Swine veterinarian Larry Coleman of Broken Bow, Neb., gives a lot of presentations around the country, and most of those presentations focus on measures taken to have world-class pork production and world-class pork operations.
When asked to name one of those world-class operations, the operation that quickly comes to mind is one that he knows a little bit about. Coleman is herd veterinarian for Thomas Livestock Co., also of Broken Bow, but he speaks highly of the hog operation because of its production and people success, and not to toot his own horn.
TLC is a third-generation family farm that over the last 30 years has transitioned from a traditional grain and livestock farm to a hog operation spanning 10 counties and consisting of 16,000 sows farrow-to-finish with an approximate annual production of 560,000 pigs today. TLC prides itself in numbers, but not the actual large numbers of hogs.
A story in the Aug. 15, 2011, issue of National Hog Farmer highlights two of TLC’s farrow-to-wean units that pushed pigs per mated female per year past 30 pigs. That production wasn’t a spike on the charts; it has become a level reached by a standard operating procedure for a system that empowers employees to do what’s right.
TLC Production Manager Tim Friedel says management sees SOPs as an often limiting factor. Though TLC has SOPs, it also has a purpose statement, and the core value stated is “Doing what’s right for people and pigs.”
“We try to do things in the best way for the animal. With SOPs workers may limit what they do to care for the pigs,” he says. “If you do things right for the animals, they will pay you back in the bottom line.”
One of the ways to do what’s right for the pigs is to maintain a stress-free environment, for both the pigs and the employees. “If your animals and your people can be stress-free, they will do a better job,” Friedel says. A walk through the gestation pens of TLC’s Georgetown site is evidence of a stress-free environment. The usual chorus of squealing hogs, clanging gates and feeders is replaced with such low noise levels that part of this interview was easily conducted among the gestating sows.
This stress-free work environment starts at the top with TLC owner R.J. Thomas, who believes in empowering all workers to succeed. Thomas’ office walls are lined with memories of early success — he with his champion 4-H hog, his family’s original homestead. There are also reminders of less-than-successful times — two auction bills (a 1999 bill for 1,560 acres in three tracts, and a 1985 machinery and livestock auction). “We were broke in 1985,” Thomas says.
TLC has rebounded nicely from those tenuous times of the mid-1980s, and the company has gradually been built into a pork industry leader. Friedel says attention to the little things has allowed the company to grow in numbers without jeopardizing the care the animals will receive.
Friedel, who has prior experience in other hog production companies, sees TLC making decisions for the betterment of the employees, and as a result, the betterment of the pigs. “If one of our employees asked for something that will help them do their job better, and help them take better care of the pigs, we will make it happen,” he says. Friedel says too many companies look too much at the expense of the requested equipment, without looking at the benefit. “You need to give the employees the tools they need to be able to do a good job.”
The tools Friedel speaks of are not necessarily a piece of equipment, but can also mean the implementation of a practice. A prime example is when a night shift was suggested to provide around-the-clock care for sows. Now TLC has 24/7 care in the farrowing rooms and nursery rooms. “We wanted to get our stillborn rate down to 2%,” Friedel says. “You have to have people there who take pride in what they do.”
Shift overlap is important so that everyone is on the same page. One of the night workers clocks in at 3 p.m., when the day shift is still present, and works until 2 a.m., while the other night worker arrives at 7 p.m. and clocks out at 6 a.m., after the day shift arrives. “That way the changing shifts can be made aware of any issues that may have come up, or if there are any sows that need special attention,” Friedel says. “Everyone wants to know what’s going on and do the best job possible, because you don’t want to report bad news when the next shift starts.”
Steve Horton, sow farms supervisor, says spelled-out priorities are key to successful 24-hour care. “The person working the night shift needs to know his No. 1 priority is taking care of the sows, not doing the laundry,” says Horton, who has been with TLC for six years, but has 38 years of experience in hog production. “If a guy comes up to me and says he didn’t get the laundry done because he was tending to a sow that needed attention, that’s exactly what I want to hear. … Without nighttime care, you start the morning dealing with the problems you’ve had all night.”
Friedel shares the story of one of his managers being asked about the 24-hour care, and what if he couldn’t be there. The manager replied, “How can you save pigs if you’re not there?”
