Across all corners of the globe, people’s lives have been severely disrupted by the Coronavirus 19 (COVID-19) pandemic. Here in Ireland we are into a second week of national lockdown where citizens are only allowed to leave their homes under certain circumstances, such as to buy essential groceries or to travel to work that is deemed essential. More countries will enforce similar restrictions, if they have not done so already. We have an obligation to our consumers that we do our bit to ensure a continual supply of safe, nutritious and healthy pork.
Pig producers are still rearing pigs with the same high level of biosecurity as always, but now it is essential to ensure your staff members stay healthy.
Travelling to the farm
Firstly, you will need to ensure your staff are able to travel unrestricted to your farm. You should print and sign a letter that states their name and address. It is also important to mention their role (caring for animals) is an essential activity and cannot be done remotely. Also include your personal contact number
Measures on farm
The next important point is your staff’s wellbeing when they arrive onto the farm. As an employer you have a duty of care towards your staff which maintains their health, safety and welfare. You must provide a safe place to work, control any risks and ensure that personal protective equipment (PPE) is provided if necessary.
Figure 1: COVID-19 information poster on the front door of one of McAuliffe Farms’ pig farms
It can take up to 14 days for symptoms of COVID-19 to appear. Common symptoms include a fever, a cough and shortness of breath. If you or any staff have any of these symptoms then you must behave as if you have contracted the virus and stay at home in self-isolation until you get tested. Currently, the testing procedures vary between different countries so ensure you are aware of the current guidelines. Single-use disposable thermometers or a handheld infrared thermometer are inexpensive options which when used at the entry of the farm, could possibly prevent an outbreak among all your staff. You will also need to speak to your staff about their home situation – they could possibly have family members who are in an ‘at risk group’ such as having a compromised immune system or an elderly person.
Preparing for worst case scenarios
There are a number of COVID-19 related issues which could have a huge impact on how you run your pig farm.
Firstly, you need to prepare if you or one of your staff become infected with the virus. Make a list of the key tasks that each staff member does. Will other staff be able to carry out these tasks? This is more important on smaller farms perhaps if there are no other staff and only just you working on site. Who is your cover person? Are there any risks on your farm that you know of but perhaps others might not know of? If you or another staff member carries out any detailed tasks like working on feed computers, ventilation systems etc, you could film a video carrying out these tasks with your smartphone. A former staff member who is out of work because of this pandemic, or indeed a retired staff member would know how your farm operates – perhaps you could contact them and ask if they could assist in an emergency situation.
A staff member becoming infected is a serious problem, especially if that person has an important role that ensures the rest of the farm operates effectively. If a number of your employees become infected at the same time then it’s disastrous. It is essential to prevent the spread of the virus between staff.
In many countries we are adhering to strict social distancing measures and this too needs to be implemented on your staff.
- You can arrange for split shifts to operate; dividing your staff into teams to work at different times, perhaps one team works in the morning and the other team works in the evening. If you are going for this option then ensure that there is sufficient cleaning and disinfection products for every staff member to clean down their area after use.
- If your staff must work together then you need to ensure they do not come into contact with each other on the farm. You could set up temporary canteens so that the staff are split into groups for their lunch break. Buy more essential canteen items like toasters/kettles etc so each group have their own items Likewise with toilets/showers, allocate these between the different groups. Do you allow phones on your farm? How can your staff communicate with each other if they cannot physically get in contact? A two-way radio system could be a cost effective option.
Figure 2: public viewing gallery being used as a temporary canteen at one of the McAuliffe Farms pig farms (note the chairs on opposite ends to maintain social distancing and the paper towel to ensure staff members clean the area after use)
At this time only essential visitors should be allowed on farm. In many countries, audits for Quality Assurance schemes have been postponed and certification has been extended. Find out if this is also the case for your country/region.
If delivery drivers are visiting your farm then you will need to ensure that social distancing is maintained. Arrange for an area where they can leave delivery dockets so your staff can obtain them. This should already be a normal biosecurity procedure on farms.
The rest of the pork supply chain
What I have written about so far are measures that you can control, but unfortunately there are Covid-19 issues that cannot be controlled outside the farm gate.
With border closures and restricted travel, it has been reported that there will be a labour shortage. In the USA and Canada, thousands of temporary foreign workers arrive to work in farms and processing plants each year. In many countries there are reports of severely reduced slaughter numbers. You may need to speak with your processing plant and your veterinarian to prepare for an event where you will not be able to sell your pigs. Have you additional space on your farm for these extra pigs? Have you temporary off-farm accommodation for them?
Stay in regular contact with your suppliers – there may be disruptions to feed and veterinary supplies. Delays can be expected, try and ensure your orders are inputted in advance of requirement.
Processing plants too have introduced additional measures. Many of them have split their work force into teams. To maintain social distancing they have provided additional canteen areas and smoking area. They have also provided more cleaning and disinfection supplies along with installing partitions/barriers to provide an additional barrier between staff at their relevant work stations.
Shane McAuliffe is from Kerry in Ireland where his family have 2000 sows across 4 modern sites including Ireland’s first freedom farrowing farm. He has a Masters in Pig Health from the Royal Veterinary College in London where he studied associations between respiratory disease status, production performance, biosecurity and antibiotic use on Irish pig farms. He is also Secretary of the Irish Pig Health and Chairman of Pig Health and Welfare on the Irish Farmers Association National Pig and Pigmeat Committee. In 2019 he was chosen as an EU PIg Ambassador for his work in community management. An advocate of pig welfare, Shane also works part time as the International Swine Business Manager for EASYFIX Ireland where he develops the worldwide market for the EASYFIX range of environmental enrichment for pigs.