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USDA grant expands data-sharing initiative that reveals swine disease trends

Posted Jun 2, 2023

After pioneering a system to improve swine health by collecting and publicizing pathogen testing results from large public veterinary laboratories across the Midwest, a team led by faculty from Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine is planning to bore even deeper to glean more insight from the vast data set.

Foundational Data

With a grant from the Swine Health Information Center (SHIC), the Swine Disease Reporting System (SDRS) was founded six years ago by Dr. Daniel Linhares, associate professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine and Roy A. Schultz Professor in Swine Medicine. The goal was to compile and analyze testing data from veterinary diagnostic labs to detect disease trends as they emerged, providing producers with an early warning system to prompt preventative responses such as increasing monitoring and heightening biosecurity measures.

“The SDRS provides that foundational data to educate the industry about pathogen activity in swine populations,” he said. “For the first time, it’s systematic and reported widely. It’s really a matter of knowing what’s out there and understanding that you’re not in the dark.”

The initiative started with the labs at Iowa State and the University of Minnesota, collecting testing data for one pathogen. Now the consortium has five members – including the state-run lab in Ohio and labs at South Dakota State University and Kansas State University – and tracks seven pathogens, with breakdowns by location, age, farm type and specimen type. The anonymous data is designed for spotting macrotrends and can’t be tracked back to particular producers or labs.

Data and analysis are shared monthly in an online dashboard and a podcast hosted by Linhares and Dr. Giovani Trevisan, a research assistant professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine at Iowa State. SHIC, a pork checkoff-funded industry organization charged with monitoring swine diseases, provides SDRS with ongoing operational funding and publishes a monthly report and newsletter including the data. SHIC Executive Director Dr. Paul Sundberg said the five SDRS labs handle at least 96% of U.S. swine diagnostic testing, making their aggregated data of great interest to the industry.

“It gives producers, practitioners and other stakeholders timely information about regional disease movement and risk that helps them manage the health of their own herds,” Sundberg said.

Digging Deeper

With nearly 73 million hogs in the U.S., the testing data collected by SDRS is substantial – more than 530,000 individual results in 2022, Trevisan said. A new three-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will help the SDRS team and collaborators expand how that information is used.

“With the grant, we’re going to dive deeper into the data to provide even more value to producers,” said Trevisan, projector director for the NIFA award.

The NIFA funding will support advanced genetic analysis to identify new variations of pathogens as they develop, leveraging what Trevisan said is one of the largest known private collections of genetic disease data. That will provide even earlier warnings about new swine health risks.

“We’re going to continue to see new strains, we just don’t know where or when. We want to be ahead of it whenever the next one comes,” Linhares said.

Trevisan said expanded data analysis also will help determine if there are geographic areas where SDRS should seek more information. And there may be other novel uses for the data set. Part of the grant involves educating veterinary medicine students and graduate students in other fields on SDRS’s trove of testing results, encouraging them to use it for conducting data-driven research or improving on-farm decision-making.

“We want to take the knowledge we’ve been building since 2017 and transfer it to students to help society,” Trevisan said.

The grant also will fine-tune how the disease trend data is shared with producers. SDRS experts will meet with hog farmers and other industry partners to study possible improvements in how the information is communicated.

“It’s a two-way road. It’s not just us downloading information to producers and industry stakeholders. We want their feedback,” Linhares said.