Local veterinarian, Dr. Ross Kiehne has dedicated much of his life to the care and raising of pigs. He grew up on a hog and cattle farm near Harmony. After graduating from Harmony High School in 1990, Kiehne completed a four-year degree at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, then went on to obtain his veterinarian degree at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1999. He converted his passion for raising pigs to treating them and helping farmers manage their herds in his current position as a pig-specific veterinarian at Swine Vet Center (SVC), a veterinary consulting firm dedicated exclusively to serving the pork industry. Kiehne spent the first eight years of his career in St. Peter where SVC is located, then moved back to Harmony in 2007.
“I moved back because I wanted to live here and I grew my practice around this area by design so I could move back,” he noted. It wasn’t hard to find clients in Southern Minnesota and Northern Iowa since those two states are the #3 and #1 pig producers in the nation, respectively. Kiehne now lives on a rural lot just north of the farm where his father and brother continue to raise pigs.
Despite his singular focus on pigs in his veterinary practice, Kiehne says the thing he enjoys most about his job is the variety. “I like the idea of pig population medicine, figuring out what is going on in a swine population. How do I keep disease low or prevent a disease from spreading or moving or going over a threshold,” Kiehne said. Kiehne notes that consulting with the producers who raise pigs is equally as important in his job as treating the pigs. Teaching and training of farmers and farm staff has become an increasingly important part of a pig veterinarian’s work as advancements in nutrition, environmental controls, medicine and genetics have added complexity to the pork industry. “I would say (teaching and training) is more normal in pig farming,” Kiehne said. “It’s not the same in dairy and beef cattle farming. Pig farmers tend to see the veterinarian as a trainer and teacher,” Kiehne pointed out. “A lot of clients hire me to train their people. They’ll say, ‘go to this sow farm and help figure out what’s wrong with (the operation).’” While Kiehne does some veterinary consulting by phone, he prefers to see hog operations firsthand. As a result, he drives an average of 55,000 miles a year visiting client farms and viewing their operations. “I go in barns every day. I just really enjoy that. I have to go see pigs to see what’s wrong with them,” Kiehne stated.
“The number one thing that causes us problems in the pig world is disease,” Kiehne noted. The number one health challenge is porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS). It causes miscarriages in sows and really bad respiratory issues in growing pigs.” It started in 1987 and we don’t know where it came from,” Kiehne noted. “It travels through the air for up to 5-6 miles. We get better and better at dealing with it every day,” he said. Vaccines are the primary weapon against the disease, but air filtration is also important. “We filter all the air where our sows are held. We use hospital grade HEPA filters. When you see this wall of filters (at farms) you realize how much time and energy is spent keeping these pigs healthy,” Kiehne instructed. Pigs are also subject to influenza. “It’s different than our (human) flu. There are very few cross-over diseases between humans and pigs, but pigs can get the flu from humans which is why we offer flu vaccines to anyone who works in hog barns,” Kiehne noted.
Another disease that Kiehne sees in pig populations is porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PED). “PED came on in 2014. It had been in China for a long time and it came over here. That was a pretty devastating disease, but we’ve really handled that one with good biosecurity (procedures to protect animals against disease) and got that under control,” Kiehne stated. “PED killed a lot of little pigs until we figured out how it was moving. We got the research done and figured out how it was moving (through pig populations) and now I haven’t seen a case in a long time,” said Kiehne. Thanks to medical advancements, vaccine technology is far superior today than when Kiehne started practicing 18 years ago.
Kiehne expresses great confidence in the future of the pork industry. “We’ll continue to see health improve and pigs become more productive. Moms will have more babies and people will get better at raising them,” he predicts. Kiehne notes that the pork industry sometimes gets criticized for its use of antibiotics and hormones. The latter complaint is ironic, because as Kiehne notes, “There is not a hormone available to give a pig. There’s not one in existence and, second of all, it’s not allowed.”
Kiehne takes his responsibility seriously for ensuring laws are followed concerning usage of antibiotics and the general welfare of pigs. “We’ll treat pigs with antibiotics if they get sick, but we’ve never given antibiotics to a pig that didn’t need it. The majority of antibiotics are used in the first month of a pigs life. I can’t remember the last time I treated a pig in the last two or two months of its six-month growing period,” Kiehne said. “I feel very confident that all the pork that is sold is antibiotic-free.”