure disease breaks stay low while improving his herd. For many years he had a closed herd, but recently he has been bringing in new gilts every other year.
New gilts are vaccinated when they arrive on the farm, he says. Nursery pigs are vaccinated for circovirus and mycoplasma.
He also works with vendors to make sure they follow biosecurity protocol when delivering to the farm.
“That is probably our highest risk, but it really hasn’t been a problem,” Fahn says.
He says while he likes his current system, Fahn admits he did look into building a farrowing house a few years ago.
“We penciled it out, and you needed to have 250 sows to make it pay, and that didn’t work for us,” he says.
“We get by with just family labor, and that works well. We’re content with what we have.”