Lessons learned as a production system's first nutritionist

Champion your changes and re-coach your practices; step-up and think independently; manage your time and share your team's successes as best you can.

March 31, 2020

11 Min Read
Trey Kellner, AMVC swine nutritionist, visits with Amanda Winslow, AMVC sow farm manager at a sow farm in southern Iowa.
Trey Kellner, AMVC swine nutritionist, visits with Amanda Winslow, AMVC sow farm manager at a sow farm in southern Iowa. AMVC

Do you remember your feelings and emotions as you drove to the first day of your first "real" job? Were you excited, nervous, scared? Were you frantically running through your checklist of remembering names and wondering how am I going to make an impact on Day 1 (or at least you thought so at the time)? Now, take those first day anxieties and add to it that not only is this your first day of your first real job, but also it is the first day of a brand-new position for the company.

With most "firsts," there are successes and failures, and my experience is no different. Thus, the objective of this editorial is to pass on the six biggest lessons learned over the past three years from working as a production system's first nutritionist. To aid not only future swine nutritionists in a similar position, but any other young swine professionals avoid some of the pitfalls or ignorance I had.

Lesson 1: Buy-in takes time
AMVC Nutritional Services currently oversees the feeding of over 1.2 million annual marketed pigs and 150,000 sows across 28 different feed mills, 46 sow farms, 23 nurseries, 65 finishing sites and 115 wean-to-finish sites. In terms of people involved, that is easily over 800 involved in feed manufacturing, delivery and feeding execution on-farm. Thus, don't expect a protocol change to work like a light switch. Our system is dynamic and ever-changing. Our team is also striving to get better every day. Thus, a feeding protocol change may land No. 1 on a priority list for some sow farms and growers, while for other sow farms and personnel, it may land lower in terms of implementation.

Coming out of graduate school, I was completely naïve to this concept. I thought if the production team, director, COO and myself approved a protocol change it would be implemented in that exact moment. Not the case. It takes more than just a vote in a meeting in an office to make change. You must champion the change with each key influencer, manager and grower down to the slat level. This takes time, commitment and validation with each person involved in carrying out this change.

Let me provide an example of how I learned this lesson. In my first six months on the job, I noticed the system's stillborn rate was increasing at 0.2% per month (Figure 1) and was on the search for dietary or feeding strategies to help reduce this steady increase.

Figure 1: System-wide increase in stillborn rate from January of 2016 to August of 2018.

At the time, our system had no standard feeding protocol for feeding pre-farrow sows (sows that have been loaded into farrowing but have yet to farrow). After a literature review, we conducted a commercial research trial (Figure 2) that found stillborn rates can be reduced by 3% via feeding 2 pounds twice per day, versus feeding 4 pounds in the morning or 6 pounds twice a day. A significant finding that would provide an economic return for each sow farm, however each sow farm had different degrees of difficulty in implementing this new pre-farrow feeding protocol.

Figure 2: Impact of pre-farrow feeding amount and time on stillborn (percent).

The first of these hurdles, was the feed system able to run 2 pounds of feed twice a day? If not, was the farm willing to pay for someone to hand feed pre-farrow sows or invest in improving the feed system? For some sow farms finding the additional labor took time. For others it took convincing of key influencers to invest in additional labor or feeding system changes.

The second hurdle, as mentioned before was where this protocol change landed in terms of priority for each sow farm to implement. I found it key to identify an individual at each farm to champion the protocol change on site. In all cases, the pre-farrow feeding protocol took continued championing from our production team and me and took varying amounts of time to implement. Figure 3 shows this lesson clearly. The decrease in our system stillborn rate did not occur swiftly. Instead, the decrease was slow and steady.

Figure 3: System wide decrease in stillborn rate, after pre-farrow feeding protocol changes in August of 2018.

Lesson 2: There is a constant need to re-coach, stay positive and explain why
Building off Lesson 1, there is also a constant need to re-coach. AMVC has over 700 employees and these employees often get promoted, cross-trained to another department, or pursue other opportunities. Meaning the person you coached on a protocol or a feeding strategy may not have the same responsibilities on your next visit. Even on the grow-finish side of production, managers can change, the primary caretaker may change, and new sites can be incorporated into the system. This constant change means you cannot just expect to go over a protocol once per site and expect it to be in place forever.

I learned that the need for re-coaching is constant, and even though it might be 20,000th time you have gone over how to weigh feed boxes, or how to mat feed iso-weans, it is likely the first time the person you are coaching has heard the information. Thus, when explaining the protocol, be positive and treat it like it is the most important task they and you will do today.

