Communication and biosecurity are key to safe boar sharing
Regardless of the farm’s size, pig health can be jeopardised if hygiene standards aren’t kept up to scratch. Poor biosecurity can be disastrous and it’s unfortunately often the case that infection spreads beyond the confines of one herd, with health problems easily spread between sites where pigs are kept.
The biggest risk to a pig’s health is another pig, particularly one that’s brought in for the purpose of breeding. Bob Stevenson is a vet with particular expertise in farm animals and a special interest in swine. Bob is fully aware of the potential risk of boar sharing but appreciates the fact that it plays an important role within the industry.
"If a smallholder wants to mate their sows or gilts, boar sharing is really the only option if they don’t have their own boar," explains Bob.
Bob believes that when it comes to biosecurity in this situation, there’s very much equal responsibility between the individual wanting to mate their pigs and the hirer of the boar. "There’s no denying that boar sharing is a high risk strategy," comments Bob. "There’s always been an element of finger crossing in the movement of boars for hire. It will never be totally safe, but measures can be implemented to help reduce the risk; however, it’s a two way street."
The whole process should begin with conversations between the two parties prior to the boar’s visit, regarding the fitness of the boar, when he last worked, whether his vaccinations are up to date and particularly whether or not he’s been treated for mange, which is one of the very common diseases brought on to a farm by a boar.
Even if all parties are confident that the boar is healthy, precautions need to be considered once the boar reaches the site. "Mating needs to take place away from the rest of the herd, preferably in isolation for the duration of his visit," advises Bob.
It isn’t just the boar that could bring in disease; the vehicle in which he’s transported could also pose a threat. If the hirer arrives in a filthy trailer, disease could be literally driven right into the heart of the holding.
"There are many potential chances for disease to transfer and often people aren’t being careful enough. I’ve seen too many instances where a boar has been the instrument in causing a disease outbreak," says Bob.
He believes that in order to reduce the risk to an acceptable minimum, there needs to be knowledge of the health profiles of each herd. "Now that is quite a big ask, because smallholdings often have fewer than 15 pigs and the cost of generating detailed health reports can be quite expensive," admits Bob. "Nonetheless, there should be some sort of basic structured health plan on the farm."
This issue is being addressed by BPEX, the organisation representing the commercial pig farming sector and which is keen to embrace smallholders in their efforts to raise pig health standards.
Launched last year, the Pig Health Improvement Project (PHIP) is a major new national scheme with a single, clear goal – that of radically cutting disease risk amongst the country’s pigs.
"If we are to really make an impactful difference in reducing disease risk, then all the evidence shows that pig farmers, vets, smallholders and allied industry must work together," says Helen Clarke, BPEX’s veterinary projects manager.
She says that the scheme fundamentally involves pig owners and allied industry in a region coming together in ‘cluster groups’ to understand the disease risks in their area. "Meetings allow the regional issues to be debated and it provides a forum for ensuring that the solutions are best suited to that area."
The scheme is free to join and whilst some of the services on offer have commercial pig rearing in mind – such as abattoir reports that provide detailed carcass health data – Helen says that the free online health mapping tool is just as important to non-commercial pig keepers.
"Access to online health mapping raises awareness about any pig health related concerns in a smallholder’s locality. The PHIP mapping service shows the location of all surrounding pig units, and provides information about their health status," explains Helen. "Having this information enables smallholders to liaise directly with their local producers and work with them in maintaining good biosecurity practice."
The other huge advantage to joining the PHIP is the support on offer to smallholders. All members will be entitled to guidance and support from BPEX and will receive the monthly newsletter and member’s pack. "It’s a wonderful opportunity to access health advice from expert PHIP representatives, all of whom are happy to answer any health related questions from pig keepers," insists Helen.
Whilst joining the scheme should be seen as a collaborative approach to preventing the spread of infection, BPEX is keen to point out that maintaining high levels of hygiene of every individual smallholding is an important component of the scheme’s success.
Good biosecurity is key to the long-term survival of individual pig keepers, big or small, and the pig industry as a whole. To help identify potential risk areas, BPEX has produced a dedicated leaflet for smallholders identifying simple but vital biosecurity measures that should be considered on any smallholding.
Helen notes that the PHIP is unlike many other agricultural initiatives in the fact that it puts everyone on a level playing field and unites individuals from a variety of backgrounds.
"It doesn’t matter if you have one pig, or a thousand; all pigs are capable of contracting and spreading a number of contagious diseases. Every member of the PHIP is playing their part to improve the health of pigs within England and maintain good health status."
Bob Stevenson agrees with this. "Explanation and understanding from all sides is the way forward as farmers recognise the fact that regardless of how many pigs are on an enterprise, it only takes one of those pigs to contract a disease, and from that point it has the potential to spread rapidly," says Bob. "With regards to pig health and biosecurity, everyone’s in the same boat and everyone shares the responsibility."
He concludes by saying, "When that one pig is a shared boar, the risks are paramount given the intimate contact he makes with one or more of the resident pigs, whether that be respiratory, through skin contact or venereal. But whilst risky, for many smallholders it is the only option. I’m not trying to discourage the activity by any means, but given the high stakes involved, specific communication and planning is required prior to the visit as well as the implementation of a structured biosecurity plan on both farms.