Early Investment in Filtration Pays Dividends for Animal Health, Biosecurity

The investment in filtration equipment for sow farms that began as a “leap of faith” by Pipestone Management over a decade ago has evolved into a critical element of keeping sows and piglets protected from deadly viruses.

Pipestone was the first to install filtration equipment on a commercial sow farm in the United States in 2007 as part of efforts to reduce outbreaks of PRRS (Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome).

“We were hearing from our customers and shareholders that we needed to do something to get healthier pigs more reliably, which drove us to filtration,” said Joel Nerem, DVM, and veterinarian with Pipestone Veterinary Services. “In theory, we thought filtration technology would work. We chose the Hawkeye II barn because it was located in a very pig dense area and at high risk for PRRS outbreaks.”

A new PRRS infection in a sow farm not only causes abortion and death loss of sows and piglets, but also results in respiratory disease for the pigs when they move to nursery and finishing barns after weaning. Each new outbreak can have a financial impact of $200,000 to $1 million, so investments in equipment, technology or management practices can make a tremendous difference.

Hannah Walkes, President of Pipestone Veterinary Services, said that the installation of filtration equipment was not only a leap of faith, but also came with a steep learning curve. She noted that the team quickly learned that filters worked, but found that relying on filtration alone wasn’t good enough to ensure biosecurity.

“We had to take a closer look at nearly all the procedures for how we handled animals and people, from where and how we source supplies, to how contractors worked in the buildings, to how we removed dead animals – anything that could provide an opportunity for disease to enter had to be addressed,” she said.

At the time, filters cost around $150 each, and a 3,000 head sow farm required 2,000 filters. With all the upgrades and equipment necessary to install and make filters work, the total investment to add filtration to a sow barn could range from $2.00-$2.50 per pig.

“We saw an improvement in health with the first filters and at other early locations,” said Dr. Nerem. “While it was and still is a significant investment, a new outbreak could easily exceed the cost of filtration.”

Over 10 years, there has been a significant increase in the use of filtration systems. Today, about 60 percent of sow barns in Pipestone management are filtered, and adoption is widespread across the industry.

Key factors in deciding whether a barn should be filtered are the location of the barn and whether it is in a pig dense region, and the health history of the barn. Filters are becoming more common on construction of new facilities even in less pig-dense areas as an extra level of precaution, said Walkes.

The increased use of filtration in sow barns has also driven more competition in the marketplace, helping lower costs by 25 to 30 percent, and sparking the development of filters that better meet the needs of agricultural barns.

“When we started looking for filter options, there were only a couple companies who could provide the equipment,” said Dr. Nerem. “The original filters were designed for industrial facilities like hospitals, laboratories or food service buildings. These facilities were typically only purchasing a handful of filters, not the 2,000 or so that we needed for each barn.”

Since 2013, Pipestone has also been conducting testing of brands and types of filters to determine effectiveness and durability. A number of new filter manufacturers have entered the marketplace, which provides price competitiveness, but also means that more testing is needed across a wider number of product options.

“Not all filters are created the same. There are differences in how well they capture virus, their lifespan and durability. We’ve found that the cheaper option is not always the best value,” said Walkes.

Pipestone entered the supply chain in 2013, by beginning a direct relationship with 3M, which gave the Pipestone team direct ties to the engineers and manufacturing team to develop products that best fit needs of agricultural users. The direct relationship also allowed them to reduce the cost of filters, which was important to allow more farmers the financial opportunity to use the technology. The insertion into the supply chain, along with new suppliers has allowed the price of filtration to be reduced dramatically, with Walkes estimating the cost to about $1 to $1.50 per pig today.

“There were a lot of ‘aha’ moments as we began working with filtration, but we’ve learned a lot over the years and those moments are happening less often,” said Walkes. She noted that one of the biggest lessons learned was how important inspection, monitoring and proactively testing filters was to catch defects or maintenance needs.

“If we can prevent one new virus introduction, the installation and maintenance of filtration pays for itself and provides health and economic benefits at the sow farm and for farmers raising those pigs across the system.”