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Sunday, July 27, 2014

NH farms wary of piglet-killing virus yet

New Hampshire’s growing appetite for local pork is taking a hit from a virus that is killing millions of piglets throughout the country, even though the untreatable disease has yet to show up here.

Mark Anderson, a New Boston large-animal veterinarian, has for many years brought in baby pigs from a large farm in New York and sold them to stores and farms around New Hampshire. But last winter, his supplier was hit by porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, often called PED, which kills 90 percent or more of the baby pigs it infects, although it doesn’t affect adult swine. ...

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New Hampshire’s growing appetite for local pork is taking a hit from a virus that is killing millions of piglets throughout the country, even though the untreatable disease has yet to show up here.

Mark Anderson, a New Boston large-animal veterinarian, has for many years brought in baby pigs from a large farm in New York and sold them to stores and farms around New Hampshire. But last winter, his supplier was hit by porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, often called PED, which kills 90 percent or more of the baby pigs it infects, although it doesn’t affect adult swine.

The disease can’t be transmitted to people, but it has swept through America’s pork industry, killing as many as 7 million young pigs. There is no treatment and no vaccine.

Suppliers in Pennsylvania were also affected, Anderson said.

“We turned to Canada to look for piglets,” he said. “I was quoted prices of $175 to $195, instead of the $90 to $105.”

He declined the offer.

Buying pigs from farther away was problematic, Anderson said, because he feared the virus might be carried into New Hampshire by long-distance trucks.

“They are carried on double-decker piglet haulers, which can hold 500, 600 at a time,” he said. “There’s no way on earth, because of all the nooks and crannies, to sterilize those trailers, even if they come out of a clean farrowing house.”

So Anderson won’t be selling piglets this year. And he isn’t alone. Many area feed stores sell piglets in the spring, so people can feed them all summer for slaughter in the fall, but canceled their sales because no piglets were available.

“I know a number of people we’ve sold pigs to in the past who aren’t selling them this year,” Anderson said.

Even places that do have piglets are worried.

Sean Trombly, of Sunny Prairie Farm in Milford, raises pigs for his community-supported agriculture customers, who pay in advance for local food all summer. He has gone from raising six pigs a couple years ago to “close to 40” of them this year.

He bought them in-state, before prices rose because of the death of so many piglets.

“I’ve increased because the demand is there,” Trombly said. “When I let people know that bacon’s here, I get a mad rush. People buy 10, 15 pounds at a time. Sometimes I have to limit them.”

He bought his pigs early from near Maine, but wonders about next year.

“I think the problem will be that those piglets aren’t going to be available next year,” he said.

As close as Vermont

PED was discovered in the United States just a year ago – nobody knows where it came from – and has spread quickly. The virus can be accidentally carried between farms on vehicles, clothing or animals. It’s difficult to clean up farms enough to prevent contamination.

As state veterinarian Steve Crawford noted in an email: “One thimbleful of pig feces could contain enough virus to infect all the pigs in the United States.”

The virus has shown up on farms as close to us as Rutland, Vt., but no cases have been confirmed in New Hampshire.

In April, a farm in Grafton County was tested because its pigs had been associated with animals that were part of a confirmed case in Vermont.

The New Hampshire pigs never showed any clinical signs, but blood tests were positive, indicating they had been exposed to the virus – although it didn’t indicate whether they were actively infected with it. So it wasn’t considered a confirmed case by state or federal departments of agriculture, but it’s a sign of how close the problem is.

The virus causes diarrhea and vomiting. Agriculture officials are so desperate for a treatment or vaccine they have approved an unorthodox method, Anderson said.

“They are taking the intestinal tracks of dead piglets, macerating them, blending them and incorporating it in the feed to the sows,” he said. “They do that two times, they are able to provide immunity to those sows.”

While this isn’t as unnatural as it sounds – pigs are known to cannibalize their own babies – it is risky. Recycling animal products into the same species has been known to produce or spread disease, most notably mad cow disease.

Small but growing part

If PED does arrive, it would be doubly unfortunate for New Hampshire because pork is just becoming part of the mix for the small farms that dominate our agriculture, partly because the region has finally opened enough meat-processing plants to handle extra production.

Three new slaughterhouses have opened in New Hampshire in the last year after years in which only one existed.

Adding meat animals is often an important economic step for small farms, since they can produce more profit that vegetables.

Pork remains a small part of New Hampshire agriculture. The 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census listed just 3,300 hogs and pigs on New Hampshire farms, virtually all of them on farms with fewer than two dozen animals.

By contrast, the state had eight times as many beef cattle and 10 times as many dairy cattle.

But pork is definitely growing. A similar census five years earlier found just 2,800 pigs and hogs in the state, 20 percent fewer than the 2012 figure.

Just as important, the number of farms reporting any pigs grew by 40 percent during those five years, from 266 to 359 – a reflection of the way meat animals have joined poultry and vegetables as an economic staple of the state’s many small farms.

So far the epidemic hasn’t affected pork and bacon prices in supermarkets, but the number of adult pigs available for slaughter is likely to decline in coming years if PED keeps killing youngsters.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).