On the left side of my desk is a running log of all the feeding program changes made in the past three months in response to the logistical complications caused by COVID-19. Under that running log is the stack of all the production flow changes, performance and financial projections, and diet sets created in the past three months.
As I look at that foot-high stack of material and attempt to process all that has occurred within our system and beyond since early March, it is clear to me that I have learned just as much in the past three months as I did in my first three years in this role.
Thus, to build off the last column "Lessons learned as a production system's first nutritionist," this column will pass on the four biggest lessons learned over the past three months from working as a swine nutritionist during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lesson 1: Trust your knowledge basis and scientific foundation
Over the past three months, swine nutritionists have been forced to create feeding programs to limit weight gain in late-stage finishing pigs that were unable to be marketed. Basically, we had to unlearn everything our profession has discovered about maximizing weight gain over the past century. I was never asked through the course of all my graduate school classes, tests, preliminary exams or defenses, "How would you best feed finishing pigs to achieve a lower market weight, regardless of feed cost economics?" Despite not being asked that direct question, my graduate training provided me a strong foundation on how best to feed pigs for this unique scenario.
In graduate school, I had formulated fat-free and nitrogen-free diets that were fed for extended periods of time to determine endogenous losses through the digestive tract. I had formulated and fed diets that were composed of nearly 99% of a certain ingredient to determine its digestibility. These experiences provided me not only average daily gain and feed efficiency data to use in performance and economic projections, but the confidence and reassurance that feeding a low-nutrient density diet would not result in a large occurrence of vices or mortalities.
Furthermore, we have peer-reviewed information on the maintenance requirements for each stage of production, what amino acid ratios should be when dried distillers grain with solubles are not available, what is the minimum amount of crude protein that can be fed, data on maintaining gilt weights for breeding projects, etc. While we wish we had more and or updated data in each of these areas to apply to our feeding programs, we did not have to start from scratch or fill too many holes in our understanding of how the pigs would react and perform when fed these unique feeding programs.
During our implementation of these feeding programs we also had academic and industry research efforts occurring concurrently to validate our growth and economic projections. These difficult times have truly proven how valuable our academic and allied industry partners are to swine nutrition/production and that these research efforts must continue to be supported.
Instead of hesitating to implement lower SID lysine/net energy or a 98% corn feeding program, I trusted published data and my scientific experiences to formulate diets and create predictable outcomes. This allowed our system and customers to navigate the space and financial difficulties more successfully.
Who knows what may be thrown at us next in our careers in the swine industry? However, when the next challenge arises, COVID-19 was a great reminder that we have data and experiences to aid our industry through it.
Lesson 2: Play offense with your thought process and communication
For a lot of us, COVID-19 meant no more travel, face-to-face meetings or even going to the office. As a result, a lot of the casual (non-email, report or phone conference) communication was halted over the past three months. Prior to COVID-19, these casual office/hallway/pre- or post-meeting conversations would be my format for going over potential changes in our feeding program that were a couple of weeks to a month down the road. However, since these conversations were no longer occurring, I now needed to play offense and relay these potential changes even though they may never go in to affect.
Let me provide an instance of how I best played offense with my communication during COVID-19, in setting the expectation for growth, financial outcomes and other potential complications of feeding a 98% corn-based diet. There was some uneasiness within our system around feeding a low nutrient density diet causing increased tail biting or other unwanted social behaviors. I needed to lay out what I expected (i.e., 1.1 ADG, 6.5 FCR, little to no vices), why I expected these outcomes (see Lesson 1), and what was the plan if vices do occur or if weight is decreased too much (go back to the previous diet).
Like everyone else during these unprecedented times, I used Zoom, Teams, email, etc., to relay these outcomes and plans. Moreover, I tried as best as possible to use personal communication like texting or direct phone calls to have the same impactful communication as we had previously in the casual conversations that occurred prior to COVID-19. This advanced communication provided the team confidence that there was a plan in place and their feeding program needs were being taken care of at a time when every team member had an increased workload and stress level.
