Pig problem from China

Chances are, unless you are a pig farmer, you didn't notice an epidemic that recently swept across the world, pausing to wreak havoc in the U.S. along the way. The disease in question has a rather discomfiting, but certainly descriptive name.

Porcine epidemic diarrhea was confirmed among American pigs in March. Since it has never been detected in the U.S. before, our swine population has little immunity to it, rendering it extremely dangerous.

Despite stringent sanitary protocols in most swine barns, it spread rapidly, resulting in at least 678 confirmed cases, which might translate into thousands of affected animals, according to Pig Progress. In North Carolina alone, there have been 250 farms with positive cases. According to National Hog Farmer even more cases are spiking there as the weather cools.

The disease, first recognized in Great Britain in 1971, has a high morbidity rate among piglets, sometimes as much as 80 percent among litters. Though not transmissible through pork or of any danger to humans, it is a costly disease.

According to the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, "In 2011, United States agriculture produced 110.9 million hogs and 22.8 billion pounds of pork (The American Meat Institute, 2013). Pork products constitute the second largest segment of the United States meat and poultry production, which is in itself the largest segment of United States agriculture."

The National Pork Producers Council estimates that this translates into more than $97 billion in annual sales and adds $34.5 billion to the Gross National Product.

Not unlike many other animal-related disasters this recent outbreak, the first to ever occur on U.S. soil has been traced via DNA sequencing to China's Anhui Province.

Thank you, China.

On to the hoopla surrounding Farm Bill negotiations. The House and Senate version of this omnibus spending bill are so far apart that they might as well be on opposite coasts. With the House looking for $39 billion in cuts to nutrition programs and the Senate only wanting to pare $4.5 billion over 10 years, the Gulf of Mexico is a mere bathtub compared to the gap. Add in widely divergent dairy programs and strong feelings on both sides and you have a pretty big boondoggle.

Both Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that they would accept no more extensions of the current bill, which is a one-year extension of the 2008 bill. That one expired at the end of September.

However, some industry pundits are claiming extension is the most likely scenario. USA Today quoted associate professor of economics at Iowa State University Chad Hart as saying, "I think the conferees might be able to reach a compromise, but I don't know if it can get a majority of votes in both houses," said Hart. "The farm bill is usually not this political."

Naturally, despite the utter unlikelihood of the scenario, the so-called "dairy cliff" has reared its hoary ramparts. Again. If you believe that milk is going to seven bucks a gallon and dairy farmers are going to suddenly get rich, can we sit down and talk about this lovely bridge I have for sale? Down near where our boy works in the big city? Many experts on dairy pricing find it highly unlikely that failure to pass a Farm Bill will make any significant difference to in-store dairy pricing, especially in the short term.

As of this week, roughly 60 percent of the nation's corn crop has been harvested and it's a big one, bringing about the lowest prices in three years.

That figure compares to 39 percent just a week ago. Twenty percent of what may end up being a record 13.8 billion bushels in just one week. That's a lot of combine hours and a lot of long days for a lot of drivers across the major corn growing regions.

Of course there is still the race to get it done before what looks as if it may be an awfully early winter descends upon the plains.

There are already signs of the potential for disaster. The South Dakota blizzard took a heavy toll on beef producers there and on crops in Nebraska. More of the same could really make a mess.

The bizarre early storm is thought to have drowned many of the cattle, even though they were never underwater. The snow was so wet and dense, and they were so cold due to being wet when it started and not having winter coats yet, that they lay down, were covered up, breathed in the watery stuff and died. Pretty awful for them and for the folks who owned and cared for them.

Wednesday morning we even woke up to snow here in the 518. There wasn't much and it didn't stick. If it hadn't still been October, I might have thought it was pretty. However, early snow could mess with the corn harvest in a big way. Hard to get those combines through the drifts and all.

There may turn out to be a tiny link between our region and the storm-ravaged plains of S.D. Not long ago I shared a quickly written blank verse poem on Northview Diary, the blog companion to this column. A rancher friend from S.D., who is also a well-known cowboy poet, took a liking to it, set it to music with the help of friends and family, and received my eager permission to use it in any way he liked.

An actual western song with my name included in the credits ... how could I not be thrilled? Anyhow, a round of benefits for those hardest-hit ranchers, including several relief concerts, one featuring such western luminaries as four-time Western Music Association Entertainer of the Year Dave Stamey, is planned. My friend is playing at that concert. Maybe, just maybe, a song born at sunrise on a hillside in humble Fultonville will be performed there.

Meanwhile, if you wish to help ranchers affected by the storm, you can easily find the Ranchers' Relief Fund online.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs

at http://northviewdiary.blogspot.com/