The use of biosecurity and social distancing are not new concepts to modern pork producers. Many cleaners, disinfectants, social distancing protocols (farm withdrawal timelines), and digital technologies are used to prevent the spread of disease within the pork industry. Prior to Covid-19, the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDV) threatened the swine industry. Since then, many digital technologies have been created to help fight off existing and future threats. Fortunately, some of these technologies are also helping pork producers implement social distancing within their operations during these unprecedented times. This article will briefly discuss PEDV, Covid-19, and how digital technologies are helping prevent these diseases from ravaging the swine industry. It will also discuss the change in infrastructure that is needed for the industry to properly move into the digital age.

The Need For Digital Technologies Has Never Been Greater

Pork producers have been practicing social distancing and self-quarantine whenever threatening diseases emerge in the swine industry. For this reason they have been moderately prepared for this transition thanks to protocols already in place, along with many new digital technologies that make them possible. However, it wasn’t easy. We had a lot to learn as an industry, and must implement many more solutions to succeed.

In 2013, PEDV, an alphacoronavirus, spread throughout US swine herds and created significant losses for pork producers. Initially, the virus often led to a 100% pre-wean mortality rate; but over time and with extra management practices, this was significantly reduced. PEDV ravages the digestive tract, destroying enterocytes (absorptive cells in the small intestine). Not only does it limit the ability to absorb nutrients from feed, but it also results in massive diarrhea. PEDV takes the hardest toll on young piglets. Cleaning and disinfection, isolation, thermal treatment and some chemicals, such as medium chain fatty acids/monoglycerides were proven to help slow the spread of the disease. PED is not a zoonotic disease, does not affect people, and is not a food safety concern. Click this link to learn more about the PED virus.

Today, we battle Covid-19, which is a betacoronavirus. According to the CDC, Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person. The virus that causes COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus that was first identified during an investigation into an outbreak in Wuhan, China. The virus that causes COVID-19 is now rapidly spreading from person to person. The virus is thought to spread mainly between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It also may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). For the latest news and updates on Covid-19 please click this link.

Societal norms have changed considerably over the past few weeks. At the very least we have been practicing social distancing and even self-quarantine. People who have been exposed to the new coronavirus and who are at risk for coming down with COVID-19 might practice self-quarantine. Health experts recommend that self-quarantine lasts 14 days. Two weeks provides enough time for them to know whether or not they will become ill and be contagious to other people. Many of us are able to work from home. We have virtual meetings, can share documents through the cloud, and in many ways operate just as efficiently. Pork producers cannot reasonably have everyone work from home. Pigs need to eat and people need to be there to look after them. However, some pork producers have been implementing technologies that allow for more tasks to be completed remotely.

Digital technologies that are making a difference

Digital technologies in the swine industry were developed to help work remotely, reduce mortalities, labor inefficiencies, increase sustainability, gather insights from never before seen data sets, and to enhance the implementation of strict biosecurity protocols. Digital technologies are a significant aid for pork producers as they strive to follow social distancing recommendations. Many veterinarians and high level managers are using the following technologies to comply with these government recommendations and safely work from home – all while ensuring that their teams of caregivers and the pigs in their care are safe.

  • Maximus Solution – The Maximus Experience enables a pork producer to automate the management of their buildings, all from a computer, smartphone, or tablet. This includes remote management of feed delivery, biosecurity, ventilation, etc. Some facilities monitored by Maximus will actually require you to scan your badge to prove that you are not a risk due to previous travel on/off the farm.
  • SwineTech, Inc. – SwineTech enables pork producers to remotely observe their sow health and behaviors. It also enables producers to remotely track employee caregiving approaches through data input into each SmartGuard device. Furthermore, it can help when labor is limited by autonomously preventing sows from crushing their piglets.
  • EveryPig – is the “Facebook/Slack for pig production” allowing real-time communication from the barn to the production team to the veterinarian on clinical observations and pictures as well as treatment and mortality data. This information can be used to build AI prediction and treatment models, and also allows veterinarians to observe dozens of farms from the comfort of their homes.
  • BinSentry – BinSentry enables reliable inventory monitoring of on-farm feed bins. BinSentry’s IoT sensor enables feed-mills and vertical integrators to remotely identify what bins need feed. This allows for less wasted fuel, less people out and about, as well as a heightened peace of mind during these unprecedented times.

Digital technologies need modern infrastructure and require change in protocols

The aforementioned technologies are an incredible step in the right direction but they require the modern farm infrastructure to include two primary elements: a local WiFi network, and broadband access. These may be difficult to implement, but can provide savings in efficiency of labor that far outweigh the cost, when designed and installed correctly.

A local network for the farm is essential for any digital technology to work, but may not be reliable unless it is properly designed for each installation. Although it may seem to be most convenient for the local WiFi network to be 100% wireless, it is rarely practical and will usually need hundreds (if not thousands) of feet of Cat-5 cable, as well as special APs (access points) that can operate in a hazardous environment, and special routers and switches will likely be needed to power those access points.

Broadband network access is difficult to obtain in some rural areas, but is necessary for remote access, whether it be for the farm operator to receive alerts at home or for a veterinarian’s ability to monitor several farms efficiently and without causing potentially unnecessary biosecurity risk. In addition to the need for a powerful and capable broadband gateway device, in most cases a properly designed and sited external antenna will be needed for reliable operation.

The networking equipment and wiring necessary for an entire farrowing house can range from $3,000 to $10,000, not including labor. The success of a given farm also comes down to materials used within a facility. Are there brick walls, metal walls, plastic walls, wood walls, etc.? These factors can have a profound effect on signal quality and overall cost for the complete installation.

Because of the need for the proper design of a reliable digital infrastructure, presenting a product for sale that employs digital technologies will, in many cases, need to justify the sale and implementation of the network as well. This added cost can and does cause various pork producers to not adopt a new technology, but will become more clearly necessary as pork producers see the competitive advantages this digital technology will bring to their operation.

Additionally, the ability to carry mobile devices on the farm is not growing fast enough. Many producers ban the use of smartphones on farms, which delays the ability to implement many new digital technologies – not just to connect to the cloud, but even to simply access digital technology products from one side of the farrowing operation to the other, to work more efficiently and save time and labor. 

One of the biggest factors differentiating a good producer from a great producer is the ability to do the right thing at the right time. Smartphones and the apps that you can access, make knowing what to do, and when, a reality.

If we ever want to move to a more digitized swine industry, we must find a way to get broadband in more rural areas, create reliable Wi-Fi infrastructure, and adapt existing protocols to allow for the use of smartphones on farms.

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