Fixing the Hole in the Bottom of the Bucket

Fixing the Hole in the Bottom of the Bucket

Arguably, with the exception of catastrophic disease outbreaks, the best opportunity we in the swine industry have to prevent piglet losses is the time between the start of birthing and weaning. It is true that weaning averages have steadily improved each year. However, the rate of increase is less than the yearly increase in the total born, due to genetics and other factors. This is especially disappointing as the management processes necessary to increase the number of live births and survivability of piglets to weaning are well known and widely circulated. Unfortunately, we have not addressed these losses, but have essentially added to weaning averages simply by relying on genetic improvements and other factors in the total number of pigs born, rather than reducing piglet losses.

It is as if each year we (the swine industry) are pouring water into a bucket at a faster rate, but have not done anything to fix the hole (pre-weaning mortalities) that is in the bottom of the bucket. I feel this is actually a leadership issue (failure), and I believe that focusing exclusively on training caretakers to prevent losses will be ineffective in addressing the hole in the bucket. My reasons are:

Lack of a sense of urgency among leaders: Unfortunately, I rarely see a sense of urgency to address this pre-weaning mortality problem among leaders in a swine production system where the capability to wean 13.0 pigs is very possible. Many in the industry have become satisfied with just meeting the national weaning average of 10.3 and feel quite content at weaning 11.0 pigs. This complacency is then easily transmitted to the caretakers.

Failure to look at the big picture: It is not uncommon for an entire system, with many farms, to all have weaning averages that are less than 12.0. This is in spite of the fact that it stands to reason, with many farms, surely one of them - a manager with their employees - could have a weaning average that is world-class (i.e., approaching 13.0) if it was a simple matter of better caretaker training. Even if you only looked at the big picture, it would cause you to deduce that there is a systemwide problem; otherwise, surely, one of the individual farms would be achieving world-class weaning averages.

Least-cost mindset: Much of our modern swine industry was built on the philosophy that being a “least-cost” producer ensured survivability. This mindset led to the construction of facilities that are now inadequate for the size of the modern sow, as well as inadequate for the needs of newborn piglets. This mindset often prevents leaders from examining whether being a least-cost facility was ever the correct philosophy, and prevents investments in facilities in spite of changes in facility technology. Rarely can an industry stay abreast with competitors without capital investments.

Lack of involvement of leaders: I have observed that many farm leaders rarely visit farrowing facilities and do not understand the obstacles which are in the way of allowing employees to solve newborn livability issues. Leaders often hire “experts” to visit the farrowing farm, asking them to focus on an area in which they are allowed to work, i.e., employee training. It is my opinion that if leaders worked in and understood farrowing houses, they would be more focused on removing the obstacles that employees face in their daily tasks.

Lack of research: When I started my career in swine medicine 30 years ago, there was much talk about the right farrowing crate, the right comfort zones and the right farrowing setup. It is my opinion that this important research agenda is now being ignored by leaders.

Lack of engaged workers: Leaders often seem to have decided that a lack of employee training is the chief problem they face. This has caused them (the leaders) to miss the fact that employee engagement (or lack thereof) is the primary reason that employees fail to perform to their potential. Unfortunately, this misdiagnosis has caused leaders to blame employees rather than realizing that they are the ones who are at fault by allowing a system to exist which does not have engaged employees.

Lack of winning: Leaders also have failed to appreciate that many farms have been average or below average in piglet survivability for years. The lack of a winning season will demoralize any sports team, and it is no different on a swine team. It is the responsibility of leaders to produce a win; and I would suggest that the No. 1 way to fix an employee motivation problem is to produce a win for the team.

Lack of 24-hour supervision of birthing moms and newborn pigs: Fifty years ago, the industry took birthing and newborn care seriously and with great intensity. This involved nighttime supervision which, sadly, has been discarded in the era of modern swine production. Interestingly, with the advent of bigger farms, 24-hour care is actually very economically feasible. Unfortunately, as I have noted in other articles, the provision of 24-hour care is actually a leadership challenge, as opposed to the thought that a simple budgeting issue (hiring extra workers) is to blame for not taking this step. (See story, “The Ultimate Swine Leadership Challenge,” in National Hog Farmer, Feb. 15, 2014, page 20.)

Apart from preventing disease outbreaks, I would argue that fixing this hole in the bucket is one of the biggest needs our U.S. swine industry is facing. As a practical suggestion, I propose that every large production system choose one farm and then do whatever it takes to consistently wean 13 pigs per sow farrowed at that farm. This would require a “no holds barred” approach and, if accomplished, could easily make a path for other farms in the system to follow. Remember, everything rises and falls on leadership.

I would welcome feedback on this opinion. My email address is [email protected].    

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