Just like humans, plants and animals are susceptible to diseases and pathogens that carry them. Once a disease gets into an area where livestock are kept it may spread quickly and be very hard to eradicate from that area. Preventative measures are the most effective way to treat these diseases. Farms call these measures Biosecurity measures and they include structural and physical barriers such as barns and operational measures such as utilizing boot covers, changing/showering in and out of barns and quarantine periods for incoming animals
In order to keep disease to a minimum in the United States, all farms should be using forms of biosecurity to limit the spread of disease. On our farm we have some simple methods, less intense than farms that raise higher quantities of livestock, but nonetheless important methods that help make sure we are doing our part to limit disease spread. For example, eliminating pests that can carry disease is very important to biosecurity. Traps for mice and rats are set up around the farm, flies are kept to a minimum by using traps and baits for the entire season, and brush and clutter are cleared and cleaned to keep these pests from making homes around our barns and farm. All feed is kept secure as well to prevent pests and disease from entering that way. Birds are our biggest battle on the farm, particularly Starlings and House Sparrows. Birds are some of the biggest vectors of disease because they can travel long distances, carrying disease from things they eat and they perch high and defecate in water and feed for our livestock. Since we raise our pigs outdoors there is always the possibility that feed, water and pasture can get contaminated by bird feces. Eliminating spots for nesting by filling in roofs in our barns and getting rid of areas for them to perch are some of the ways we try to stop birds from interacting with our animals.
Another key component of biosecurity is making sure anyone entering pens is clean and free from disease. I make sure that the boots I wear in pens with my livestock are not worn in public places and are clean before I enter pens. Boots are fomites: inanimate objects that when contaminated with or exposed to infectious agents can transfer disease to a new host. Imagine I wear my boots to tractor supply, where many other farmers go as well, and a farmer goes in that store carrying feces on his boots from his farm that contain a virus or bacteria. Imagine I come in contact with his boots or I walk in the same path he walks and my boots pick up that pathogen. I then enter my animal pen without cleaning my boots and thus introduce that pathogen to my barn and my livestock. That is how disease can easily spread from farm to farm. While it may be unlikely that I carry a disease all the way from a store aisle, it is likely that if I go to another farm and get feces on my boots and then go to my farm that I will introduce new bacteria or pathogens to my animals. I can do my part by making sure that when I go to public places or other farms, I wear clean clothes and boots and when I come back to my farm I change or clean my boots before entering any livestock areas.
In addition to keeping external threats out, biosecurity is also practiced within the farm to keep internal threats from spreading. For example, while it is rare for chickens to pass disease to pigs there is still a small threat, so when I feed in the morning, I make sure I feed the pigs first when my boots are clean and then I go to the chickens. During farrowing season, I make sure to the same thing. Since the piglets are more vulnerable to disease, I always go into that area first so I do not introduce any germs that their immune system isn’t ready to handle yet. Then I make my way to feeding the older pigs and I always make sure that I am clean before I enter back into the farrowing area. If we have new animals come to the farm, they are separated for a period of time called quarantine to make sure they will not introduce new disease to the farm. Same with any equipment we use around the animals, it must be clean and sanitary before it is moved to different parts of the farm.
D’Agata’s Fine Family Farm is a small farm and we raise all our animals outdoors. Without any fully enclosed areas, our animals have a greater chance of being exposed to disease, wild animals and pests. We are able to keep these threats under control because we do not raise hundreds-thousands of animals at a time and we are more easily able to keep issues contained if they do arise. However, it is harder for large farms to contain issues and disease can spread very easily throughout all the livestock if a breach of biosecurity happens and a few animals are exposed. Biosecurity is one of the reasons large farms have full confinement facilities. These facilities are maintained and work well to keep diseases out and are primarily used in swine and poultry production. With these animals, disease is usually devastating and can harm the entire industry if it is not prevented and treated correctly. Such diseases may have no impact on public health, like African Swine Fever, which is currently a virus causing millions of pigs to die in China. The United States is preparing for this virus to potentially enter this country and enacting many biosecurity measures to prevent it. However, other diseases can have an impact on public health. Remember the Avian Influenza threat or even the Swine flu, both are considered Zoonotic diseases and, while extremely rare, could potentially be passed to humans. Biosecurity is not only important to production but to human health as well.
What you can do to help:
Most farmers do their best to keep their animals free of disease and to keep the food supply secure and safe. In addition to ensuring biosecurity, it is becoming more and more important to farmers to help educate the public about agriculture. This is done through social media, but there is also an important hands-on aspect that should be shared. Farms are opened up to farm tours, they bring their animals to showcase at fairs and some even throw events or parades for people to come and interact with the plants and animals being raised. Sometimes these events are put on hold because of biosecurity risks. This year a huge event: the annual National Pork Expo in Iowa, was cancelled because of the possibility of African Swine Fever. However, it is unreasonable to stop all agritourism and agricultural shows and events in the name of biosecurity, so instead farmers participate in these events, but do so with caution. Before animals unload from trailers at any fair, a veterinarian is there to certify health certificates. Animals must have ear tags and identification. Radio Frequency ID ear tags are becoming required for all animals at exhibitions and shows.
My friend Anna wrote a policy brief while studying her Master’s Degree about animal traceability and identification that outlines the importance of why tracing an animal is so important, read it here:
If there is a disease outbreak at a fair, ear tags allow officials to find and trace back all animals that may have been affected in order to contain the disease. Other cautions are also implemented such as separate pens for animals and “Do Not Pet” signs. If you go to a fair and you see signs that say, “Please Do Not Pet The Animals” please remember that that sign is not meant to be mean, it is meant to keep you safe and to protect not only your health, but the animals’ health as well. This is also a reason why pets are not allowed in fairs, in addition to safety, they too can carry disease and pass diseases to livestock.
If you go to a farm, whether it raises plants or animals, be courteous and mindful. If there are signs that say, “Do Not Enter” “Do Not Pet” or “Wash your hands/boots” obey them. To further understand biosecurity on a global level take a look at this interesting video by the United States Customs and Border Protection at New York Port Authority.
There are so many things to think about when discussing biosecurity, and because of the nature of the world it is very hard to be 100% biosecure. But by being educated about the risks and exercising caution the spread of disease can be dramatically reduced thanks to biosecurity.