What are the characteristics of a successful sow farm? If U.S. pork producers today sat down and tried to answer that, I'm sure the list would be very long.
Joel Sparks, a veterinarian with AMVC, has narrowed down the list to his top 10, or as he refers to them his "10 Commandments of Sow Farm Production." During the Midwest Pork Conference in Danville, Ind., Tuesday, Sparks shared those commandments in the hopes pork industry members might find one or two they could take home to improve their sow herds' health, performance and profitability.
Welfare — Honor thy pig. Doing the right thing for every pig every day. Sparks says the National Pork Board has done a great job developing the Pork Quality Assurance program and producers should use that as a solid foundation for their animal welfare programs. "If we are taking care of the pig, the pig will take care of us," Sparks says.
Team — Maintain thy team. "As it's been said before, pigs are easy, the people are the hard part," Sparks says. "But it doesn't go without saying that we do need people to raise pigs, to innovate, to make production happen."
The success of the sow farm often lies on the shoulders of the sow manager. They are the ones there day in and day out, overseeing the crew and production, and driving the spirit and motivation of the team. However, Sparks advises that every person on the team needs to be trained not only on what to do, but why. Communication is critical and it needs to be clear and understood by everyone on the team.
The team also needs to be motivated. Sparks says it's easy to get wrapped up in the daily mundane tasks; remind them they are helping to feed the world.
In maintaining thy team, there also needs to be consistency and routine. Make sure every member of the team understands the hierarchy and where he or she fits. The team should also be considerate of generational differences and cultural influences among them. Some sow farms have found success using alternate schedules to help meet team member needs.
Breed target — Thou shall not miss breed target. "This is something that goes without saying because for the sow farm to be successful, you need pigs to go out the door," Sparks says. "If you're short here in your breeds, you are going to be short in your weans."
Breed targets will change with seasonality and performance. The farrowing target is usually constant, but producers may need to make changes based on pig age and farrowing stalls, Sparks says.
Gilts — Thou shalt care for and not trash thy gilts. Every sow farm needs replacement animals coming in, so producers should be making sure their future is being taken care of at the gilt developer unit. What is the protocol for daily care? What programs are in place for vaccinations and acclimations? Is there efficient square footage for the gilts and are they getting the right amount of boar exposure at the right time? Finally, is the gilt on full feed?
"If we're going to be developing her and soon breeding her, we don't want to be limit feeding that animal," Sparks says.
Then at the sow farm, it's important to make sure that gilt is not getting bred too early. She needs to be in the 300-pound range, have one observed heat no service and stall broke for 14 days.
Flow — Understand and control thy flow. "If she is not lactating or gestating, she is racking up non-productive days and those are costly for the sow farm," Sparks says.
In the weekly setting, there will be fluctuations between groups. This can be compensated for by watching group sizes in gestation and making adjustments as they are moved to farrowing. Sparks says the more consistent the routine is in the farrowing groups, the more consistent it will be in the weaned pigs and weaned sows on the other end. Batch farrowing can be a viable option for marketing purposes and from a health standpoint, but Sparks says there are some details to think through. Gilts will have to be synced up, so they fall in that particular breeding window, and recycles are not always going to fall nicely into regroups.
Husbandry — Thou shall care for every animal every day. Is there a good air environment and how's the humidity and the temperature? Is there a good flowing channel of water and is quality up to par? Is the feed fresh and is it offered in the correct amount?
Sparks says it's also important to remember that today many of the people coming to work on the sow farm have not had prior experience working with animals.
"Maybe it's a little bit of a lost art, but I think that's a challenge to those of us that have been around for a while," Sparks says. "It puts it back on us as something that needs training, to teach them how to interact with a live biological animal and develop that eye to understand if there's something that just doesn't look right."
Biosecurity — Thou shalt never break biosecurity laws. Explain the reasons and the impacts, including animal losses and economics. Define and demand respect for the clean-dirty line. Review and verify processes for people entry, animal loading/unloading, mortality removal, supply entry and feed. Finally, lead by example.
"Remember that you're always serving as an example for biosecurity, so don't break those biosecurity laws," Sparks says.
Movement — Thou shall not move an animal prior to 35 days of gestation. Sparks acknowledges this is probably most applicable to a pen gestation setting. Animals should not be moved between 3 and 35 days of gestation. If unable to keep them in those stalls for 35 days, it is better to have zero days in the stall than something like 28.
Neighbor — Honor thy neighbor and don't look ugly. Be presentable and take pride of your sow farm as this can also have an impact on audits and inspections. Be a good steward of environmental management and look for opportunities to do community outreach.
Profitability — Thou shalt be productive and control costs. Good healthy pigs out the door makes money for the farm. Maintain production and breed targets, but also control costs, such as feed, labor, utilities and repairs. Identify money pits (useless practices, misunderstood feeding programs, chronic maintenance problems) and make sure any interventions are profitable before implementing.
If 10 Commandments are too many, Sparks says try to remember these three.
"All you need to remember are these three things that really make the sow farm productive and successful," Sparks says. "You need to take care of welfare, take care of your team, maintain the breed target and the rest should fall in place after that."