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How do we improve technology adoption in the swine industry?

Needs to have compelling value and predictable outcomes, but also must make job more enjoyable and improve animal care.

Ann Hess

January 26, 2023

8 Min Read
Real Pork – Brinkman and Vet Standing with Pigs.jpg
National Pork Board

While significant gains have been made in pork production in the last 10 to 20 years, modern genotypes require more intense management, labor continues to be a challenge and the industry continues to face emerging diseases. Compared to other countries though, what the United States is lacking in productivity, is gaining in bigger facilities, less labor inputs and competitive feed costs, says Caleb Shull.

It's also one reason the industry should consider adopting more technology. The big question he says is "why have we not had more technology adoption?"

"If we compare the swine industry to beef or dairy or even crops, we probably lag behind in some degrees, and I guess you can make the case that there's some facility constraints that limit our ability, the low ceilings, the environments that we raise pigs in can be a little more corrosive than doing work outside and there is some merit to that," says the director of research and development for The Maschhoffs. "I think you could also make the point that we've got a margin structure that's maybe, on a per pig or per animal unit basis, not quite as attractive as dairy or beef. But I do think there's some other reasons why we've continued to struggle."

For a technology to be successful in a pork production system, Shull says it needs to:

  1. Have compelling value proposition.

  2. Be easy to implement.

  3. Make the job more enjoyable.

  4. Improve animal care.

  5. Provide a predictable outcome.

Which technologies have been successfully implemented in the swine industry and cover all five attributes? Shull says antibiotics and vaccines are a good example that check all the boxes. As far as nutritional technologies, such as zinc and phytase, Shull says they have compelling value proposition, have been easy to implement and provide predictable outcomes. Geneticimprovement is another field of science where technology adoption has been successful.

"Changing terminal genetics doesn't really rock the boat for most employees. On the maternal side, there may be some characteristics of specific female lines that may need different management, but for the most part, they're fairly easy to change," Shull says. "People get a different semen tube showing up, it doesn't cause major changes. And we can do trials and demonstrate the differences between lines and understand the value proposition of making those genetic changes. So, that's one that we've spent a lot of effort on, because we feel like we can get a high percentage of that total value actually captured within our system."

Post-cervical AI is another technology the pork production system has been successful in adopting, and has been pretty well received by employees, Shull says. As for web-based controllers, The Maschhoffs are still working on how to capture value from this technology.

"A major constraint to capturing value from web-based controllers is that they are in only a small percentage of our sites," Shull says. "You need a certain volume of data from sites coming in before you can actually build an infrastructure around it. But yet, we've still made the decision to continue to promote that and we haven't had a lot of push back from a lot of our growers."

Another technology The Maschoffs implemented is pen gestation gilt training dividers, which drastically reduced the amount of labor input. "The people no longer had to shove a bunch of gilts through during training and it reduced the stress of the animal," Shull says. "Another example of a technology that maybe didn't have a tremendous value or return on paper, but certainly has been successful for us due to it making the job more easier and more enjoyable."

As for mixed-success technology examples, Shull points to supplemental startup nutrition.

"Whether it be nutrient-dense feeds or nutrient-dense liquids, we've been able to demonstrate through trials and putting it through R&D and field evaluations that we do get fairly consistent results with these technologies, if we're managing it and implementing it correctly," Shull says. "The big challenge here is if it's a dry product, are you going to put it in the farm through a bin in small quantities? If not, dealing with bagged product can also be a challenge. So, there's a logistical constraint there. Liquid products, what happens if you've got fills over multiple days per week? And how do you administer that to the entire population when you only have one water line per room?"

Multi-dose bag semen is another example of a technology that makes some sense on paper. However, Shull says when you go to implement it, there are issues such as keeping temperatures constant, avoiding semen settling and proper handling of the semen.

