Wolter explores economic considerations, intangible consequences for sustaining the breeding herd.

Ann Hess, Content Director

February 27, 2024

6 Min Read
National Pork Board

In Bradley Wolter’s opinion, the future of the pig industry is bright, largely due to the talent base that supports it. However, he questions how the industry can sustain that, not only around the world, but here in the United States. For Wolters, sustainability is about “finding that point of balance.”

“One of the opportunities we have in the pork industry, from my background, is to really focus and ask ourselves what is the experience that we're providing our consumer? … How do we ultimately, from a financial point of view, create more total value for that eating experience?” Wolter says. “And then reverse engineer the system, back to the sow, and be sure that we're delivering on that brand promise, in terms of what we do.”

Wolter, now president of Windy Hill Insights, LLC, a company engaged in consulting businesses and systems within meat animal production, has an extensive background in pork production. He spent 20-plus years with The Maschhoff’s, most recently as the pork producer’s president and CEO. He now has a foot in the cattle industry as well through his family’s business, Windy Hill Meadows, LLC, a Midwest based beef operation producing over 600 head per year, selling registered Angus breeding stock to beef producers, and quality beef as direct sales to consumers.

For food animal production today, Wolter believes the real challenge is the “nemesis of our breeding females.”

“It begs questions, as we intensify our livestock production systems, are we finding that point of balance in terms of management, that's retaining that breeding female, the core of the sustainment of our business? And so, I think we need to think more broadly perhaps and say, ‘how can we be in this together as we think about our breeding females and how do we learn from other species?’” Wolter says.

While risk is often discussed in financial terms, Wolter says there is also a real biological risk that poses one of the greatest challenges to sustaining meat animal production in general, and there are tangible and intangible consequences for the pork industry.

“I think, for me, in the commodity industries in general, in agriculture, that consumer experience is all too often not looked at, lost on us in terms of how we design, operate, manage our industry,” Wolter says. “I think we just have to recognize the antagonism that could exist if we were to share with our consumers, that in some cases, one in five of our sows won't see the new year. And so, I think it's a real challenge and it's intangible.”

He's also concerned about the caregiver profession, and the psychological impact from loss on farm each. After 30 years of experience in pig production,  Wolter recognizes it's not about the pig, it's about the people.

“I worry and fear for an industry that may not attract the brightest and best if we don't manage some of the real inherent risk involved,” he says.

Other tangible and intangible consequences that weigh on the cost of production include environmental impact and animal welfare regulations.

Quoting Peter Drucker, "You can't manage what you don't measure," Wolter says the real risk within the swine industry is not that the system is optimized, but is too frequently suboptimized as a function of measurement. While the industry has evolved from discussing pigs per mated sow per year to pigs per sow per lifetime, he questions what it is consumers are looking for in terms of production?

While pounds of Grade A pork per breeding female lifetime annualized is a lofty vision, and suggestion relative to those that are managing sow farms, Wolter says an evolution needs to occur again, to manage future risk and create a sustainable environment for the industry.

He points to animals in the wild, where there is no financial investment behind them, but just a biological will to survive. As pigs have evolved from the wild, the industry has put money behind them, and that investment continues to build.

“We've invested in their housing, their nutrition. We invest in caregivers, genetic merit, a variety of systems that have allowed that suboptimal output from pigs per sow per year to go up. And in fact, the investment is to a point that I would never have dreamt of; it was well under half that when I started out in this industry,” Wolter says. “We're at well over a $10,000 investment per female place in these systems today without question. If you were to think about building a new system today, it's going to take at least that and arguably more.”

The challenge now becomes how to balance financial and biological inputs to find an optimum as a system. And far too often, management and measurement systems bring suboptimal results, Wolter says.

How can the industry improve? Enhancing communications within farms and bringing financial data downstream as well as growing pig data back to the sow farm is key. There’s an also economic opportunity in improving sow mortality in breed-to-wean production, Wolter says. However with the current inflationary pressures on a fixed cost system, those opportunities are often postponed.

He challenges the industry to shift its paradigm to consider what a weaned pig is worth?

“When you start thinking about losing one in every five sows on our farms today, think about the number of gilt pigs that are being produced versus sow pigs. I challenge you to think, what is a wean pig worth? And then take it to the next level, beyond looking at just the growing components,” Wolter says. “What if we took it all the way into the plant and we measured carcass outcomes on sows versus gilt pigs. They don't have that data, but one would expect at least, you know, fewer health challenges, that there would be difference.

“We have a long way to go with this whole notion of measuring more holistically and communicating across various sectors. But I would challenge us, that one of the real things I think that are preventing our improvement in sow loss or breeding animal loss is sub-optimization, our measurement systems and how we think about the business today.”

While the optimal pigs per sow per lifetime annualized is going to be different for each system, based on objective or outcome, Wolter says it’s about productivity, reproductive rate, and time in the herd, but more so about finding a point of balance among the three.

With the financial challenges ahead for the industry, investing in new facilities to create that optimal environment for that sow won’t be likely, Wolter says. Instead, the industry needs to consider how the assets and infrastructure today can evolve and work more in a holistic sense.

“Managing this female, as a system under the economic realities, we're not likely, and at least into the next decade, to see a lot of new infrastructure, perhaps some replacement, but in large part we're going to be working with the physical assets we have,” Wolter says. “How do we optimize those?”

To reach breeding herd sustainment in the industry, Wolter stresses the need for:

  • Purposeful team member development

  • Integrated information systems

  • Deliberate communication routines

  • Strategies for facility condition indexing and obsolescence

  • Research platforms that consider a systems-based approach to the sow lifetime

  • Genetic improvements focusing on the sow in practical environments

  • Intensive health monitoring and management

“This is what we're looking for, that happy sow, that provides a happy consumer eating experience,” Wolter says. “It's a complicated path as to how we get there, but I think more than ever we'll achieve that.”

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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