Moving pig health to the back burner - if only for a moment

As I write this article, the pork industry and the world around it is in the midst of an economic meltdown due to the challenges associated with COVID-19. This is new territory for all of us. The long-term impact is unknown, unsettling and broad-reaching for everyone involved in pork production.
calendar icon 12 May 2020
clock icon 6 minute read

I have been involved with the pork industry since my first 4-H gilts in 1964 and have practiced swine veterinary medicine for more than 40 years. I experienced the swine economic disaster of 1998, when market hogs dropped below 8 cents per pound, and some producers had no choice but to euthanize pigs. No one thought we would ever see that again, but today’s reality suggests that we are in dire circumstances that could easily top 1998.

The current situation with packing plants temporarily closing is forcing pork producers to make agonizing decisions. Of course, I am speaking of the humane euthanasia of the thriving, healthy animals that pork producers raise for a living. Those are difficult and tragic words to utter - ones that go against the grain of our mission to produce a wholesome, nutritious and affordable protein from healthy pigs raised with high welfare standards.

As a veterinarian, I’ve had to euthanize animals, big and small, but it was always for specific, practical and compassionate reasons. I often did it to protect and advance the health of the herd. I also have done it to mercifully end an animal’s suffering. I do not take euthanasia lightly or without much consideration. The thought of having to euthanize a normal animal is a road that none of us - producers, employees or veterinarians - ever contemplated traveling.

Focus on mental health

This column was produced for Pig Health Today, but let’s discuss pig health another time. Today, I want to talk about mental health, the tremendous strain this situation has put on people emotionally and what we - as friends, family, consultants, business associates - can do to look after each other.

The story I’m about to share is not unique; I’m sure that many veterinarians have had similar experiences. In fact, this has happened twice in my career and I will never forget them.

About 25 years ago, I was called to a client’s farm. Upon arriving, I quickly realized that he was in a bad place, and it had nothing to do with sick pigs. To be clear, he wanted to end his life. I don’t know why he reached out to me, but he did. I brought no special counseling skills to this situation, but I did have the ability to listen, be present and talk. This was all new territory for me. We talked and we cried; we talked some more and we cried some more. We did that for 6 hours.

By the grace of God, and my limited skills, I was able to help this person work through his challenges. More importantly, he remains a great client and friend to this day.

Unfortunately, not all stories like this have a happy ending, but it reminds us of the humanity, emotion and personal commitment pork producers put on the line every day. Just as we are concerned about the humane treatment of the pigs, we must be concerned about the humane treatment and care of the people who raise them.

Today there is plenty of technical advice being offered about how to deal with this issue of having more pigs than our remaining packing plants can handle in the midst of a pandemic. It is, of course, important to utilize those resources and reach out for specific solutions. Still, because the problem is so big and widespread, it will likely not eliminate the need for euthanizing some herds and experiencing significant economic losses.

Supporting each other

For now, let’s leave that technical advice on the table for another day and instead focus on supporting each other. That is what will have the most lasting value. So, I offer this guidance to three groups that make up our industry.

  • Producers, we are here to help you. Strategic and tactical decisions made alone oftentimes result in poor outcomes. Bring in the support of employees and allied industry to help formulate your decisions. You may be able to identify an idea that could buy you some time. Today’s situation is very dynamic and may require you to adjust plans every day. In addition, remember that your employees are being asked to do things that are exceedingly difficult for them as well. Keep them in the loop about your thoughts and plans.
  • Employees, we are here to help you, too, and there is support all around you. Your employer understands that you are going through a difficult time. Humanely destroying pigs is not why you went to work on a pig farm. Keep the communication lines open and do not be afraid to ask for help. This is a tremendously difficult time for your employer, so be empathetic.
  • Allied industry, we all need to have our antennas up and look out for our producers and their employees. Pick up the phone and call or, if feasible while practicing social distancing, stop by and say hello. Identify things your company can do to help.

One thing that I have learned is that people don’t always reach out. I am reminded of an early clinical veterinary medicine class at Purdue University; the lesson was on the difference between clinical symptoms and signs. The professor explained that humans are the only species that have clinical symptoms because they can tell their physician how they feel. Animals do not have symptoms because they cannot tell us how they feel; animals only have clinical signs. While that distinction is true, in times like this, some people won’t tell us how they feel. We all need to watch people and look for clues that they’re hurting inside.

Please, for everyone in this industry, understand that you are not alone. We will get through this together.

Larry Rueff, DVM

Swine Vet Services
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