Single fixed-time AI is another case. "On paper, you do the math and there's a very compelling return on single fixed-time AI. However, that whole process is pretty contingent on a fixed-time interval between dose administration and insemination," Shull says. "We all know that people don't show up, things happen on a sow farm. If you've got a technology that's very dependent on time and when we don't hit that timing, it leads to variability in outcomes."

Shull says he is a believer in microbial and phytogenic technologies; however, the production system often gets variable results. "We still got more work to do in this bucket to really define what the value is that we're getting from feeding these technologies."

Autosort also makes sense on paper but changing the behavior of the pig and forcing it to go certain places can become a challenge. "Autosort systems require a different level of management and there is added risk if the technology fails," Shull says. "Smaller systems with more local ownership oversight over the barns may be able to make these systems work. These systems must also be designed in a way that does not change the behavior of the pig to a point where production parameters are negatively impacted. The risk of negative performance impacts and significant attention to detail that is required to run these systems has greatly limited their infiltration within the industry."

While all of these technologies have had some level of implementation success, Shull says the million-dollar question remains, how do we create a consistent, compelling value proposition that we can actually implement and that's repeatable over time? In his opinion, the industry is at a "disadvantage right out the gate."

"Because we benchmark ourselves off of cost of production. Technologies, however, are measured off of their ability to deliver value, so, there's immediately a little bit of a disconnect in philosophies," Shull says. "It really comes down to, in my mind, just tipping the scales, in terms of benefit versus cost."

The more the industry can do to identify tangible metrics and measure the impact of technology on those metrics — whether it be mortality, average daily gain, feed conversion, pigs per sow per year — and run it through an R&D model, Shull says it will create more confidence to move forward with implementation.

"We need to continue to do R&D efforts, but I think we also need to really scrutinize how we're engineering these technologies, from a cost standpoint, to keep those to where we can still be attractive enough, to start trying some of these. But also, we need to make sure we're identifying working on some of the intangible value drivers, too, to help with that sell and convince our production teams to make investments in technology," he says.

Creating business transparency is an opportunity to identify problems before they become major issues.

"Another reason, in my opinion, why technology adoption often fails, is because the people developing the technologies, whether it be startups, whether it be academic resources, whether it be IT companies, oftentimes, they're not the people that are using the technology and oftentimes, don't even talk to the people using the technology," Shull says. "We have to work on bridging the gap between those developing versus using the technology, not just at the implementation support phase, but also at the idea phase, because they're going to help contribute to how that technology is put together in a way that provides them the most benefit. If the people using the technology are asking for it because it makes them more effective at their job, it will be a lot easier to implement and capture value from the technology."

Shull says smart technologies offer tremendous potential, but several questions remain.

"We need to understand what are we going to do with all this data once we collect it? How do we turn that information into action? How do we change the behaviors of the people to actually use the actionable information?" Shull says. "Do the technologies actually work in the barns that we raise pigs in? And how do we do this across the Midwest, or at least in our case, seven states with barns and unconnected locations? There's a lot of issues that we have to address. But I do think there's a ton of opportunity in this space."

Some smart technology options The Maschoffs have examined are electronic data capture, health monitoring, camera pig weight estimation, environmental monitoring, bin inventory monitoring, robotic washing and workflow tools. One specific example is Acumence from Summit SmartFarms. In the barns, data is collected and tracked. On the road, the production manager can receive alerts, see early warning signs, compare sites and prioritize support. From the office, the team can uncover systemic issues and plan initiatives.

Prior to implementing this system, the production system didn't have any transparency into temperatures at a large scale. They have now identified a high percentage of sites that were having events where the temperature was 10 degrees below set point. They’ve also gained more visibility to mortality and treatment trends.

When it comes to implementing new technology, Shull says pork production systems need to make sure they are measuring the right things and to not underestimate the impact on people.

"Successful technology adoption requires investment in both the what and the how," Shull says. "We can't just focus on the what, we really need to spend more time thinking about the how and how it impacts people, so that it becomes an enabler and not a distraction."

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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