diane dewitt new 2022

The University of Minnesota has Animal Science faculty who have successfully studied group sow housing, organic pigs and alternative swine production for several years. Readers here are familiar with Dr. Yuzhi Li’s work at the U of M’s West Central Research and Outreach Center conducting university-based, peer-reviewed studies of organic pig farming.  Li and Dr. Lee Johnston, both U of M Department of Animal Science faculty, have spent more than a decade developing projects which have measured how well pigs raised in non-traditional or alternative production systems grow, take care of their piglets, and survive. 

Li, Johnston, and a varied team of faculty from agronomy, economics, nutrient management and Extension are currently 18 months into a complex study of organic hybrid rye — grown for feed and bedding of organic pigs raised at WCROC.  Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, this project is an ambitious look at the economics of raising organic grain and pigs, along with the environmental impacts of an organic crop and livestock management system. Preliminary data is being shared this winter at U of M Extension Small Grains workshops.  Upcoming workshops where hybrid rye will be discussed will take place in Le Center on Feb. 21 at 9:00 a.m., and Feb. 23, in Slayton, at 1:00 p.m.  Locations and more details can be obtained by emailing U of M Extension Small Grains Specialist Jochum Wiersma at wiers002@umn.edu.

New alternative and outdoor research

The organic and alternative pig farm research done at the University of Minnesota so far has focused on parasite control, herd management and nutrition. However, a team at the U of M College of Veterinary Medicine, in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine’s swine group, has been considering the medical side of outdoor and alternative pig production in Minnesota. Funded by a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant, the team has launched its project to learn more about how non-traditional pig farms in Minnesota deal with disease and health issues. 

The study is the PhD project of Miranda Medrano, DVM, working with Marie Culhane and Cesar Corzo. Miranda has an interesting background. A native of California’s Central San Joaquin Valley, she raised various livestock species in 4-H and FFA, and developed a passion for livestock and the agriculture industry. She left California and earned her bachelor of science degree in Animal Science at Cornell University in upstate New York — after which she earned a DVM and a Masters of Public Health degree at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Va.  She had exhibited pigs in 4-H and FFA back in California, but it was during a vet school rotation with a veterinarian in Nebraska that she sharpened her interest in the swine industry, in production management, biosecurity and infectious disease. 

August 2020 brought Miranda to the University of Minnesota to complete a PhD. Her focus is helping farmers keep their livestock healthy — in particular, epidemiology and fighting infectious disease.

How alternative and outdoor farmers manage 

To learn more about how specific farmers raise their pigs, the research team has developed a survey.  The survey will be offered to alternative and outdoor pig farmers, and data collected will be compiled into the results of the study.

In discussing the study, Medrano notes, “Of course we have our more traditional pig production systems; but there are a lot more smaller farms that raise pigs specifically being outdoors. This survey is to collect information about this population and about the farmers who raise these pigs. We're interested in better describing their production and management practices, and those aspects which include biosecurity.  We’re also interested in learning about marketing practices and different certifications the farm has — such as being certified organic or PQA+ (Pork Quality Assurance Plus) certified.”

The survey has also received funding from the Swine Disease Eradication Center at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine.  This support will allow Medrano to provide disease testing on participating farms.

While other U of M alternative swine research pinpointed nutrition and parasite control, this study is focused on some of the viruses which may be circulating in this population of pigs.

Unfortunately, a lot of the information known about the health status and production practices of pigs raised outdoors are from Europe and the UK. This study will add to the “institutional knowledge” of U of M’s research — to learn more about what's going on in the disease profile of these alternative and outdoor pig farms. This project is to better define, describe, and characterize these practices, as well as the pigs' health statuses on farms that raise outdoor pigs in Minnesota specifically, and be able to better understand how that again might impact the pigs’ health status.

In the survey, Medrano is focusing on four different practice areas:  production, management, biosecurity and marketing practices.  The team asks questions about where the farm is located, and it can be as simple as the county name. The team is also interested in learning what type of pigs the farm has — specifically their age and where exactly those pigs are being moved from. Are they coming in from out of state? Are they being sold out of state?

In addition to better describing and characterizing the farm management practices, Medrano will also use the information provided to form a model which might be used to estimate what disease spread could look like in this population. “It's really focusing on any preventative measures that can be taken within the population, again, to better help decrease the spread or transmission of diseases,” she said.

Participate in the survey

A very important consideration from the outset of this project has been protection of the participating farmer’s anonymity. The team wants participants and farmers to be comfortable sharing information, and so there are many steps required by the University of Minnesota which were to be met before the survey was ready for distribution.

After survey data is collected, the team will follow protocols which protect the farmer. Use of U of M’s online network protections when analyzing data, and housing the data behind protected firewalls are part of the procedures to protect the security of participants.  Additionally, if any of the participants do not want any of their research results to be used for any other aspect of this project, they can notify the team and the information will be destroyed. 

The survey was launched in early January, and can be found at https://z.umn.edu/OutdoorSwineSurvey. Incentives are provided for participants: All farmers who raise pigs outdoors continuously or partially during the year in Minnesota, and  complete the survey, will receive a $25 Visa gift card.  In addition, free disease testing will be provided for participants who want it.

Potential participants can visit with Medrano in person at the University of Minnesota’s booth at the Minnesota Pork Congress in Mankato, Minn. on Feb. 21-22, or contact her by email at medra036@umn.edu or by phone at (612) 440-5859.

Diane DeWitte is an Extension Educator specializing in swine for the University of Minnesota Extension. Her e-mail address is stouf002@umn.edu   

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