Farmer-centric networks made up of farmers, vets, processors, and industry partners provide a forum for knowledge exchange. Using pleurisy as a case study, this project explored the potential of farmer-centric networks to support on-farm disease control. Working in collaboration with the English Pig Health Scheme and the Scottish Pig Health Network as well as a specialist consultant from Livestock Management Systems, researchers from SRUC took soundings from processors, and from producers, and their veterinarians, with pleurisy problems in their herds.

Fieldwork took place between November 2021 and March 2022. Over the course of the study, the project team attended two farmer discussion meetings, attended by a total of 18 farmers. In addition, researchers led six interviews with eight individual stakeholders. These included: one processor; one industry vet; one practicing vet; one producer; one producer and consultant; and one producer and vet. In the meetings, participants were invited to complete a semi-structured questionnaire as part of a wider discussion. In the interviews, questions about on-farm disease control preceded a more detailed review of farm-specific information packs. In the meetings and the interviews, there were questions about pleurisy; the reasons why pleurisy control measures may or may not be implemented; and around potential triggers for action. Researchers also explored the potential added value of further analysis and interpretation into pleurisy levels.

Most producers reported some issues with pleurisy and one veterinarian observed that “it could not be said that they had any units without pleurisy”. From a processor’s perspective, pleurisy was associated with potential disruption to throughput and added costs, especially when dealing with severely affected batches. While these reflections are not new, it was clear that there is scope for a more joined-up approach between the triad farmer-vet-processor. Feedback from the slaughterhouse was described as the primary source of information used to monitor pleurisy, and the importance of this data being consistent, reliable and timely was widely emphasised.

As pleurisy can go largely undetected on-farm, yet raised levels be reported at slaughter, this puts the emphasis on meat inspection processes. A distinction was drawn between an underlying, low-level of infection in a high proportion of animals that is not picked-up until slaughter; and a more aggressive form contributing to mortality on farm but with a lower level of cases detected at slaughter. How producers respond will be informed by these circumstances. A follow-up call from the processor in response to a raised level of infection being detected on the slaughter line, was described as exerting a potentially powerful incentive to act on the producer.

Producers associated respiratory health with ‘air quality’ and ‘ventilation.’ Bigger farms and units with higher stocking densities were seen as susceptible to pleurisy but other factors included staffing (pro-active or reactive), feeding (wet or dry) and veterinary oversight (specialist or generalist). Vets expressed some concern that while producers may see “putting in a vaccine” as a more straightforward response than altering buildings or changing the pig flow; it represents “part of a response, not the silver bullet” with management being the first part of the response.

The farm information packs – where farm specific data was presented alongside industry data – were well-received with particular value attached to the benchmarking data. There was interest also in providing a structure for managing the process of implementing change (checklist and planning tools) and reinforcing the ‘sense of working towards something’ e.g. an agreed target.

Supporting the relationship between the producer and their veterinarian was seen as central to the proposition of a farmer-centric network. There was potential value perceived also in extending the initiative across the wider supply chain in pursuit of a more joined-up approach and a systemic change in mindset that sees pleurisy control as a pro-active, ongoing process. Overall, contributing key pieces of information in a coordinated way to the farmer-centric networks – as opposed to farmers alone, and then their vets separately – seems to be the most effective approach to discuss problems, find solutions and implement change on farm.

Contact details:

Maria Costa

Lecturer – Veterinary epidemiology

Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC)