To be called a “pioneer” in any field or discipline requires high marks from many who are willing to make such a designation. The term seems suitable when it's used to describe Wayne Singleton's contributions to the broad and successful adoption of artificial insemination (AI) in the swine industry.
Singleton spent 33 years at Purdue University, with an 80% Extension, 20% teaching appointment focusing on reproductive physiology for the majority of that tenure. During those three-plus decades, the interest in artificial insemination by pork producers advanced by fits and starts until the early '90s, when adoption skyrocketed.
Singleton grew up in southwestern Indiana near Vincennes on a grain and livestock farm, where beef cattle often overshadowed the small herd of Hampshire and crossbred sows. But encouragement from a high school agriculture education teacher, Paul Begeman, and a local veterinarian, Paul Brocksmith, took hold and young Singleton enrolled in a 2-year, general agriculture curriculum at Vincennes University. Purdue University staff taught many of the courses, and that's where Singleton first crossed paths with Bill Foley, who taught livestock reproduction and did some of the early work with AI in swine.
In 1964, with a 2-year degree in hand, Singleton headed north to Purdue to gain a Bachelor's of Science degree. Foley was his undergraduate advisor and “probably the best teacher I ever had,” he says.
“My senior year, he kept saying, ‘you're going to graduate school,’” Singleton remembers. “Who was I to argue? So, I applied for the master's program at Purdue, but the (animal science) department head, Ralph Erb, said, ‘We'll accept you, but I'm not going to let you in here unless you apply to other schools, too, which was really good advice,’ Singleton says.
An application to South Dakota State University (SDSU) was accepted. Once again, Foley guided Singleton, this time to a former Ph.D. student, Don Shelby, a reproductive physiologist at SDSU.
As Singleton tells it, “I packed all of my stuff in my little Volkswagen bug, which was about one suitcase, and I headed west. I went out there with the idea that I'd work with beef cattle. When I got there, I had to choose between working on a pig project, where the data needed for a master's degree could be collected relatively quickly, or I could work with cattle, where it would take two calving seasons to collect the data. So, I chose the pigs and I've been with them ever since.”
His degree work focused on the effects of boar semen characteristics on embryonic growth and development. “I collected boars, measured oxygen consumption of the semen and identified semen characteristics in the old style, then bred gilts to each boar. We collected the reproductive tracts, counted the embryos, and then tried to correlate semen characteristics with the number of embryos and their survival. It was one of my best projects,” he proclaims.
It was during this time, 1968, that he met a foreign language major in the hallways of the animal science building, where she was working a summer job with the range management specialist. Singleton and his wife, Diana, were married a year later.
A Ph.D. degree focusing on boar semen extenders and semen preservation followed at SDSU. The degree was granted in January 1970, and six months later, Singleton returned to his alma mater as an Extension specialist in breeding herd management.
Career in Extension
The first two years, Singleton had an 80% Extension and a 20% research appointment, which was later switched to 20% teaching and a focus on an undergraduate AI course.
“This was one of the first extension positions that focused on reproduction,” Singleton explains. “Jim Foster and Vern Mayrose were already here at Purdue when I came. They were really good role models in the way they conducted their programs and their relationships with producers.” He also cites Emmett Stevermer (Iowa State University) and Mac Whitaker (University of Kentucky) and Al Jensen (University of Illinois) as well as Lew Runnels, DVM and Hobe Jones, both at Purdue, as a few who influenced his professional career.
“When I saw them at meetings, I would watch how they operated, watch their approach to visiting with producers. I learned a lot from them,” he explains.
Artificial insemination was slow to be accepted in the swine industry. “It was the mid-'70s or early-'80s before we started hand mating very much. Until then, sows were in outdoor lots, so we concentrated on how to rotate boars,” he remembers. “Then, I got involved in some of the ideas about bringing sows into confinement.”
By the early-'90s a lot had changed. Technology and housing had improved. Genetic evaluation methods had gained favor, and the best boars were identified and assigned breeding values.
“Commercial hog units got bigger, and packers developed buying grids to pay for higher lean values,” he remembers. “Those are the things that accelerated the acceptance of AI. We went from less than 5% AI up to 80-90% of the sows being bred that way.”
Singleton says a few other things also made AI easier. “We had dedicated labor, we had sows inside where heat detection was much easier and we learned how to design buildings better. In addition, semen extenders got better and we shifted from on-farm boar collection and storage to centrally located boar studs. Today, I figure there are 115-120 independent and corporate boar studs providing semen to commercial producers.”
Nearly 30 years into his career, Singleton took a six-month sabbatical. “It was a chance to learn a new area and new techniques in distance education and employee education — an area I was really interested in,” he explains. He spent two months at the University of Nebraska, working with reproductive specialist Don Levis and others. “I went out in the field as often as biosecurity would allow and visited boar studs, sow farms and outlying centers to experiment with distance learning equipment,” he explains.
In November 1998, he headed to North Carolina State University to work with swine reproduction specialist Billy Flowers and Extension swine specialist Todd See. Four months were spent learning about the needs of employees working in the state's swine production systems.
“What I found was that owners and managers are interested in employee education and all had good intentions of providing it, but they were more consumed with making sure that there were enough employees there every day to get sows moved, bred and farrowed,” he explains.
Transition to Consulting
Retired in December 2003, Singleton still offers consulting services on a limited basis. “I do it because I enjoy it,” he says. “That's why I retired a little early. I knew I could keep my fingers in the pork business, but it still allows me time to go pheasant hunting and do a few other things. I do a fair amount of third-party semen verification for some boar studs. They ship me semen and I do concentration, motility, bacteria and volume tests.”
One of the biggest changes Singleton has seen in his field also excites him the most. “We can move so much information so fast today,” he declares. “It's really neat. Someone can send me a dose of semen to check, I can do the evaluation to see if it's abnormal, then snap a picture or two or a short video clip and send it back with a report by e-mail so they can show their people in the lab what I am talking about. It's almost instantaneous.”
Singleton also consults with a few commercial operations - ranging in size from 500 to 2,400 sows. “I usually get called in after the feed man, the genetic supplier and the vet have thrown up their hands trying to figure out why conception rates are low. The most common problem is people,” he explains.
“The pork industry has always been users of technology. That's one reason I always liked working with pork producers,” he declares.
Some of the best advice Singleton feels he ever received was from a swine veterinarian who declared: “Listen here young man, I don't expect you to know everything about pig production, but I do expect you to know somebody that does.”
Singleton also sites fellow Hoosier and pork producer John Hardin, Jr., who was very active in state and national pork industry organizations, as a mentor and colleague. “John has that ability to address a group on a controversial issue, gently addressing it from one side, then the other. He is so eloquent in a way that doesn't upset people.”
The National Pork Board recognized Singleton's contributions to the U.S. pork industry in 2007 by presenting him with the Distinguished Service award.
“I still think the pork industry is a good place to be,” he says. “Not everyone can be an owner; but, my goodness, there are many opportunities throughout the industry. I tell my students, follow your interests and listen to people with an open mind. I figure if you do that, you will end up where you should be.” It certainly worked for Wayne Singleton.
— Dale Miller, Editor