The livestock industry is on heightened alert after reports from the National Pork Board that animal rights groups have been targeting farms in Nebraska and Iowa in recent weeks.

The upsurge in activity appears to have been prompted by activists seeking to obtain videos and photos from farms that are depopulating their hog herds in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, which drastically reduced packing plant capacity.

Earlier this year, the Animal Ag Alliance hosted a panel to discuss how farms can protect themselves from activist attacks.

Good hiring, training and documentation practices go a long way to help protect an agricultural operation, according to Brianna Schroeder, an Indiana attorney with Janzen Agricultural Law.

"Hiring practices are your first line of defense," she said at the Animal Ag Alliance annual conference. "It's worth having an actual application for them to fill out. It provides a base level set-of-information on the employee. Do follow-up on the references provided, and make sure they have a current address in the area."

She also suggested asking each new hire to sign a simple employment agreement restricting them from taking videos of the farm or plant and requiring them to immediately report any animal abuse or environmental problems they see to their manager.

All new employees should also get some form of documented standardized training, including basic animal welfare, she said.

"Be sure to treat everyone the same to avoid employment claims later," she added.

In addition, she urged farm operators to be on the lookout for strange cars or delivery trucks, keep doors and gates locked and make sure access to facilities is limited. Frequent check-ins with employees and making sure all visitors are verified are important steps too. Finally, it pays to be familiar with the trespass laws in your state, she said.

Make a point to keep your property clean and neat at all times, she added.

Camera technology has evolved, but Schroeder said generally speaking the use of hidden cameras is a bad idea. Instead, set up general surveillance cameras in high traffic locations, while avoiding areas where employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as locker rooms and bathrooms.

According to John Sancenito, an international risk management, anti-terrorism and security consultant, emergency preparedness is not something that happens once but rather a continual process.

"If you have a plan to protect a business or property, it should include all hazards and threats, so start by making a list of possible risks," he said. "Fire is actually the leading cause of property damage worldwide."

He also said farms will have better luck if they don't make the plan overly complicated for employees to follow.

"Keep the message simple and grounded," he said. "Emphasize personal responsibility and reward constructive recommendations."

He also went over what he called the "terrorism planning cycle."

He said it starts with a target being selected, followed by surveillance and planning, which can sometimes involve drones.

"There have been technological advances made in the detection of drones, but it's not going to be a reality for most farms," he said. "The best thing you can do is to have regular conversations with local law enforcement."

The threat of activist activities goes beyond farms. Jim Rovers, senior vice president of a global risk management and security firm with offices around the world, pointed out that the prestigious University of Guelph in Canada was recently targeted.

"It's a little bit shocking that they attacked a research farm where swine research is done," he said. "It seemed to be pretty easy for them to walk into it. Anybody connected to any kind of animal research should have their antenna up at this point."

The Animal Ag Alliance, based in Washington D.C., provides training and resources to assist agricultural organizations and individual farms with risk management and protection strategies.

Earlier this week, the group also joined with the World Veterinary Association, the International Livestock Research Institute and leading academics across four continents in issuing a letter clarifying that domestic livestock production is safe and has not played a role in the spread of the coronavirus.

The joint letter also called for governments and authorities to reassure consumers about the safety of meat, milk, eggs and fish, and urged them to work closely with farmers and veterinarians to share credible expertise related to animal health.