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The Ultimate Swine Leadership Challenge

The Ultimate Swine Leadership Challenge

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in providing 24/7 farrowing care in farrowing units. Interestingly, this was a normal component of farrowing care before the age of confinement. This practice, however, was largely discontinued in the U.S. swine industry following the move to larger farms.

The benefits of 24/7 care are numerous, ranging from decreased stillbirths and decreased pre-weaning mortality to increased sow well-being. Once implemented correctly, employees also benefit from this practice. The normal early-morning chaos that exists on most sow farms is no longer present, and normal farrowing practices occur around the clock without employees needing to be in crisis-management mode each morning. Unfortunately, the implementation of 24/7 care can be a rocky process, sometimes even a hazard, and often is given up on before a farm is ever able to see the benefits.

It has been my experience that successful implementation of a 24/7 care program requires a commitment of several years. This process will quickly reveal whether the leadership structure at the farm is up to the task. A few warning signs that a farm is not ready to implement 24/7 care are: excessive employee turnover, inadequate staffing numbers, and high pre-weaning mortality or stillbirth percentages. 

What might a farm which is ready to consider 24/7 care look like? I believe the following things would be on the list: excellent farrowing house production parameters, a stable staff and a manager with long-term tenure, all at a farm which is committed to improving performance issues. The farm should be more concerned with maximizing pig performance and well-being than being fixated on the lowest cost in every production parameter.

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Assuming that the above criteria are present, a unit may decide that it’s time to consider 24/7 care. The catalyst for this change will have to be the manager, and he or she will have to be committed to upping his or her leadership game in order to fulfill this initiative to change. The leadership skills that will be required are as follows:

Lead by example. The manager will have to be willing to be an example. This means not only working nights during training efforts but also creating a sense of urgency, which goes with making sure that sows are monitored even during the normal working hours. As mentioned above, it is very common in farrowing units to see no sense of urgency — even during the regular working shift. This lack of a sense of urgency must change. 

Lead by connection. The manager must have a relationship with all personnel who are going to be involved in this new 24/7 care program. The manager who is unwilling to develop relationships with second- or third-shift workers will most likely be a failure in his or her effort to implement change. 

Lead by having a strong inner circle. Because 24/7 care is exactly how it sounds — around the clock — a manager will have to have people in leadership positions who are already on his or her team prior to this effort. This will require that farrowing managers and assistant farrowing managers are fully committed to following the manager’s lead. 

Lead by sacrifice. While sacrifice is often initially accepted by owners and managers, they must also accept that this change will likely be frustrating and costly. Sacrifices will have to be made in the short term for long-term gains. I would suggest that the horizon they set their sights on for payoff should be thought of in terms of years rather than months.

Lead by empowerment. Managers and owners will need to understand that in order for this change to be successful, workers will need to feel empowered. Without fully engaged employees, attempting this changeover will only lead to failure. Employees must be engaged in the process, and managers and owners can empower them to do so.

Lead by momentum. As mentioned earlier, the farms that will be the most successful in making this change are the ones that are already riding a wave of achievement. The timing of the change must be picked carefully, and the effort only initiated when production momentum is present.

Lead by persistence. Only managers who are convinced they can pull this off will be successful. Discouragement will ensure failure. A manager who is successfully determined will be willing pay the sacrificial cost this change will require.

A change to 24/7 care in farrowing houses is capable of producing phenomenal results — but it is also capable of producing phenomenal failures. I would suggest that when considering whether or not to begin this change effort, the owners and managers of the farm make their decision on the basis of the leadership status of the farm system, rather than simply looking at the possible financial returns if 24/7 care were to be successfully implemented.

Once the decision has been made to implement a 24/7 care system, care must be taken to make sure the process is correct. For example, if a farm system is composed of several farms, it might be best to choose the farm with the best leadership and devote full resources to making the change successful on this farm, before even thinking of attempting the change on any other farms in the system.

It has been my experience that adopting a 24/7 care program has the potential of changing a good farm to a great farm; however, trying to change a perennially struggling farm to a good farm will be met with frustration — and will, quite possibly, just make things worse.

In order for a change such as this one to work, success or failure must be viewed from a leadership perspective. It is not enough to think that such a strategy can be achieved simply by adding new employees. In the world of animal care that strategy is doomed to fail. Great leadership, on the other hand, never fails.    

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