EAST LANSING, Mich. — Farms symbolize the country’s heartland. Farmers manage the land and animals that provide a multitude of foods we eat. But who ever would have imagined that farms across the country would need to implement a visitor screening process one day?
Ted Ferris, a professor in the Michigan State University Department of Animal Science, and Dan Grooms, an associate professor in the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, are working with a group of researchers to identify ways that farmers can protect their farms — and animals — from the spread of infectious diseases.
One of the biggest concerns for farmers is hosting a visitor that might be bringing with them disease pathogens that could potentially be transmitted to the farm animals, and eventually between animals, or bringing a new disease onto the farm through purchased stock.
Ferris and Grooms developed the “STOP Sign” campaign, a program meant to encourage dairy and beef farmers across Michigan to adopt and enforce biosecurity procedures for their traditional and non-traditional visitors, from the veterinarian or feed salesman to the city cousin and public official.
The purpose of a biosecurity program is to reduce the risk of transmitting infectious diseases, including the Bovine Viral Diarrhea Virus (BVDV), cryptosporidium, salmonella and Johne’s disease.
In addition, Grooms said, people who visit farms in the United States upon return from foreign travel can potentially spread foreign animal diseases to farm animals.
An example of a foreign animal diseases is foot-and-mouth disease, which was responsible for decimating a large percentage of the cattle industry in the United Kingdom earlier this decade.
Their research team provided materials, examples and instructions to 51 dairy farms and 21 beef farms across Michigan to help them develop farm gate (visitor) biosecurity protocols.
Ferris said most of the farms that received the materials had newer production facilities and/or were owned by farmers recognized among their industry peers as early adopters of the newest practices and technologies.
Farmers received suggested procedures for establishing a visitor policy and parameters for identifying a visitor parking area.
Other guidelines provided to farmers included how to set up a station for visitors to pull on plastic boots over their footwear before entering the farm, how to create and where to locate sign-in logs that document the countries that visitors may have recently visited, and where to display signs, such as a STOP sign, to limit access to livestock areas.
“Our goal is to change the way producers view visitors and help to heighten the awareness of general farm biosecurity procedures,” Ferris said. “We want to help farmers realize that visitors, even though they are a regular part of doing business, can be a potential source of disease transmission.”
Ferris said that strictly enforced biosecurity programs may eventually enhance consumer confidence about the safety of our nation’s food supply. “We all want our animals to be healthy, and we believe that the leaders of our farming communities can set a good example for other producers,” he added.
Grooms said he hopes this effort will minimize the spread of infectious diseases and reduce the risk of a foreign animal disease outbreak in the United States.
Consumers often respond to such crises by eliminating the purchase of certain food products based on fear. Producers not only lose their source of income, many times even after the animal health issue has been resolved, but they also must endure the emotional hardship of losing animals to illness, and in extreme cases, the loss of a multi-generational family business.
Ferris and Grooms plan to conduct follow-up interviews with each farm implementing the guidelines later this year to gauge the adoption rate of various visitor biosecurity protocols included in their “STOP Sign” project.
Comments and suggestions received through the interview process will be used to improve the program.
If the campaign proves successful, Grooms and Ferris said they would like to expand the campaign to more farms in Michigan and expand it across the country nationally to help increase awareness of biosecurity.