Secondly, it provided us time to answer any questions or go over specific farm variables for how to best execute the feeding strategy. Due to this communication, the buy-in to the multiple changes we made over the past three months was high. Everyone — from our leadership team to our growers — knew what to expect and what the road map would be if the unexpected occurred.
Going forward, I have learned it is important to play offense with your thought process and communication. Set expectations for how the feeding program will perform. Let people know what the next steps are if certain events occur. Be proactive by providing information and communicating.
Lesson 3: React and adapt to market changes promptly, but don't overreact either
COVID-19 caused rapid changes to ingredient availability and pricing as well as market pig value and harvest capacities. AMVC Nutritional Services oversees pigs fed across 28 feed mills, in nine states and under several different price discovery contracts. Furthermore, pig harvest capacity was reduced at different rates and times at each of the respective packers over the past three months.
As a result, our feeding programs and diet formulations often needed to be changed weekly, but differently for each scenario. We needed to limit growth as much as possible in some situations, as there were no loads available for several days and the price allotted to those pigs via their respective price discovery was poor.
In other situations, some loads were available and price discovery or futures coverage was enough to where growth needed to be increased from where it currently was. In fact, at several mills, both scenarios were occurring and required two different sets of dietary formulations.
In making these adjustments, we needed to move swiftly but responsibly. If a plant reported COVID-19 cases and closures, we needed to go through the math of how many pigs we had on feed, what our space was, what the current weight of each of those groups were, and what our target market weight is based on the current (or expected) market value. All of these were important factors to determine whether we needed to make a further dietary program change.
Furthermore, if the cutout value, cash market or futures responded in a dramatic way (positive or negative) we needed to take note but understand we can only change diets and get them implemented, delivered and consumed within a certain time frame. Thus, we made our decisions in accordance to how often we could change our feeding program (weekly) instead of calling for changes by the second.
For aspiring swine nutritionists, I would encourage you to understand how each segment of pork price (cash markets, futures contracts, cutout values, etc.) discovery works and is determined. I would also encourage you to understand how swiftly a diet change can be formulated, uploaded at the mill, manufactured, delivered and then consumed by the pig. This knowledge will allow you to critically evaluate if a change is feasible in the time frame you have.
Lesson 4: Find ways to get away from the stress and think
COVID-19 also created a lot of stress away from work. My wife is a neurotrauma intensive care unit nurse who cares for COVID-19 positive patients. We have a 19-month-old son who we worry about. Then add to it that I am working on diet formulations and growth projections for multiple situations until the late hours of the evening … stressful!
Make sure you are taking a good self-evaluation of your mental health and stress level on a regular basis and take action to ensure that you can be as effective and successful as possible both at home and at work. I know alleviating stress for some of my peers was tough. Most had to work from home. Then once their workday was completed, they couldn't leave home either.
I was lucky enough to be in west central Iowa where I could work from my office. Once our son was asleep, I could work on my mediocre golf game or sit around a firepit in the evenings and relax for a bit. My extended family set up a Sunday evening trivia night via Zoom, where we could catch up on what was occurring from the upper west side of New York City to the Cimarron Grasslands of western Kansas. Those periodic breaks allowed me to reset and look at the challenges we were facing with a fresh mindset. Even when the challenge is great if you are overwhelmed or overstressed your likelihood of success is greatly diminished.
Several years from now, there will be a lot I will remember from the spring and summer of 2020. I will remember how great it was to see everyone's children, husband or wife interrupt our Zoom calls. Once again, no need to apologize for trying to best balance work and home. I will remember how weird it was to not look forward to a sporting event or the next industry conference.
I will remember waiting for 2 p.m. on June 25 for the Hogs and Pigs Report to be published, knowing I may have a long night of work in front of me. I will remember the first time I saw a 98% ground corn diet in a feeder. I will also remember these lessons and to the best of my ability try to apply them going forward.