Why one Will County pig farmer isn’t worried about a virus
By Erin Gallagher Correspondent August 8, 2014 6:38PM
Bill Bernhard, Will County's largest pork producer, pets his pigs. | Erin Gallagher/Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 19, 2014 6:08AM
Pork is a hot commodity. That is partly because of a deadly virus that eliminates entire herds if contracted. However, the largest pork producer in Will County isn’t overly concerned.
On a national scale, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, or PEDV, has affected pork production by about only 6 percent to 8 percent since it appeared in April 2013, according to Bill Johnson, a Joliet Junior College professor and agriculture economics expert. Because farmers are “innovative and ingenious,” he said, they combated the loss by feeding pigs longer, increasing weights. That minimized industrywide losses to 1 percent to 2 percent, Johnson said.
That is little comfort to farmers whose herds contract PEDV. There is no vaccine, guaranteeing a 100 percent death rate for animals. The virus does not transfer to humans.
While most pig farmers across the country are quaking in their barn boots, Will County’s largest pork producer likens the devastating virus to a cold.
“We’re kind of odd because we don’t worry about (PEDV),” said Bill Bernhard.
His family have been pig farmers since 1955. Bernhard, now 58, is second-generation and started working for his dad at age 12. He and seven others work the farm, keeping the herd generally isolated from disease. They have separate clothes and boots for days when they transport pigs to market for sale. Otherwise, they don’t come in contact with other pigs.
“The only people who work here are family,” Bernhard said. “It’s always the same people every day.”
His farm is a closed-herd “farrow to finish” operation. It does not buy piglets from outside, and it manages all stages of life on the same property.
That is an old-fashioned method of pig production. In the 1990s, the industry changed, with the intent of becoming more efficient. Different farms would exclusively manage particular stages of production. For example, one farm might only breed animals, then sell piglets to other farms for rearing.
The closed herd is another reason Bernhard is not worried about PEDV. Decades of this style of breeding have resulted in substantial immunity. An analogy would be when a child goes to day care or preschool for the first time and suddenly always is sick but eventually becomes immune. A closed herd has immunity built up.
“Farmers are raising a good, safe product humanely,” he said.
Bernhard’s family does not vaccinate the pigs. The operation is based on University of Illinois standards of humane conduct. The school’s studies determine how much space each animal needs, including how many pigs per pen. Unlike horses or dogs that need space to run, pigs do not, he said. Pigs are easily sunburned and are better indoors.
Sows don’t need a lot of room, Bernhard said, but easily can kill their piglets by rolling over on them. Birthing chutes save the babies while allowing sows what little space they need, he said. They also have cool, slated grates for sows and warm mats for piglets. The slats keep pens clean because fecal material falls below.
“Keep the pigs happy, they grow better — there’s no incentive not to,” Bernhard said.