When reviewing protocols always explain "the why." The best part about the swine industry is we all care. This how we can feed our families while helping to feed the world. People want to know why they are doing a certain task a certain way. Take time to explain why this protocol is important, how implementing this change will save them time in the long run and make them more successful. The implementation rate of a protocol will be higher if you take the time to explain why versus than just printing off a piece of paper and saying here you go.

Lesson 3: Don't be afraid to step up when you can fill a void
Successful companies hire you for your diverse skill set and knowledge to aid them in solving complicated questions and problems. Be knowledgeable about your strengths and skills. Take an internal survey of skillsets of your team members or people around the room and ask yourself how can I best help in this situation. When you identify a void in which one of your strengths is needed, don't be afraid to step up and say I can help answer this question.

I was asked to be a part of discussions that I would deem as "above my pay grade" because I had the strength to take known and unknown economic variables and can create predictable outcomes. That's a fancy way of saying I am good at math and can work an Excel file to breakdown complicated questions into something everyone understands, dollars and cents or risk and return.

When stepping up, it is effective to provide "aid" or "support" and not the solution. Remember the people around the room have been successful at problem solving and pork production for longer than you have. Don't be arrogant. Don't assume that you are correct. Don't stop listening just because you have a potential answer to the problem. Be a team member and a colleague in the effort.

Lesson 4: Be an independent thinker
Building off Lesson 3, people will seek out your input if you can assimilate information into an independent answer. A weakness I often see in my peers is they will "take a poll" or "read the room" to ensure that they agree with the majority or the leader. Falling into the false trap of thinking if people see we are on the same page or have the same thought process I can advance faster. It's human nature to want people to like our thoughts and ideas. It is difficult for me as an extrovert, to not sway my thoughts based on what my peer or superior said before I am to provide my input. However, if you want your advice to be sought after, if you want to be an influencer, you must have independent thought. By going along with the flow, by definition, you are a follower and not a leader. Now, don't misinterpret this lesson into always playing the devil's advocate. That will create unnecessary conflict and is not the message I am attempting to convey at all. What I am saying is conduct independent homework/background research. Come up with your own solution. Don't just call five of your peer nutritionists to see what level of a synthetic amino acid they are including and then pick the average. Don't just see what your CEO says first, and just agree with whatever he or she has to say. If you want to be a leader and influencer, then think and provide input like one.

Lesson 5: Be conscious of your time
Nutritionists generate return over investment scenarios all the time for various production scenarios, but when is the last time you have generated a return over investment breakdown of your performance for your company? Your employment comes with known costs to your company, salary, benefits, travel costs, research budget, continuing education, technology needs, etc. One of the key ways for you to maximize your return to your company is via proper time management and being as efficient as possible.

Are you spending your time dedicated to $1,000 per hour jobs, $100 per hour jobs or $10 per hour jobs? How many tasks are you able to accomplish per day, week and month because you are efficient with your time? There will be a lot of requests of your time. Suppliers, peers, managers, veterinarians, growers, feed mill personnel, clients, etc., will all ask for your time. It is up to you to manage these requests and determine how big of a priority are they for maximizing your return over investment to your production system. For me saying "no" is a lesson I have learned and will continue to relearn until I retire.

Just as important (if not more important) is how you manage your time between work and home. It is stressful knowing that someone is entrusting and paying you to manage the biggest cost of producing a pig. There will be times where you feel like you are behind or stuck doing urgent tasks only. It can and will be overwhelming.

Help yourself out and set guidelines of how much you are going to travel and how you are going to handle inquiries beyond the normal work time. Have hobbies and enjoy them. Know yourself and your indicators for when you are becoming stressed, tired or overwhelmed. Acting on them earlier will allow you to be more productive, and just plain happier to be around. Finding the balance between work and home is just as important as it is assigning work time based on priority.

Lesson 6: Enjoy and share your team's wins
Lessons 1 and 2 show how many people are involved in the execution of a successful feeding program. When there are successes in implementing a change, share those successes with each of those individuals and thank them for buying in. They deserve the credit, not you. Don't make the mistake of sitting on a board touting how successful you were and how much of an impact you made. You helped guide the ship and coach the team. They got you to the destination and made the play.

To conclude, please don't take this editorial as I have it all figured out and here are the answers for you. On the contrary, there is a lot I have yet to learn. I am excited to make those mistakes and get better from making them. I just wanted to pass along the need to champion your changes and re-coach your practices; step-up and think independently; manage your time and share your team's successes as best you can.

Source: Trey A. Kellner, 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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