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Swine & U Column: UMN’s small farm swine health survey is underway

By Diane DeWitte, UMN Extension Swine Educator
Originally printed in The LAND - as February 17, 2023 Swine & U column

The University of Minnesota has Animal Science faculty that have successfully studied group sow housing, organic pigs and alternative swine production for several years. Readers here are familiar with Dr. Yuzhi Li’s work at UMN’s West Central Research & Outreach Center (WCROC) conducting university-based, peer-reviewed studies of organic pig farming. Dr. Li and Dr. Lee Johnston, both UMN Department of Animal Science faculty, have spent more than a decade developing projects which have measured how well pigs raised in non-traditional or alternative production systems grow, take care of their piglets, and survive.

Dr. Li, Dr. Johnston, and a varied team of faculty from agronomy, economics, nutrient management and Extension are currently eighteen months into a complex study of organic hybrid rye grown for feed and bedding of organic pigs raised at WCROC. This USDA-NIFA funded project is an ambitious look at the economics of raising organic grain and pigs, along with the environmental impacts of an organic crop and livestock management system. Preliminary data is being shared this winter at UMN Extension Small Grains workshops. Upcoming workshops where hybrid rye will be discussed will take place in Le Center on Tuesday, February 21 at 9:00 a.m., and Thursday, February 23, in Slayton, at 1:00 p.m. Locations and more details can be obtained by emailing UMN Extension Small Grains Specialist, Jochum Wiersma, at

New UMN Swine Alternative & Outdoor Research

The organic and alternative pig farm research done at the University of Minnesota so far has focused on parasite control, herd management and nutrition. However, a team at the UMN College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine’s swine group, has been considering the medical side of outdoor and alternative pig production in Minnesota. Funded by a Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) grant, the team has launched its project to learn more about how non-traditional pig farms in Minnesota deal with disease and health issues.

The study is the PhD project of Miranda Medrano, DVM, working with UMN’s CVM faculty Marie Culhane and Cesar Corzo. Miranda has an interesting background; a native of California’s Central San Joaquin Valley, she raised various livestock species in 4-H and FFA, and developed a passion for livestock and the agriculture industry. She left California and earned her BS in Animal Science at Cornell University in upstate New York, after which she earned a DVM and a Masters of Public Health degree at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia. She had exhibited pigs in 4-H and FFA back in California, but it was during a vet school rotation with a veterinarian in Nebraska that she sharpened her interest in the swine industry, in production management, biosecurity and infectious disease.

August 2020 brought Miranda to the University of Minnesota to complete a PhD. Her focus is helping farmers keep their livestock healthy, in particular epidemiology and fighting infectious disease.

How Alternative and Outdoor Farmers Manage

To learn more about how specific farmers raise their pigs, the research team has developed a survey. The survey will be offered to alternative and outdoor pig farmers, and data collected will be compiled into the results of the study.

In discussing the study, Medrano notes, “Of course we have our more traditional pig production systems but there are a lot more smaller farms that also raise pigs specifically being outdoors. This survey is to collect information about this population and about the farmers who raise these pigs. We're interested in better describing their production and management practices, and those aspects which include biosecurity. We’re also interested in learning about marketing practices and different certifications the farm has, such as being certified organic or PQA+ certified.”

Pig Health Across the State

The survey has also received funding from the Swine Disease Eradication Center at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. This support will allow Medrano to provide disease testing on participating farms.

While other alternative swine UMN research pinpointed nutrition and parasite control, this study is focused on some of the viruses that may be circulating in this population of pigs.

Medrano shared that there are actually more small farms in Minnesota that raise pigs outdoors, and there are small farms that raise pigs indoors. This study is important to understand what their production and management practices are so that UMN can better assist these farmers to keep their pigs healthy.

Unfortunately, a lot of the information known about the health status and production practices of pigs that are raised outdoors actually are from Europe and the UK. This study will add to the “institutional knowledge” of UMN’s university research, to learn more about what's going on in the disease profile of these alternative and outdoor pig farms. This project is to better define, describe, and characterize these practices, as well as the pigs' health statuses on farms that raise outdoor pigs in Minnesota specifically, and be able to better understand how that again might impact the pigs’ health status.

Miranda shared that in the survey she is focusing on four different practice areas: Production, Management, Biosecurity, and Marketing practices. Within these, the team asks questions about where the farm is located, and it can be as simple as the county name. The team is also interested in learning what type of pigs the farm has, specifically their age and where exactly those pigs are being moved from: Are they coming in from out of state? Are they being sold out of state?

In addition to better describing and characterizing the farm management practices, Medrano will also use the information provided to form a model that might be used to estimate what disease spread could look like in this population. “It's really focusing on any preventative measures that can be taken within the population, again, to better help decrease the spread or transmission of diseases.”

Pig Farmers Invited to Participate in the Survey

A very important consideration from the outset of this project has been protection of the participating farmer’s anonymity. The team wants participants and farmers to be comfortable sharing information, and so there are many steps required by the University of Minnesota that were be met before the survey was ready for distribution.

After survey data is collected, the team will follow protocols which protect the farmer. Use of the UMN online network protections when analyzing data, and housing the data behind protected firewalls are part of the procedures to protect the security of participants. Additionally, if any of the participants do not want any of their research results to be used for any other aspect of this project they can notify the team and the information will be destroyed.

The survey was launched in early January, and can be found at this online link: Incentives are provided for participants: All farmers who raise pigs outdoors continuously or partially during the year, in Minnesota, who complete the survey, will receive a $25 Visa gift card. In addition, free disease testing will be provided for participants who want it. Potential participants can visit with Miranda in person at the UMN booth at MN Pork Congress in Mankato, February 21-22, or contact her by email at or by phone at 612-440-5859.

Diane DeWitte is a UMN Extension Educator focused on swine and can be reached at Miranda Medrano can be reached at

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