Fire in a pig house may be among the worst things that can happen to a producer. Unlikely as it may be, in the event of a blaze, it is good to be prepared, both immediately and for the near future. Brenda Jackson, in St Thomas, Ontario, Canada, had to start again from scratch after losing her 2,000 sow breeding farm.
By Vincent ter Beek
It happened on a Sunday night in August 2007, Brenda Jackson recalls. “When I went to bed at midnight, everything was fine. I was sleeping and heard fire trucks, thinking the TV was on.” People living further down the road, however, saw smoke, ran to her house and woke her up, she tells, “otherwise we would have slept through all of this burning. Anyway, when we got out there, everything was completely consumed in fire.
”When the following Monday morning broke, the size of the disaster at Pork Talbot Farms slowly became clear to its full extent. On this site, located near the town of St Thomas in southern Ontario, Canada, flames had completely destroyed the farrowing section. Additional sow and gilt houses were also affected by sparks and smoke. Altogether about 800 out of 2,000 sows had perished through the night – young piglets simply had disappeared.
As coldly as these devastating losses can now be summed up, equally as great however was the complete chaos that following morning. Imagine daytime temperatures rising to over 30˚C, in combination with smoking remnants of what used to be a farrowing barn. It wasn’t clear how things happened, what exactly was destroyed and what not, which animals had perished – and which lived – and what to do with them. There were no answers, only questions and more questions – from virtually every one, Brenda Jackson recalls. There was no time to sleep, she says, in the first days after the fire. She had about 750 phone calls in this period, dealing with everything that needed to be arranged.
Paul Morris, DVM, a veterinarian based in London, Ontario, was closely involved with the events in St Thomas in the days and weeks after the fire. Part of his role was to maintain animal welfare and document and address animal health concerns – a job easier said than done.
“Animals were sent to slaughter if they were healthy enough,” Morris explains. “If they were within a few weeks of farrowing, they were allowed to farrow. We are not allowed to transport sows that are near term. The owner did not wish to abort any of them. One then has to consider the welfare of the sow and/or the welfare of newborn piglets and try to adapt a dry sow barn into a farrowing unit. The extra labour, time and expected increase in pre-weaning mortality all have to be considered.”
Animal welfare was obviously only one of the many elements that urgently required attention in the immediate aftermath of the blaze. After things had calmed down, and the majority of animals had been taken care of, Morris realised that all knowledge and insights gathered during the fire and subsequent chaotic times may be helpful information for others for future emergencies. He decided to dedicate a presentation to his and Jackson’s experiences at the London Swine Conference, in January 2008. In his review, called Fire Disaster Recovery: Producer and Veterinary Perspectives, Morris identified three major themes that required immediate attention. In essence, he analysed, this came down to people, animals and the environment.
Fire - a checklist
Apart from obvious things when a fire happens like extinguishing it and cleaning up afterwards, a checklist can be made for things that are specifically related to swine barns.
- Consider buying a used hi-hoe (rentals can be expensive)
- Keep up to date quotes (appraisals) on desired facilities
- Maintain a call list for emergencies and keep in farm office and house – think of local, agriculture and environment authorities, pig production organisations, herd vet, electricity company, local equipment dealers, metal recycler, concrete crusher, electrician, portable toilets.
- Have lots of cordless tools
- Have a list of chemicals stored on the farm (so the fire brigade know what’s on-site)
- Make sure all farm data (inventory, production and financial) is stored off site, possibly scan documents so they are all digitised
In the event of a fire
- Be aware of danger when going into a burning barn:
- Is the electrical supply switched off?
- Is the fire site well ventilated and any potentially toxic fumes dispersed?
- Are remaining roof beams safe?
- Are there any gas bottles?
- Make sure morale is maintained for everyone, e.g. by providing meals
- Be sure to get lots of rest
- Depending on your attitude to animal welfare, consider destroying:
- Any pig with evidence of burns
- Any pig with respiratory distress
- Any pig in obvious distress as a result of falling into slurry pits as floors collapse
- In case of sows: ship sows up to three months gestation
Sources: Morris, Paul, Fire Disaster Recovery: Producer and Veterinary Perspectives (London Swine Conference, 2008); White, M.E.C., Dealing with farm fire (The Pig Journal, 49; 2002)
- Especially in the first moments, emergency personnel were extremely important as the fire had to be extinguished and police had to arrange safety and investigate.
