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COVID-19 - Pig Farmer Considerations

Coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19), caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), is currently causing drastic consequences in Ireland and across the globe and is now classified as a pandemic. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that are associated with different types of illnesses and this is a new strain that most probably originated in wet markets in China. Pig producers, not surprisingly, have a number of concerns relating to the protection of health, animal welfare and implications of the current COVID-19 pandemic on their operation of their unit.

The main symptoms include; a cough of any kind but generally dry, shortness of breath or breathing difficulties, a high temperature (38 °C or above) or chills, and general muscle aches and fatigue. The HSE guidelines state that if you develop symptoms you should self-isolate and phone your GP (Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital). You will be assessed by a GP over the phone and a test for COVID-19 will be arranged if necessary.

The HSE highlight a number of “Do’s and Don’ts” when it comes to controlling the spread of COVID-19, which includes good personal hygiene and the principle of “social distancing”.  This virus is passed on directly, through contact with an infected person's body fluids (e.g. from coughing or sneezing) or indirectly through contaminated surfaces (e.g. surfaces a person has coughed or sneezed on). The information currently available suggests that the virus can survive from a few hours to a few days on certain surfaces but it can be easily killed with disinfectants.

Staff management

All producers should ensure that their employees are aware of their employee rights and responsibilities. The HSA outline the key duties of employers and employees under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act.  The key duties of employers include:

  • Managing and conducting all work activities to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the safety, health and welfare of employees
  • Providing safe systems of work that are planned, organised, and maintained
  • Assessing risks and implementing appropriate control measures
  • Providing safe equipment including personal protective equipment, where necessary
  • Providing information, instruction, training and supervision regarding safety and health to employees
  • Having plans in place for emergencies

Employee’s duties include:

  • Cooperate with their employer and follow their instructions
  • Protect themselves and others from harm during the course of their work
  • Report any injury arising from work activity to their employer immediately
  • Follow procedures that have been put in place by their employee

All producers should ensure staff are fully aware of the virus threat and the national and farm specific procedures that are to be followed as a result. The HSE have developed informative posters relating to COVID-19 and these should be reviewed with staff and positioned throughout the farm in clearly visible locations. Staff should be informed that they should not come to work if they are feeling unwell and should follow HSE guidelines. All farm owners, managers and staff should stay up to date with updates from the relevant authorities and their responsibilities as employers. Some useful resources are included throughout and at the end of this article. Citizens information has detailed information on the policies and procedures for employers and employees who are affected by COVID-19.

It is also important as an employee to be considerate to the personal circumstances of staff in relation to COVID-19. These may include adapting to the closure of childcare facilities and schools or staff may have dependents who are, or they themselves may be, in the at risk group (60 years of age and over, a long-term medical condition or have a weak immune system).

Please ensure all necessary farm staff have been issued a letter confirming their need to undertake travel from home as an essential employee based on the list of essential service providers. If you need a template please contact Amy Quinn (amy.quinn@teagasc.ie).

Staff facilities

As the virus can survive from a few hours to a few days on certain surfaces all bathrooms and canteens should have soap and/or disinfectant products available at all times. Staff changing rooms, toilets and canteen areas should be thoroughly disinfected at least daily.

Staffing plans

Farmers need to plan for the potential of a reduced work force as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Depending on unit size and preference there are three options available. The main aim of these methods it’s to prevent farm personnel from becoming infected with the virus and in the case of infected farm personnel to prevent the spread as much as possible between staff and reduce the operation effects.

  1. Entirely alternating teams of staff: This option involves dividing the entire staff into two or more teams that work opposite days/shifts to the others, whereby no two teams are onsite at any one time.
  2. Multiple zoned teams of staff: This scenario may work best on large units. Staff members can be grouped based on pig section or farm building. The different groups must arrive, take breaks, use farm facilities and depart the unit at scheduled different If pigs are being transferred from one section to another staff should ensure that they do not come within at least 2 meters of each other but ideally much further. Shared facilities should be thoroughly disinfected after use by each group or if possible set up separate facilities (e.g. a separate canteen for each team with their own kettle, toaster etc.)
  3. Separation of all staff: This method may suit small units with limited numbers of staff. All staff must arrive, take breaks, use farm facilities and depart the unit at scheduled different Shared facilities should be thoroughly disinfected after each user. The same principles in relation to transfer of pigs above apply.

All three scenarios ensure that there is no physical contact between the groups or in the third case between any staff members. If staff between groups need to communicate this should preferably be done by phone. While these scenarios may seem strict they will ensure that if a staff member becomes infected the other teams or in the third case other staff members may continue working without disruptions and will not be required to self-quarantine. This is vital for the smooth operation of farms during this prolonged difficult period. It also might be worth ensuring that many staff are cross trained, so that they have the skills and familiarity with farm processes to operate sections of the unit outside of their usual areas.  The preparation and use of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will help staff to familiarise themselves with processes they’re not used to on a daily basis.

Emergency staffing plan: If it is an option, there may be people available with knowledge of your farm (e.g. ex staff with no recent contact with other pigs, retired staff or family members etc.) who may be able to provide some assistance on farm in the case that you were reduced to insufficient numbers of farm staff. If you think this might be an option it is best to make contact now and have them identified and up to speed with current farm procedures in advance. 

Visitors

Only essential visitors should be permitted on site (e.g. vets or essential maintenance personnel). On arrival to the unit all visitors should fill in a visitor declaration form to assess the risk, including if they are exhibiting any signs of the virus and details of recent travel. If they are deemed to be a high risk they should not be permitted. If not high risk they should informed of your virus control policies prior to entry.

Including how it is essential that all visitors permitted remain at least 2 meters away from all farm personnel at all times. Visitors should also follow the strict farm biosecurity procedures including the use of personal protective equipment (provided by the unit) prior to entry. In relation to deliveries, all farm personnel should not approach any drivers. Delivery dockets should be left in an agreed location and not handed to staff. Provision of hand sanitisers at the location where dockets are handled will provide added biosecurity.

Other concerns

Aside from concerns relating to virus occurrence and spread prevention which are addressed above, pig producers have a number of other operational concerns.

Reduction in slaughterhouse and export capacity: This is a serious pig welfare concern for farmers as farms could start to have problems with overstocking within a week if slaughtering capacity is reduced. Speak to your processor and try to operate a ‘Christmas schedule’ whereby one to two weeks of pigs are forward sold now in advance of any possible slaughtering difficulty. In the event that the number of slaughterings are reduced, it is best to know already the maximum carrying capacity of the farm. In some few instances units may have access to other housing facilities off site. If so it is worth investigating at this stage. 

Disruption to supplies: Many producers are concerned about national disruptions to feed, feed ingredients and veterinary supplies. There is also potential risk of delays in international supplies especially for protein (soya) and minerals and vitamins.  Mills, feedstuffs suppliers and vaccine and antibiotic suppliers will all be implementing their own protective measures to reduce spread of COVID-19 as best as possible. In order to best mitigate these issues on your farm it is wise to order all required supplies in ample time, e.g. don’t let bins run low or empty and order vaccines and antibiotics well in advance of requirement.

Teagasc Pig Development Department

Please note that the Teagasc Pig Development Department (PDD) is still operational and the Teagasc advisors are available to discuss any concerns. However the way we operate has had to change in light of the current situation in order to comply with national and organisational virus prevention and control measures.  We encourage all producers to engage with us by phone or email. Farm visits will only be undertaken for urgent issues. Teagasc advisors will strictly adhere to social distancing and hygiene protocols and any further farm specific protocols in the event of a unit visit.

It is necessary to defer or cancel all public events, discussion groups and courses until further notice.  As a result the Teagasc PDD will be developing material to disseminate to producers and will investigate new methods of communication in order to best assist producers in the weeks ahead. Contact details for all PDD staff are available at;

https://teagasc.ie/animals/pigs/staff/. Frequent updates will be available on the PDD twitter account (@teagascpig) and Teagasc Pig website (https://teagasc.ie/animals/pigs).

Teagasc Pig Research Facility, Moorepark

Similarly to all pig units the Teagasc Pig Research Facility in Moorepark is treating the virus threat seriously and has implemented a number of protection measures.

  • A two team rota system has been set up for the day to day functioning of the research facility currently. If any member of any individual “team” becomes symptomatic then the remaining members of that team will have to self-isolate/quarantine.
  • A member of each team will thoroughly clean and disinfect common areas at the end of their working day.
  • A team of contingency staff have been identified that would be able to work in the unit in the event of one team requiring self-isolation/quarantine in order to maintain all farm functions as much as possible.
  • Staff are asked to work alone as much as possible but when tasks involve close proximity working that a minimum social distance of 2 meters is adhered to.  
  • Staff are asked not to cross into other people’s sections or avoid unnecessary visits to common work areas, this reduces the risk to staff of infection form door handles, driving boards computer equipment etc.  
  • Assigned 1 member of staff to certain tasks, for example updating all feed computers and inputting any changes necessary for all sections, not just their own. This will greatly reduce the chance of infection transfer from objects and also reduce the chance of multiple staff members in an office area or confined space at the same time.  

Posters

Useful information sources

General information

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