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ASF observations from Leman China

Dynamism of China's swine industry, particularly larger producers, driven by incredible insults and opportunities.

John Deen is a distinguished global professor at the University of Minnesota.

The annual Leman China Conference is designed, like its American counterpart, to answer contemporary issues in pig production. It is a gathering of more than 5,000 producers, allied professionals, university personnel and government officials. Most of the focus of this conference is on the 20% of production that is at a large scale and similar to U.S. production models.

In the fall of 2017, before African swine fever (ASF), these farmers were focusing on the future, with concerns around ongoing disease insults, increased environmental regulations and questions of oversupply.

Last year, in 2018, the conference had been transformed by the ASF outbreaks. Region by region, China was seeing ASF sweep through pig populations, both smallholders and large. Some regions had not seen it yet, but when these epidemics occurred, all farms were at risk, in spite of quite extraordinary attempts in biosecurity. When the load of ASF virus becomes that high the unlikely routes of entry become likely.

Last month, the conference met with a transformed industry. Pessimism has been replaced by optimism in these large producers. Part of this is driven by a reduced number of regional outbreaks. Of course, the record prices have helped, as has the increased share prices for publicly traded companies. An incredible number of millionaires and billionaires have been created by this disease.

This optimism has been driven by the adoption three major technologies created in the past three years. The first is the use of on-farm tests for the virus. A year ago, testing was restricted to government laboratories, with tests limited to confirmation of the virus in pigs. On-farm testing has not only been used to immediately test suspect cases, but also to monitor herds without signs and, more importantly, assess potential modes of entry including feed, trucks and personnel.

The second technology has grown out of the availability of on-farm tests. Extraordinary steps are being taken, particularly on sow units. There is a shortage of weaned pigs, particularly gilts, with reported prices as high as $300. Stalled systems have shown particularly slow transmission rates, allowing the farms to only euthanize a portion of the herd, as little as 20 sows. This is dependent on constant monitoring of sick and dead sows, restricted movement and thorough sanitation. The method has been called tooth extraction based on the idea of a careful removal of infected animals. Even if unsuccessful, early identification and reaction markedly reduces viral load and makes cleanup more successful.

The third technology is vaccination. Although no vaccine is licensed, there were estimates that as many as seven different “rogue” vaccines are currently being used, including one modified live vaccine, with a wide variety of reported effects, including significant adverse effects. These vaccines are particularly attractive to smaller producers, as other technologies such as truck washes and testing are unavailable.

These vaccines are being tested for their ability to protect pigs from disease and death but not from infection. A major concern is that survivors of ASF continue to shed the virus, and it is likely that vaccines, at best, will do the same. This means that not only vaccinated pigs will remain a threat, but also the pork from these pigs, especially when the pork is untested.

Nonetheless, vaccines are attractive for the 80% of producers that are smaller and without current alternatives. One speaker at the Leman China conference called the pigs of these smaller producers their “coats.” In other words, these pigs provide capital to protect their owners from financial insults. The loss of pigs in these communities not only has financial effects but also cultural effects as the family pigs are central to celebrations such as Chinese New Year.

The dynamism of this industry, particularly larger producers, is driven by incredible insults and opportunities. The changes have gone beyond the imagination of most of us meeting together a year ago and, frankly, much of the advice given by us outsiders was insufficient. We have a great deal to learn about ASF and other diseases from fellow producers.

Source: John Deen, who is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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