KINGSTON – A deadly pig virus killed 6,500 piglets in a month at Illini Swine in Kingston.
At Ed Arndt Jr.’s farm in Malta, the virus claimed 1,000 more.
Local swine specialists estimate porcine epidemic diarrhea has killed more than 30,000 pigs in DeKalb County since December, leaving local pork producers scrambling to protect their farms and hoping for a vaccine.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Noel Garbes, a swine specialist with Bethany Animal Hospital. “We’ve seen nothing like this that kills this amount of pigs.”
The virus, never before seen in the United States, has killed about 7 million pigs in 27 states since May 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates. About 30 percent of swine farms in the county are infected, said Noel Garbes, a swine specialist with Bethany Animal Hospital.
Piglets that have not been weaned from their mothers are most susceptible to the virus, which kills them from dehydration. It does not affect humans or other animals.
About 535 Illinois farms have reported being affected by the virus through this month, said Tim Maiers, director of industry and public relations for the Illinois Pork Producers Association.
“We’ve seen this disease all over the state,” Maiers said. “It’s affected large farms, small farms. We’ve seen it all over.”
In DeKalb County, the mortality rate for infected piglets has been about 100 percent in young pigs since the virus first hit, Garbes said. About 30 percent of the swine farms in the county are infected, although he said that number varies from week to week.
Farmers struggle to control the virus because little is known about how it spreads and there’s no vaccine. The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week ordered farms to start reporting pig virus infections as part of a new program to help monitor and potentially control the spread of the disease. It also pledged $5 million to fight the virus, adding to the $1.7 million from the National Pork Board to research a vaccine.
Illini Farms general manager Mike Woltmann said despite efforts to keep the company’s 4,000-sow Kingston facility clear of the virus, he knew it was a matter of when, not if, it would surface.
“It had hit other farms, so we knew it would hit,” Woltmann said. “We lost a month of production when it hit in late February.”
Locally, Garbes has been tracking the virus and working with farmers to prevent the disease from spreading.
To protect farms that have yet to be infected, farmers spend more time disinfecting vehicles and trailers that go to and from the farm, in some cases cutting off some traffic to the farm.
“It’s definitely an inconvenience for them, but we look at it like if you’re not being inconvenienced, we’re not doing enough,” Garbes said.
Arndt said he had to find a grain storage facility off-site so people would not have to travel to his farm. Workers also change clothes, boots and protective gear multiple times and take extra showers to prevent the disease from spreading.
“We’re extra cautious if we’re going anywhere other ag people are, even to go get coffee,” Arndt said.
DeKalb County has more than 230,000 pigs, making it the second-highest pork producing county in the state behind Clinton County in southern Illinois. It takes about six months for a pig to reach market weight, meaning Arndt, Woltmann and others won’t have pigs to bring to market around August or September because the virus wiped out that month’s brood of pigs.
In turn, the virus is being blamed for record-high pork and bacon prices. A pound of bacon in the Midwest cost $5.39 in March, a 7.2 percent increase over last year’s price, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Maiers said across the state the hog slaughter was down about 7 percent in March, but pounds are down only 4 percent because farmers have more space and time to feed remaining pigs. Woltmann expects his pigs will be about seven to 10 pounds heavier throughout the year when compared to the same times last year.
Maiers warned that the true market effects of the virus won’t be known until later in May, when the piglets that died would have hit the market. He added industry leaders and farmers expect the virus to slow down once the temperature increases because it thrives in cold weather.
“We’re just kind of now getting to the point where we’ll see the net impact,” Maiers said.
Ardnt said he, like Woltmann, was preparing for the virus to hit before he noticed piglets shivering and dying in February. So while they remain uncertain what effect it will have on their pig population in the future, the main financial burden will be on the consumer.
“Basically we’ll be fine, but when you see baby pigs die for three weeks, it’s pretty hard,” Arndt said. “It’s frustrating.”