During the 2010 American Association of Swine Veterinarians annual meeting, Jim Lowe, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois presented the Howard Dunne Memorial Lecture, titled "People, Processes, and Pigs: Are we fixing what is really broken?" Almost 10 years later, the veterinarian says the industry is still trying to tackle some of those challenges.
“We often tend to focus on short-term things that pop up in our face, and not really the underlying system that isn’t functioning appropriately, so we are working on symptoms instead of the actual disease that is occurring in the system,” Lowe says. “That disease is often two-legged and not four-legged, so I don’t think that has particularly changed in the industry today.”
Lowe recently weighed in on current and future challenges facing the industry during a panel session at Boehringer Ingelheim’s Pre-AASV Symposium. While the panel addressed several issues that continue to plague the industry, three key topics stood out.
Having trained labor that stays around is key to having acceptable performance numbers and it’s an area the industry continues to struggle with, says Dave Bomgaars, a veterinarian from northwest Iowa.
He references the Future Ready Iowa Act, the plan Governor Kim Reynolds has rolled out to train Iowans for the jobs of today and tomorrow. The goal of Future Ready Iowa is 70% of Iowa workers having education or training beyond high school by 2025. In order to reach that goal, another 127,700 Iowans will need to earn post-secondary degrees or other credentials.
“I think that’s all good, but as our industry changes, we need to ensure we’re helping make those changes happen smoothly,” Bomgaars says. “Take the packing industry for example – in the not too distant future, ‘maintenance’ is likely going to involve more work on a laptop than it will with a screwdriver. Regardless of the specific changes, it’s still going to require apprenticeship and leadership.”
In addition to training, Bomgaars says the competition for labor is stiff and other work environments continue to be more appealing.
“We need to create something that attracts them, from the redesign of buildings to having more space, more light, better ventilation,” Bomgaars says. “We still have an environment not ideal for people to walk in.”
Production and profitability
The U.S. pork industry’s dependency on exports also continues to be a concern. Bomgaars remembers a National Pork Industry Conference meeting five years ago where there was a push for 28% exports to increase demand.
“In some respect that is good, but we also need to be aware of the dependency that puts on exports as well,” Bomgaars says. “There are many global factors that affect what producers get for pigs, with the last six months a tremendous drain on equity and working capital,” Bomgaars says. “We haven’t had quite what we thought and as a result we have $46 pigs and break evens of $65 to $70.”
Exports may increase demand for a while, but there’s also a risk to it. That’s why Bomgaars believes the industry should make more efforts domestically. For example, he recently had dinner with a doctor friend who still thought you had to cook pork well done.
“We can say we have told them a million times, but we haven’t taught them,” Bomgaars says. “I think we have so much more with different cuts, different niche markets that we have here, that we need to put together our collective brains and try to get some of it because we haven’t succeeded yet, we haven’t maximized the U.S. market yet.”
Lowe says the industry should also re-think the production system.
“Is that really the model we need to continue to be in? Is that a sustainable model long term?” Lowe says. “We get so concerned about that fixed cost that we don’t necessarily say ‘are we actually maximizing dollars within in the chain and how do we create more value?’”
Total dollars that retail on pigs has been static for a long time, while the percentage of return to the farm gate has been highly variable.
“We are a highly sophisticated system that we continue to run not a whole lot differently than when we had pigs outside,” Lowe says. “We bred sows and we took what we got, so how do we reverse engineer the system instead and look at what technology we can apply; how can we use data and use decision analytics to change how we operate the system.”
Lowe also questions standard industry metrics. Are they really the things that drive business profitability or are we chasing intermediate measures?
“We’ve doubled output per sow, yet we make less money as an industry,” Lowe says. “Maybe we are keeping score wrong. Who cares about how many pigs per sow per year you make if you don’t make any more money?” Lowe says. “Yes, we have become more efficient, but our return on net investment capital is probably not any better, it’s probably worse.”
Instead of improving production numbers, Bomgaars argues that maybe the industry should focus on genetic changes that could improve disease resistance and produce carcasses that are juicer and more flavorful.
“The numbers won’t be as good, but maybe the numerator can go up and we don’t worry about the denominator quite so much,” Bomgaars says. “I think it’s time to look at the return side and see what they want, rather than what we can produce cheap.”
If the U.S. wasn’t prepared for porcine epidemic diarrhea, will it be the same with African swine fever?
Lowe acknowledges ASF is not porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, nor PEDV, but if the industry looks to the outbreaks in Europe as an example, the U.S. should be in good shape to contain it. Movement in Europe has been primarily in domestic pigs through garbage feeding and pig movement, however there have been infrequent incursions into commercial swine populations.
“The virus does not move easily. In some of these herds they have been able to depopulate buildings within complexes and not spread to the rest of the site,” Lowe says. “It’s taking weeks to move through 1,000 head finishing barns, not days.”
While the U.S. has a different transportation structure in place and there is a concern that ASF could show up in the U.S. without us seeing any clinical signs, Lowe says he’s more concerned about increasing beagle brigade numbers and catching the prohibited pork products coming through international travel.
Bomgaars also sees a risk from parents that are sending care packages to their college children who are studying in America. For example, Iowa State University and University of Illinois have large populations of students that are from places that are ASF-infected, including China.
“It only takes one piece of product that is contaminated that gets thrown out the window where they happen to have a pig exposure,” Bomgaars says.
Lowe agrees and points out another area of concern in the U.S. is garbage feeding.
“The problem is that lack of surveillance, that is our big gap,” Lowe says. “I am less worried about our commercial pigs, because if it looks weird enough, everyone will get excited.”