One example of more attention to the little things in piglet care is that each newborn is toweled off directly after being born. “Twenty-four-hour care and toweling off the piglets make a big difference in piglet survival,” Friedel says. He says those two practices have allowed TLC to consistently get over the 30-pigs-per-sow per-year level. “The attention to detail is important. If you do the little things right, it will add up.”
Tim Chancellor, TLC finishing supervisor, gave an example of how doing the little things right can add up. “They say how many more people we will have to feed by 2050,” Chancellor says. “If you would get the industry numbers up to the production that we’re getting, you would have 30% more production without ever having to build another sow farm … you’d need to have more finishing barns. Just think of that impact. The piglets are there; we just need to get them to market.”
One tool that TLC has placed in the new farrowing barns comes in the form of 6- by 8-foot farrowing crates, larger than the 5½- by 7½-foot crates in the older TLC farrowing barns. “We felt this was the future,” Friedel says. “As sows get bigger and have larger litters, they need to have more room … you don’t want the crate to be the limiting factor.”
With the larger crates, TLC provides two warm spots for the piglets, one on either side of the sow. Each warm spot has two creep-area mats — one on top of the wire mesh flooring, and another fastened on the underside of the mesh flooring. The reasoning for the double mat is that if the heat lamp makes the top black mat too warm, the piglets will start moving away. Workers will see this, and can remove the mat that sits atop the flooring. The mat on the underside will still provide a warm zone, prevent drafts from the shallow pit, and the piglets will return to the mat area, and away from the sow and potential danger.
Another way of the future that TLC is venturing into is the use of gestation pens, but Friedel says the move is not caving in to public pressure. “We were not in favor of going to group housing,” Friedel says, “but we wanted to see if there was a system that worked. Larry [Coleman], Steve Horton and I toured different facilities, and we just weren’t seeing anything that we liked.” Time was running out as they were getting ready to break ground on the Georgetown farrowing site.
A last-minute trip to Canada made Friedel a believer. New Standard Ag was selling a system, “A whole new concept that I hadn’t seen before,” he says. The system Friedel, Horton and Coleman visited had 280 head in a pen, with an electronic six-feeder system by Nedap, which forces sows to walk a large oval before they are allowed to re-enter the feeder. “The selling point for us wasn’t the electronics, but it was the animal behavior and production issues,” Friedel says.
An argument against group housing is that the pecking order within the sow herd can be dangerous to the animals, as well as the handlers, but Friedel says the large numbers in a pen allow sows more room to roam, and since they have a distance to walk in the oval before they can re-enter the feeder, “you lose that dominant sow,” he says. Friedel says he was told by New Standard Ag that at least 150 sows need to be housed together. “The bigger you go, the better the concept works, the least stress it is.” Sows remain in the group housing for 112 days before being moved into farrowing crates. All TLC replacement gilts are exclusively from PIC.
Stress-free pig movement is crucial to production, and there is a learning curve for the sows to learn how to use the feeding system. TLC relies on Juan, a worker who Friedel refers to as the “hog whisperer,” who is able to train the sows how to use the Nedap system with nary a word spoken. Most sows learn the flow of the system in a relatively short amount of time.
Chancellor operates under a premise similar to the “hog whisperer,” a lesson he learned from his dad while working cattle on the Colorado ranch of his youth. “My dad always used to say, ‘Smooth is faster than fast,’” Chancellor relates. “That is a very true statement, especially when working with livestock. You get in a hurry, and that makes your job a lot tougher.”
TLC employees have the opportunity to move around between the different sites, but Friedel says the employees prefer working in the gestation pens rather than in the crated barns, “because the animals are easier to work with because they have been used to humans being around them from birth on.”
TLC is adding a new wrinkle to the Nedap system, wishing to have an inline scale to weigh each sow after it has been fed. Kansas State University students will be working with TLC in May to test a prototype.
Though TLC only has 1½ years of experience with the system, Friedel likes what he sees, but admits another year will give a more-complete picture. “We have intentions of building another sow farm, and we plan on building it just like this one,” he says. “We could see it was being successful [on the farm they toured], and we didn’t see why we couldn’t also be successful.”
A lot of that success goes back to the people working with the sows.
Horton sees workers getting an hourly wage, versus a salary, as a benefit to better pig care. “They are here to do a job, and they are willing to put in the extra work to do the job right,” he says. Pride in their work is also something that Horton sees in the TLC barn workers, who are cross-trained, but for the most part are specialized. “We have a guy who does all the processing, that’s all he does.” Horton says one worker handles all the piglet processing, and that worker is proud of the low number of animals with ruptures. “The pressure washer guy says he wants the floor to be clean enough so that you can eat off of it … that’s what I tell them I want.”
