Health is wealth for pigs as well

| Posted by J. Mikhail Solitario

Did you know that next to rice, the second biggest industry in agriculture is pig or swine farming? And that in this industry, the latest data show that at least seven out of ten pig farmers are involved in backyard pig farming?

Backyard pig farmers are not as well-equipped as their industry-grade counterparts who operate in large tracts of land with tools, equipment, and techniques backed by up-to-date research. Instead, backyard pig farmers rely on their own strategies in raising their own pig farms. Most of these strategies have been passed down one generation to the next in a family.

 

A typical backyard farm illustrating close interactions between animals. (Photo from Dr. Lyre Murao)
A typical backyard farm illustrating close interactions between animals. (Photo from Dr. Lyre Murao)

 

This potential piqued the interest of Dr. Lyre Espada Murao, Associate Professor at the College of Science and Mathematics in UP Mindanao, who is also part of the University’s Balik PhD program. “There’s a gap that we can fill in as a scientist. What can we do to help them [pig farmers]? Being in the field of infectious diseases, we thought this was something we could bring to the table for them,” Dr. Lyre recalls.

According to her TEDx profile, Dr. Murao “teaches anything micro from molecules to microbes and cells but once outside the classroom, she goes hunting for nasty viruses.” This hunt led her to ask the local city veterinarian for data on backyard pig farmers. Her team found out that the local vet had a list of less than 10 backyard pig farmers which did not seem to add up, given Davao City’s expansive area. After reaching out to farmers’ organizations, veterinarians, and technical experts, they were able to zero in on four major districts: Tugbok, Calinan, Bunawan, and Toril. Dr. Lyre and her team went around to survey all the barangays and were able to obtain a comprehensive list of more than 800 farmers.

 

Crafting the study design

The next step was to obtain formal permission from the local government to conduct research on pig farms with the backyard pig farmers. The particular research is done in collaboration with Dr. Pete Alviola and his students from UP Mindanao’s School of Management. They crunch the numbers and data, while Lyre takes care of the biological aspect of the study. The main focus is to identify existing management practices and integrate new strategies in terms of managing diseases to help improve the overall economics of the farms.

 

Research staff and thesis students preparing for molecular detection of rotavirus A (Photo from Dr. Lyre Murao)
Research staff and thesis students preparing for molecular detection of rotavirus A (Photo from Dr. Lyre Murao)

 

The decision to direct research attention to Rotavirus A is predicated on two primary considerations: one, it has an effect on the pigs; and two, it has a public health dimension. Dr. Lyre explains that the virus causes diarrhea and gastroenteritis in pigs, which stunt the animals’ growth, and lead to smaller profits for farmers. In addition, recent scientific reports indicate that Rotavirus is capable of zoonosis, meaning that the virus can cross barriers among hosts, from pigs to humans, especially children.

To gather data, Dr. Lyre’s team monitored randomly selected farms for 12 months, visiting those farms monthly to check the presence of Rotavirus and compare it with the farm’s prevailing management practices. They had to examine fecal samples because this was where the virus showed up. The samples underwent molecular diagnostics, while the team simply interviewed the farmers to obtain data on management practices. While the study design is relatively simple, Lyre believes in the significance and wide use of the findings of the study.

 

Forwarding the findings

The findings are interesting: there are certain factors outside of management practice that can predispose a farm to Rotavirus A. For example, the number of pigs, as well as the presence of other animals on the farm, such as goats and chickens, can increase the likelihood of getting infected by the virus. “This goes back to our theory on zoonosis where the virus can just transfer from one host to another,” she explains. However, she recognizes the difficulty in abruptly changing the farmers’ ways of raising backyard pigs. “You can’t just tell them to raise only five pigs, or to stop raising other animals in their backyards. It’s their source of living.”

 

The research team and students working on different aspects of rotavirus A and other pathogens (Photo from Dr. Lyre Murao)
The research team and students working on different aspects of rotavirus A and other pathogens (Photo from Dr. Lyre Murao)

 

Fortunately, hope is not lost when it comes to abandoning old ways. Dr. Lyre relates that after conducting their study, her team was able to identify factors that could be targeted to lessen the risk of contracting the Rotavirus. One is sanitation, where improper disposal and waste management can contribute a 45% increase in likelihood of Rotavirus presence. This can also be remedied by ensuring that there is enough space around the pig pen to isolate waste and not pass the virus on to other animals or humans.

Another factor is the putting pigs of different ages together. In this case, there is 35% less likelihood of their getting the virus. A similar study on age difference is conducted in humans. By using mathematical models, it was found that children are more predisposed to pass on influenza because they interact with children only; while adults who are exposed to other humans of varying ages are less likely to get the virus.

The last factor is a good diet. The research found that farms using purely commercial feeds have a higher risk of infection, compared to farms which use a mix of forage or natural food which contains fiber. Fiber is good for the pigs’ guts because it strengthens the organ and helps it resist the Rotavirus. Dr. Lyre recommends a mix of organic or natural food and commercial mix because the latter contains only protein and pigs need fiber too.

 

Dr. Lyre Murao speaks at a TEDx event to spread awareness about their research (Photo from TEDxRoxasSt Facebook page)
Dr. Lyre Murao speaks at a TEDx event to spread awareness about their research (Photo from TEDxRoxasSt Facebook page)

 

In terms of replicating the research findings and having actual stakeholders adopt the recommendations, Lyre says that a local government official was able to hear the presentation of the research project; so she hopes action may be taken by the government to address the concerns of backyard pig farmers. “It was one of the promises I gave the barangay captains when we reached out to them, that the results would be returned to them. So right now I’m looking for opportunities to do that,” says Dr. Lyre. She recently spoke at a TEDx event of the same vision of sharing what they have discovered by marrying fields such as biology and mathematics. The research will also be published in the Tropical Animal Health and Production journal. “I want to make people aware of what we’re doing as scientists, so they can see that there is relevance in what we do.”