- For cleaning, and removing, equipment operators had to be present. For instance, a hi-hoe, back-hoe, skid-steer, dump truck and livestock trucks were required in the process of tidying up the property.
- Barn staff had to attend to the animals – both dead and alive. “Staff were becoming overcome from the work, sight and smells,” Morris wrote.
- For support and guidance, advisory staff had to be arranged, like a veterinarian, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Ontario Pork, ministry of environment and an engineer.
- Electricity people had to be approached for installing new lines and panel boxes to serve the dry sow barn.
- The Ontario Farm Animal Council had to be contacted to deal with the media.
- Surrounding the animals, three major decisions had to be made, Morris reflected.
- • Survivors could be moved to any other barns until a decision had been taken on their health. Feeding had to be done manually again.
- • If there was no space for them, they had to be shipped to slaughter. This was not an easy job since the load-outs had also been destroyed. An additional question was related to whether sows should be shipped at all when there was a danger of inhalation of smoke – and until what age they should be shipped.
- • What to do with gestating sows approaching their due dates?
An aspect that had also to be taken into account was how to dispose of casualties.
Eventually a permit was given for mass burial after three days, as the site needed inspection.
These experiences, of course, were related to this farm, but could apply to any location, Morris says. “In my experience disaster plans like the one required for barn fires are few and far between.
“You would like to think it will not happen to you or your clients, but it eventually does to some degree. Disaster plans need to be customised to each farm but there are common elements such as making up the emergency contact list that are common to all emergencies. This issue was certainly brought to the forefront once this disaster occurred.”
In order to summarise all experiences and remarks, Morris and Jackson therefore jointly created a to-do list, just in case a fire would happen again, and this was included in the London Swine Conference presentation.
The list includes a lot of useful guidelines as to what to do when a fire like this breaks out (some are listed in the box: ‘Fire – a checklist’).
Pork Talbot Farms: Now & the future
As from this fall, Pork Talbot Farms will serve as the local breeding herd for Canadian breeder Genesus for Ontario province and the American corn belt – and has hence included two more barns in the production process, located across the road. One house will occupy about 150 Landrace and Yorkshire boars and a laboratory; the other will serve as a quarantine house for young gilts. Piglets will be shipped straight after weaning.
- Management: Jackson chose to move to loose sow housing with approximately 61 sows per pen and free access stalls – although she had preferred to tear down all walls between the pens, if budget had permitted this. Installing feed stations, however, turned out to be too expensive. Sows will be managed according to a batch farrowing system and farrow in a 6 x 8 foot crate (approximately 4.5 m2). In addition, sows and piglets will not receive any antibiotic growth promoters or vaccinations.
- Feeding: Sows are fed liquid feed, as plenty of by-products like frozen corn, frozen carrots and beer can be obtained easily, leading to a total difference in costs of about CAN$200,000 (US$185,000) per year. A high moisture corn silo is added for this purpose.
- Lighting: Last but not least – Jackson included large windows in the new farrowing house – for herself, to use daylight for lighting.
During the process of re-building, several buildings of course also received extra attention in terms of fire prevention. New dry walls were added to prevent repetition, retardant materials were included in the ceilings and flooring. Heat lights did not return in the new stalls. In addition, a fire-retardant sluice was incorporated in the new building as well.
Looking back at the fire and rebuilding process, Jackson indicates that being prepared could have made her life easier: “I feel I should have bought the equipment to do this sooner. I would have saved money on the cleanup costs. I had no help in strategy planning to effectively combat the situation. Sometimes I had not had the time to think, it was moment by moment... there were a lot of knee jerk emotional reactions.”
Times, however, have moved on since that disastrous night. In June 2009, after almost two years without any animals on-farm, the first boars were about to appear at Pork Talbot Farms. Jackson indicated that she has grabbed the opportunity to come back better, and more animal friendly as the farm used to be prior to the fire. As can be seen in the box ‘Pork Talbot Farms: Now & the future’, a lot of new ideas could be put in place, Jackson indicates. “Every time you suffer a tragedy a new door opens.”