With animal care being the top priority, Horton gave an example of barn workers deciding to continue a practice because “it was the right thing to do” even though production numbers showed it was unnecessary. “We did three weeks of clipping needle teeth, and three weeks of not clipping needle teeth,” Horton says. “We showed that there was no death loss from needle teeth, but my guys decided that they still wanted to clip needle teeth because of the marks they left on the sows’ teats. They [workers] think it’s better, so we allow them to do it, even though it takes more time. You never want to take their caring away.”
After five years of working for TLC, employees are able to purchase stock in the company, but ownership begins long before that. “I misspeak sometimes when I call this ‘my farm,’ but that’s the way I feel, and I tell my workers to look at it the same way — treat it as if it’s their own farm,” Horton says.
Ownership in production numbers promotes overall productivity, and Friedel sees that paying off in the breeding success. Friedel says a lot of hog production systems shoot for 85% breeding success, but he says that should be easy to achieve. TLC herdsmen strive for breeding success in the mid-90s, and are achieving those
numbers. “There are little things you can do to get that 85% rate up to 90%,” he says. “It’s easier to go from 85% to 90% than it is to go from 90% to 95%, but it can be done, and our guys are doing that.”
Raising hogs in a 200-mile radius of Broken Bow, Neb., benefits TLC in that there are not many hogs in this part of the country nor is there a heavy human population. “We have a high-health herd,” Friedel says, “and our location helps us maintain that high-health standard.”
Despite the lack of other hogs in the area, TLC still does not skimp on biosecurity measures. Trucks owned by a private trucking company haul TLC market hogs. After these trucks make one load a day, they are washed, disinfected and heated to 100 degrees F in a dry parking garage. The truck and trailer will be dry in one hour, but are required to stay parked for eight hours. “At one time the majority of the trucks coming back from the packer were PED-positive, but they have never been positive coming out of the parking bay,” Friedel says. “We felt like that was doing its job keeping PED from backtracking into our facilities.” Hogs moved internally between TLC sites are hauled by TLC-owned trucks and trailers, which are washed at their own truck washes.
TLC operates its own feed mill northwest of Broken Bow near Merna, Neb., and special care is given to sourcing feed ingredients so as not to bring in contamination. Friedel says beef plasma comes from a plant that does not handle swine plasma, and distillers grains come from an ethanol plant with strict biosecurity in place.
Thomas Livestock farms will be visited by about 17 tour groups this summer, made up of other producers from across the United States, as well as internationally. Tour groups usually include between four and 15 producers, and last two to three days.
Friedel sees these tours as a way for TLC to help the industry, “but more so to help the animals. If we can share procedures that will help people to save some pigs, cut down on stillborns; as an industry we need to do better at that to save pigs.”
Realizing there is more than one way to raise a pig, Friedel says, “I’m sure there are farms out there that can make money as well as we can. I don’t know if we make more money than anyone else, but I believe we do things the right way.” Just as TLC management listens to any and all suggestions from the barn workers, Friedel sees the knowledge from the tours also as a two-way street. “What we learn from them [other producers] is just as important as what they learn from us.”
Back to the TLC purpose statement, the purpose “To create community opportunities” is a philosophy that is alive and well beyond the barn walls. TLC strives to be a good neighbor, even though the neighbors may be sparse.
A large operation such as TLC has an impact on the local community, as Friedel says one sow farm equates to about 60 full-time jobs. TLC currently has three sow farms, with another in the planning stages, meaning TLC can be looking at 240 total employees once the fourth sow farm is in operation.
“We had made the decision not to outgrow our culture,” Friedel says. “We didn’t want to grow too fast and lose our identity. We believe our employees work with a sense of pride and dedication second to none in our industry.”
Building a workforce that size means looking outside of the immediate area. A majority of the TLC barn workers come from the Lexington, Neb., area south of Broken Bow, and many of them are of Mexican or Guatemalan heritage who come with good values and work ethic, though some have little or no livestock experience.
“That’s not all bad,” Horton says. “The best hires are people with no pig experience, then you can train them, if they come in with an open mind. Like my dad said when I was growing up, ‘when you think you know it all, you know all you’re going to know.’”