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Tough decision of going virtual reaps benefits

National Pork Board Two caregivers look over hogs in a barn
Virtual platform allows the most important people in our industry — our farm technicians — to learn from conference speakers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced dramatic shifts onto our industry. One of these shifts is a transition to fewer in-person interactions, often replaced by "virtual" interactions. Whether it's a one-on-one meeting with a client or coworker or a large industry event such as the Allen D. Leman Swine Conference or National Pork Industry Conference, we find ourselves all too often being connected through our phones and computers.

Some of that transition is difficult, it's hard to get the same personal experience meeting with people remotely as you do when you're in person — there's just something about that in-person chemistry and the ability to fully read body language that's irreplaceable in a virtual setting. Yet for all the difficulty in transitioning to virtual interactions, there are certainly novel and unique communication opportunities which open up in a much more virtually connected world.

At Carthage Veterinary Services, we have hosted an in-person annual meeting of producers, thought leaders and allied industry support teams for the last 29 years. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Carthage Swine Conference, and like all conference organizers in 2020, we found ourselves wrestling with the difficult decision of trying to host a socially distanced in-person meeting or moving our meeting content into a virtual environment.

We ultimately determined that a virtual meeting was the best option and are set up to conduct our virtual meeting Sept. 1 (shameless plug — register now). I'll admit at first, I felt defeated by this decision — I felt like COVID-19 had forced this transition on us and I questioned if we could deliver the same quality of a meeting experience virtually as we have historically done in-person. We routinely draw 600-700 attendees to our meeting; would just as many people be interested in the meeting if it was virtual?

My excitement for the virtual meeting environment really started to grow as we discussed the agenda and breakout sessions. Aaron Lower, Beau Peterson and I meet regularly with our conference organizer, Karen Jacquot, and during one of these routine agenda planning sessions we had the epiphany that our virtual platform would allow the most important people in our industry — our farm technicians — to learn from our speakers.

The folks who actually do the work in our industry are never able to come to industry conferences and meetings, they're too valuable to the farm to be able to "take a day off" and come listen to the best and brightest in our industry review the best science of today. Even if they could come to the meetings, the presentations are always in English which creates a communication barrier for many of our on-farm teams. But in our virtual environment, we can take these learnings to them at the farm and we can do it in both English and Spanish.

The Carthage System, like so many other progressive pig production systems, has installed large LCD screens in the offices of all our sow farms. These are routinely used to watch short production standard operation procedure training videos, they're hooked up to the internet and ready to go, we just needed to craft a breakout session agenda with technician-focused presentations, have the presentations be available in either English or Spanish and schedule these sessions to correlate with an expanded break or lunch time in which they'll already be in the office and able to join.

It's been an absolute joy to put this curriculum together. Taking science to its practical application on the farm is the definition of success as a veterinarian and thinking about the fact that we'll have more than 500 on-farm employees in the Carthage System all learning from industry experts on the same topics at the same time is tremendously rewarding as a conference planner.

How can you best leverage the virtual environment that COVID-19 all too often puts us in? First and foremost — look for opportunities to connect your employees and farm teams with opportunities like this. Can you register your farms for an industry technical meeting and share all this educational content with the most important people in your operation? How much momentum can you create through everyone watching the same technical training material and reviewing what they've learned? Can this educational material turn into action with real buy-in on the farm because they helped select what you're going to implement from the sessions? Can execution of these innovation opportunities improve because employees have been involved in prioritization and planning of these opportunities?

From my perspective, these virtual environments offer us an opportunity to share technical training material with the most important people in our industry, the people who work on our farms every day and provide care for our pigs. Inevitably, those folks know better than any of us what opportunities exist on their farm. If a farm team can find two to three actionable nuggets of information to take out of a virtual conference, that's time well spent.

Even more importantly, if the farm team is engaged in the solution at a much deeper level simply because it's their idea and their recommendation that's a huge step in the right direction versus how changes on the farm are normally rolled out. If the Carthage Swine Conference can help bring new learnings to your on-farm employees, we would be honored to have you attend.

If not our conference, try to find another virtual learning environment which you can share with your on-farm employees as a developmental opportunity. Not only will they grow from the experience, but you should see real tangible performance improvements on the farm from their learning and development.

Source: Clayton Johnson, who is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.
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