Ag Officials Wary As Swine Virus Spreads

Posted: April 21, 2014

HARRISONBURG — Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus. Some pig farmers may not remember how to pronounce its full name, but they sure are afraid of it.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that it would try to combat the fast-spreading virus by requiring the pork industry to report and track all incidents of the disease.

The USDA said the measures could help slow the virus, which has afflicted hog farms in 29 states and killed millions of young pigs since it was first identified in the U.S. last spring.

Meanwhile, PED has officially made its way to the commonwealth. Earlier this month,  Richard Wilkes, state veterinarian with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, announced lab results had confirmed Virginia’s first case of the virus.

The department stated the virus was detected when a farmer brought a dead pig to the lab for a necropsy. The department declined to say where the infected swine originated.

Wilkes advises farmers to help keep the disease from spreading by following biosecurity procedures, such as disinfecting stalls and equipment, and minimizing direct contact with other animals.

“We always urge livestock owners who show animals and managers of show and exhibition facilities to keep biosecurity uppermost in their minds,” Wilkes stated in a press release, “but with swine, it is even more important now that Virginia has experienced its first case of PED.”

The virus has killed 4 million to 5 million piglets and could decrease pork supply in the U.S. this year by 12.5 percent, said Jonah Bowles, senior ag market analyst with the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

Pork traditionally serves as a substitute commodity for beef, but, if the price at the supermarket increases as expected, some wonder if consumers will turn to alternatives, such as turkey bacon.

Bowles said it will be interesting to see how much demand for bacon is lost.

“Steaks and pork chops are meals, bacon is an enhancement to other food items. We don’t make a meal out of bacon but we will add it to hamburgers, eggs and salads,” he said. “The amount we spend for bacon is small, so an increase in price will have less of an impact on the demand than with chops or hams.”

PED is highly contagious, and commonly spreads through pig manure. Even so, consuming pork continues to be safe and the disease does not affect humans, according to state ag officials.

The central Valley is home to far more farms that raise poultry and cattle than hogs. Of the farmers who raise pigs, some have just a few sows in small-scale operations for 4-H or for their own consumption.

“There are only a handful of people who have momma pigs around here anymore,” said Richard Ritchie, chairman of the hog program at the Rockingham County Fair. “A lot of youngsters will show hogs at the fair, but those are pigs that are already born and have made it through and have not got in contact with that disease yet.”

Ritchie, who also raises some hogs at his Hinton-area farm, said the increased prices caused by the virus will affect everybody — from farmers who buy pigs to feed and finish, to consumers who buy pork at the supermarket.

“I keep about a dozen on my farm and I am down to just a few right now. I am getting ready to get some more, but I am debating on what to do,” he said.

Roscoe Wine, a feeder pig grower near Bridgewater, said he only has about 50 of the animals right now, but he usually has about 600 from August to February.

Unlike farmers who have sows and breed pigs, Wine purchases pigs that are already partially grown, feeds them and then sells the meat. As a result, he is not at risk of losing piglets to the virus.

“So far, the virus has not affected my supplier, and I’m just keeping my fingers crossed,” he said.

But, if the virus affects the sources of his feeder pigs, that will reduce the supply.

“We do have something to worry about, but it’s not going to affect me directly, but it will indirectly,” Wine said.

Contact Jonathon Shacat at 574-6286 or

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