"We're just not making mistakes fast enough."
That famous quote from the legendary Al Leman has stayed with Daryl Olsen over the years, and it's something the Audubon Manning Veterinary Clinic managing partner often uses to challenge the 19 other veterinarians on staff.
"We're just not making mistakes fast enough," Olsen says. "We're not looking at new ways or better ways that we can do things, or old ways that may improve why we’re doing things."
One of those old ways is batch farrowing, and Olsen says it's important to first take a look at why the industry stepped away from the "all-in, all-out" approach of the 1980s and 1990s.
"We had all these chronic diseases. We had swine dysentery and salmonella. We had atrophic rhinitis, all these chronic, primarily bacterial, diseases that were just kicking our butt; and so we needed to get away from it," Olsen says.
The chronic diseases weren't the only issue; batch farms didn't have the best biosecurity then. When the new system worked, batch farrowing became a thing of the past. Large farms created consistent pig flow.
The workload was leveled out, and it was easier to just breed sows when they come into heat. However, Olsen says in doing this, the industry also created farms that were perfectly designed for acute viral diseases.
"We've got farms that are never without piglets. We're always bringing in gilts. We're all-in, all-out by rooms, but we certainly aren't by buildings on most of our farms," Olsen says. "We've created a farm that really creates some problems downstream because we're kicking all these pigs downstream, and we're having to live with that problem downstream."
Those problems include porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, porcine circovirus Type 2, influenza and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, and Olsen expects there will be more down the road.
Back to batch
In the early 2000s, the AMVC team decided to revisit the batch farrowing system in some of its large farms, but this action wasn't met without resistance by any means.
"Every manager we brought it to told us the same thing: 'I'll quit before we go to batch. We're out of here. Find somebody else. We're not going to do it,'" Olsen says.
Then in 2014, PEDV hit, and the losses to AMVC's Iowa farms were significant, but Olsen says the team learned a thing or two from the experience.
"First of all, you learned that if you held your finishing hogs just a little longer and make them bigger, in the end you sold the same amount of pounds of pork at a much higher price," Olsen says. "But we also learned that our pigs post-PED were just amazing. I mean, when we emptied out that farrowing house, the health of the pigs was just unbelievable. Everybody wants to save every pig. You know, we tell people you cannot move pigs room to room, and I wish I could tell you that doesn't happen. But there's always that tendency — 'Let's hold back that last 20, 30 lightest pigs and see if we can turn them into good pigs,' and consequently, we just create more issues."
So far, AMVC has converted five farms to batch farrowing, with another six underway. The size of the farms ranges from 1,200 to 5,000 sows and represents 30% of AMVC's total production system.
While there are multiple ways to batch-farrow, the AMVC team is farrowing five groups of sows on a 28-day turn. Weaning is conducted on a Wednesday-Thursday while breeding is done Sunday through Wednesday, and sometimes until the next Sunday to catch all the gilts. Then, the barns farrow heavy Thursday through Sunday, Olsen says.
"That's the only problem," Olsen says. "You lose a little bit of age initially because most of your piglets are going to fall in there, in that 19 to 22 days, so we did lose a little bit on age — and you'll see that in our piglet weights as we start looking at numbers — but we're working hard to try and get that weight back on those pigs."
Fear of the unknown
However, the veterinarian says the biggest issue was employees, as they were extremely skeptical. For five of the six farms, a new manager had to be brought in. The first farm AMVC implemented batch farrowing in was a 1,500-sow farm, and there were some 14-hour days at first. Since then, the conversion has gone a lot better.
"You just got to work through that first couple of turns. You've got 10 to 11 really, really busy days, and you've got 17, 18 days that are heaven," Olsen says. "In talking to all the barns, and I went to every one of the barns we have a batch, and I said, 'If we told you we could switch back, would you switch?' And they said, 'Absolutely not. No way, no way. Love it. Would never switch back.'"
AMVC also has several sites where there are two farms next to each other, and they're on a two week, every-two-week schedule. Olsen says that has worked well, as it divides workload on those farms. There may be 10 or 11 days where a lot of people are on-site; on the other days, only two or three people are needed to run those barns.
Olsen says the AMVC team has also found several benefits to batch farrowing beyond the health of the piglet at the sow unit:
- improves trucking efficiency
- improves biosecurity
- reduces gilt introduction frequency
- allows employees to focus on one task
- allows managers to assist with key tasks
- allows time for maintenance and vacation
- improves production
Impact on grow-finish
There are pros and cons to batch farrowing for the grow-finish farms, Olsen says. Positives include the single entry of pigs, all pigs on the correct feed budget and medication protocol, all pigs vaccinated at the same time, more uniform pigs, and more ease in having the correct ventilation and environment.
The cons in the first couple turnarounds, Olsen says, are an increased number of pigs less than 17 days old, an increased number of smaller pigs, and a potential shortage of pigs if the breed target is not met.
"If you don't get breeds in that eight-day period, you can't make it up. I mean, you can't spread it out and stretch it out, so there's a potential for you to not have the pigs in play," Olsen says. "So far, it hasn't been a concern. We've been able to hit it."
Improved sow health
Thus far, Olsen says the benefits to batch farrowing have outweighed any downsides. The No. 1 benefit he's seen has been the ability to control the health at the sow barn.
"Eliminating disease at a sow farm is much easier. You just don't have any of the little virus factories around. They're gone," Olsen says. "I don't know if we put enough emphasis on getting rid of that [sick] pig, and the advantages of not having any piglets on the farm."
Since the program has been in place, the AMVC team has not had to vaccinate for influenza on those farms; and there haven't been any symptoms, such as coughing, that often linger postweaning.
Olsen says there's been no reduction in production at the sow farms, and it has improved the health of the weaned pigs. However, going forward, he expects to see the grow-finish sector reap the most rewards from batch farrowing.
"When you start filling finishing barns, and they're all the same-age pig — even if they are a couple of days younger — I'm good with that, because of the advantages of taking that pig then, and how we can handle it," Olsen says. "We could reduce the number of finishing barns we have, or, as all farms get more productive, we could turn our barns just a little faster; and that's where the real advantage is going to be. I think it's the performance of the grow-finish versus the reason we initially did it to improve health at the sow farm."