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National Hog Farmer is the source for hog production, management and market news
November 28, 2023
Facing the need to make significant changes to your swine operation can be exciting and invigorating — or it can be terrifying and daunting. Sometimes it’s all of these at the same time!
It does make a significant difference mentally if you are effecting changes to your farm because it’s your idea to institute some upgrades, or if it is because of a requirement — for instance, the imposition of Prop 12 changes in order to be able to sell pork inside California’s borders. In the case of an external requirement, how can you approach the mandated changes with a positive and productive mindset?
First, it may help to think of this process as “innovating” rather than “changing.” If change feels like something you are forced to do, innovation offers more of a feeling of control and may help you be more excited about the task in front of you. Livestock producers may not be big on change, but they are innovators, willing to improve on their facilities, processes and methods to grow a more efficient pig or create a better environment for their animals.
Next, ask yourself: What is the guiding principle of my business? For most swine producers, the answer is along the lines of “we breed the best sows to the best boars to result in the most marketable pigs.” Your goal is to remain successful, which you do by embracing the guiding principle(s) that earned you success in the first place. And for that success to remain sustainable, sometimes you need to innovate.
Years ago, meatpackers started requiring swine producers to obtain Pork Checkoff PQA (Pork Quality Assurance) site assessments in order to continue selling pigs to them for processing. Those producers who did not wish to comply eventually found themselves outside the main supply chain and, most likely, out of business. This is one example of a supply-chain evolution in the industry; another might be a change in processor requirements for antibiotics usage, or auditing programs. If you want to stay in pork production, don’t get so hung up on your opinions about these types of changes that you overlook your guiding business principles — and pass up opportunities for innovation while complying. Keep in mind, too, that there are frequently more incentives for early-adopters of new practices than for the slow-to-adapt.
Then there are the innovations you make to your swine operation just because you see opportunity for better practices, more efficiency, increased income or all the above. This is where advance planning serves you well. When your operation is running smoothly and your income is above break-even, this is your best opportunity to carve out time to attend conferences (such as Carthage Veterinary Service’s Annual Swine Conference!) and read journals to learn about new practices, invest in a research project or take a chance on testing new technology in your sow barn. By using “good” times to innovate and find out what works and what does not, you will be able to better weather the “bad” times with confidence that you have modernized your operation as well as you can.
Unless you have a specific process or technology you want to test, the problem you may run into when innovating “just because” is narrowing down your list. There is a fair chance you can easily list a few things you feel your operation needs to improve, but you may only be able to afford one project. How to choose?
One way to do this is “the innovation funnel,” so-called for how the process forces you to narrow your list from a number of ideas down to the one(s) that carry the most weight with your wants and needs. You can build this like a spreadsheet, listing your ideas/innovations in rows, then ranking each in column categories such as ROI (are you seeking to raise your income or simply to protect your base income with this idea?); upfront capital; time needed to institute the change; and more. Your rankings for each laid out this way may better assist with your choice.
Let’s say you want to cut down on the incidence of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome at your farm. On average you have experienced a PRRS outbreak among your herd every five years. You have been reading about the importance of environment and biosecurity practices and are trying to decide about building a truck wash. Make your spreadsheet and talk with experts who already have truck washes. What does it cost to construct? How often are they experiencing PRRS outbreaks? What other diseases does it cut down on among the herd? How many “clean” years will you need to recoup your investment?
Moreover, which of these considerations is most important to you? While there is still some “art” in making this kind of decision, seeing your priorities in black-and-white and being able to plug numbers into that helps take some of the subjectivity out of it — and helps you feel more confident about the choice you make.
Remember too that no education is wasted. If you invest in something that doesn’t work out, take the time to “debrief” yourself about it. How could you have assessed the project differently at the beginning? How could you have executed it differently? What can you learn for your next innovative attempt?
DVM, Carthage Veterinary Service
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