Biosecurity measures introduced into Ontario’s hog barns over the past decade leave the sector well-placed to respond to livestock disease outbreaks, but haven’t necessarily created an adequate defense for the human-to-human transmission threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result, as with many other business owners both agricultural and non-agricultural, the province’s pork producers have been faced recently with decisions about the way they and their employees work.
Why it matters: Many livestock farmers have significant biosecurity provisions, but COVID-19 has created new challenges in order to keep employees safe.
Tara Terpstra, who with her husband Dennis operates the 370-sow Silver Corners farrow-to-finish farm near Brussels, offers the example of her work alongside one of their full-time employees processing piglet litters. It’s a job the Terpstras decided should continue to be done by two people, but since the pandemic was declared those two people have been wearing protective masks and gloves while working in close proximity.
Terpstra has switched to what she calls a “divide and conquer” approach. Two people used to work together on one job and then move simultaneously to the next. Now it’s one person doing one job alone, and the other person working somewhere else in the barn, alone.
It appears Ontario’s pork producers have been largely successful in making that work. According to Dr. Doug MacDougald, a founding partner at the hog-specializing South West Ontario Veterinary Services, there have been no cases of COVID-19 among family members or employees at any of the farms for which the Stratford-based clinic provides care. And he says South West veterinarians would know if there were any cases; the clinic began requiring disclosure about exposure or possible exposure to the virus when COVID-19 arrived.
And besides, the swine veterinarian said, “it’s a small industry. News travels fast. I’m pretty sure we would hear if there was a case (of COVID-19 among humans) on a farm.”
MacDougald stressed that Ontario’s hog farms, for several years, have been at the forefront of technologies and protocols aimed at stopping animal-to-animal disease transmission, both within one farm and from farm to farm. Examples include showering in and out, dedicated clothing for each production unit, restricted access areas, and strict requirements for off-farm visitors and service providers.
“We already have excellent biosecurity in our sector,” he said. “Certainly people are working extra hard to maintain those protocols” now that a global human-to-human pandemic is here.
Terpstra agrees about the level of preparedness of the province’s pork producers.
“Those of us that are smaller producers that don’t have a lot of employees, it’s pretty much business as usual.” For mid-sized – including her own family’s Silver Corners – and larger-scale farms, though, typically some changes have been necessary.
A section on the Ontario Pork organization’s website entitled “Biosecurity during COVID-19” advises producers to “consider adjusting schedules (including) split(ting) employees into morning/afternoon shifts, alternating days, or other schedules that facilitate segregation.” It also suggests “keep(ing) workers separated in designated areas and functions, stagger(ing) arrival of workers and break times . . . and “limit(ing the) number of face-to-face meetings” by instead using conference calls or email.
With three non-family members in their workforce, the Tersptras are striving to keep ahead of the COVID-19 risks.
That means keeping in mind that it’s not uncommon for viruses to pass between humans and pigs, and not enough is yet known about COVID-19 to definitively state it won’t happen here. So when one employee exhibited one of the symptoms of the new coronavirus, they were directed to wear a mask through the entire workday until they felt fully healthy again.
It also means requiring disclosure from employees about where they’re living, and with whom. “I call it being aware of ‘the bubble outside of our bubble’,” Terpstra explained, adding that it’s really just a heightened version of the contact-to-contact knowledge they need to have when an animal disease outbreak hits their barn.
“Our biosecurity has now expanded into the community.”
This is in keeping with the “Biosecurity during COVID-19” page on the Ontario Pork website. Regarding employees, this document advised that farm owners “limit interactions (of employees) with people outside of work,” and ask that they “avoid travel, do not carpool or limit carpooling to essential situations, and limit travel to essential locations – such as groceries and pharmacies.”
In his experience so far, MacDougald says pork producers and their employees have heeded the message from public health officials about COVID-19’s spread. “There are more masks being used – certainly in common areas where people gather, like break rooms. And there has been more emphasis placed on effective sanitation since this started,” he said.