City dwellers may not think often of the area pork industry, except when they catch a whiff of a hog farm on a drive down a rural road.

But pork producers contribute substantially to the regional economy. And one St. Peter vet was recently recognized for his efforts to keep pigs, and the pork industry, healthy.

In September, Dr. Darwin Reicks of the Swine Vet Center in St. Peter was awarded the Allen D. Leman Science in Practice Award, named for a late University of Minnesota Extension veterinarian.

Reicks was recognized for his work with boar studs, the male hogs used in breeding. His major accomplishment was developing a new test for Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, known as PRRS (pronounced “purrs”).

His test detects the swine disease more quickly and accurately and is now used across the country.

David Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, said PRRS — which does not affect humans — can be devastating when it spreads through a hog farm.

“It’s probably the largest economic contributor — from a standpoint of losses — we would have from disease,” Preisler said. “It just kind of weakens the immune system (of the animals), and then other diseases get an easier foothold.”

Dr. Bob Morrison of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, said, in an outbreak, hog farmers are forced to temporarily shut down operations or take costly measures to deal with the disease.

Morrison said the National Pork Board puts the cost of PRRS control at $600 million annually. With about 100,000,000 pigs sold each year in the U.S., that amounts to roughly $6 per pig, a substantial cost for pork producers, he said.

“(For) the local economy, the effect is huge,” he said.

Minnesota ranks third in pork production in the country, following Iowa and North Carolina.

Like the flu

Morrison said PRRS can spread like the flu does in humans, taking hold in a pig when it rubs noses with an infected animal, for example. But it also can be spread sexually, which is where Reicks’ research comes in.

The pork industry relies almost entirely on artificial insemination. Reicks’ lab tests the semen samples of boar studs for quality and quantity of sperm before they are used to inseminate sows.

“Probably a lot of the same type of things as when people go in (to a fertility clinic) when they’re having fertility problems,” he said.

He also checks for the presence of PRRS. But the semen test has proved only moderately reliable, often not showing the presence of PRRS in an animal two or three weeks after an outbreak at a hog operation.

“Because all the boars are all concentrated in one facility, if that gets infected with this disease you may have 20-, 30-some farms that potentially could get that infected semen,” Reicks said. “No one likes to see infected animals — for (the farmer’s) pocketbook and just the humaneness of it.”

Reicks made a leap forward when he developed a much more effective test, relying on blood samples. As when a diabetic pricks a finger to check insulin levels, the test relies on a quick prick of the boar’s ear.

“Very rarely do you find (PRRS) in the semen, but you find it in the blood very quickly after they’re infected, and in pretty much every animal,” Reicks said.

After the technique was first implemented in 2004, it spread quickly, and is now in use at hog operations across the country.

In Leman’s footsteps

Morrison said Reicks’ work — balancing a veterinary practice with scientific research — is in the spirit of Allen D. Leman. Leman continued to push the pork industry forward, even as he dealt with the day-to-day work of being a vet.

“It’s very hard for practitioners to allocate time to design and conduct research projects,” Morrison said. “So that differentiates (Reicks) from probably 99 percent of the practitioners out there.”

Reicks, who grew up on a northeastern Iowa hog farm, said he always planned to be a vet.

An Iowa State University graduate, Reicks came to the Swine Vet Center on an internship in 1994. Now, the pioneering work at the center takes him to hog operations everywhere from Iowa to Australia.

The seven-veterinarian team at the center also includes a previous Leman Award winner, veterinarian Dr. Tim Loula.

“Our clinic’s philosophy is to be the best,” Reicks said.

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