Pork producers keep making leaps, bounds in sustainability, efficiency

Partnerships, scalability, incentives ease technology adoption.

Ann Hess, Content Director

June 29, 2023

6 Min Read
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National Pork Board

Jamie Burr's definition of sustainability is two things: one, it is not a destination, it's a journey; and two, it's a continuous improvement journey.

"When you think of one word about sustainability, what do you think about in the pork industry? Efficiency," says the chief sustainability officer for the National Pork Board. "How long has the pork industry had a sustainability program? Forever."

For Dale Stevermer, Trail Ends Farm, sustainability in the pork industry really breaks down to economic and environmental impact.

"There's been leaps and bounds that have been made by pork production over the last 50-60 years. Some of it's due to moving pigs inside, some of its genetics, certainly feed management and to an extent even the yields out in the fields," says Stevermer, who also sits on the National Pork Board's Board of Directors. "So, you go from 60-bushel corn to 240-bushel corn, there's a lot less land use per pig or per thousand pigs, depends on how you want to measure it. Our land use requirements have decreased dramatically. Our water use has gone down."

By aggregating that data through the Pork Cares Farm Impact Report, pork producers can then take credit for things they have been working on over the past 60 years to improve their bottom line, he says.

"As I look at some of the national roll-ups that I've seen, the highlight to me is an 80% reduction in soil erosion for farms that use swine manure versus those that are using commercial fertilizer," Stevermer says. "If you can't sit out there and trumpet those kinds of numbers, and you know that's some of those fun things to be able to see."

For TriOak Foods, any decision surrounding sustainability needs to benefit the organization as a contract system.

"We're trying to be the most efficient pork producer out there. We want to make the correct decisions on DNA, on feedstuffs, to get that most performing pig that we can economically do," says Brad Priest, wean-to-finish manager, TriOak Foods "But then we also have the story of bringing the son back home or the daughter back home to help with the farming operation or expand that farming operation and that family farm life that so many of us are involved in."

Priest says while there been a lot of a lot of great technologies to improve efficiency and sustainability released out in the market, the one thing that's lacking for the industry has been an "all-encompassing unit."

"We use bin monitoring, we use alarm companies, but is there something out there that just does everything all at once," Priest says. "That's been a challenge that we've had and then implementing to scale … running out to these farms where we don't have internet, you can't even get a cell phone signal, has been a challenge that we've definitely encountered as we've been looking at these different technologies."

Before adopting new technologies, pork producers also need to have confidence that their data will not be passed on, says Burr. In the current economic climate, producers also need to make sure it is worth the investment.

"Being able to make these investments, whether it's the yield monitor that also does the steering in the tractor and controls rates and runs the planter and whatever else is going on, just kind of a magical black box that I don't need to know how it works," Stevermer says. "It really does a good job but that investment spread over a smaller number of acres is tougher to make but I have to do it because every acre that of corn that I grow, every acre of soybeans I grow has to produce the most profit possible so I have to have to really be monitoring those more closely so that my bottom line, the total dollars is high enough. It becomes one of those tough balances and it takes a sharp pencil but it works."

Taking a look at how new technologies will replace costs is pivotal as well for TriOak Foods.

"The other piece that we look at is there a way that we can reduce labor on this," Priest says. "Can we optimize the mill so that we can run bigger batches or coordinate trucks better so that that we can get more loads out? I think that has been a big piece for us in looking at some of the technology that we've looked at."

In addition to streamlining technology, assisting with scalability is also key for TriOak Foods.

"We're really good about getting a pilot project started and even ramping it up to a small scale but to actually roll it out to several hundred different sites out there, it becomes a scalability challenge and issue where you need a whole bunch of labor to get it scaled up," says Priest.

One of the most successful technology adoptions implemented at TriOak has been a three-party partnership with a company and a producer.

"We're partnered with the producer so that we can all kind of help drive that decision making and efficiency because most all this technology is providing value at multiple levels … it’s who's getting the most value of it but also where can we help drive this technology so that we benefit down the road," Priest says.

Some firms have taken on the burden in easing adoption and making technology scalable for producers. Stevermer is helping to facilitate a $20 million USDA Climate-Smart Program, where the National Pork Board has teamed up with companies such as Ducks Unlimited, Sustainable Environmental Consultants and Nestlé. More than 300 operations, representing more than 200,000 acres and 2 million pigs, have signed up so far.

The grant supports pork producers seeking in-barn or in-field continuous improvement opportunities on their operations. In addition to cover crop and no-till practices, Stevermer's farm is looking to change out light bulbs for LED bulbs and has started a two-time manure removal per year.

"That one with the amount that we're paying is calculated to be pretty close to an equivalent of $64 a ton for carbon so you know we actually came in pretty good on that one," Stevermer says.

Currently grant money is only available to producers in Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri, however National Pork Board is looking at ways to roll out similar programs to other states.

Finally, before officially adopting any new sustainability practice or technology, Priest says it's important to monitor animal performance.

"One thing that we have to keep in mind as we evaluate those options is do we impact performance of the animal while trying to do this," says Priest. "You know think back to sort barns for instance. There's great technology we can sort the animals without any human labor but did it affect performance, so I think that's something that we need to evaluate further but we have to keep a balance there."

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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