Evaluating Performance and Management Practices in Pork Production

The productivity and profitability of a swine enterprise can be improved by routine evaluations conducted by someone not involved in the day-to-day management of the farm, according to Dr Todd See of North Carolina State University in a new factsheet from Pork Information Gateway. These farm evaluations allow potential opportunities and problems to be identified and addressed.
calendar icon 19 July 2012
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Strategies to identify and correct production situations that limit animal performance in a given environment and/or limit profit for the operation can be developed through the routine evaluation of the enterprise. This publication will describe a four-step process for conducting performance and management evaluations of swine operations:

  1. Identification of a problem
  2. Diagnosis of the cause(s)
  3. Initiation of change(s)
  4. Monitoring and Evaluating subsequent performance

To conduct an effective farm evaluation, production and financial records must be used in combination with observation, diagnostic and analytical information and questioning people involved in different areas of production. Accurate records are essential and an understanding of both animal and human behaviour is valuable. Remember that pork production is a biological process, be aware of natural variation that occurs and do not overlook the obvious. Before changes are recommended they should be evaluated by weighing additional costs against expected benefits.

Identification of a Problem

Pertinent production and/or financial records need to be made available prior to a farm visit for a pre-evaluation to identify potential problem areas or causes of identified problems. When using records there are two parameters that need to be set the production goal and change point. The production goal is the desired level we want the operation to achieve. The change point is the level at which changes have to be made in order for the operation to remain economically competitive. An audit of production records should consider efficiency, throughput, animal welfare and environmental impacts. An audit of financial records will concentrate on debt structure and profitability. Records can be benchmarked against other similarly managed farms. For benchmarking purposes participation in the National Production and Financial Standards database is encouraged. Other sources of benchmark data are system wide records for a vertically integrated or coordinated production system or summaries from record keeping services.

Statistical evaluation of a farms production records can also be beneficial to evaluate and analyze trends. As long as productivity is steady or improvement is being made, major adjustments in management are probably not needed. But when key performance parameters start to decline, it should immediately raise a red flag that a problem is developing and changes need to be made before parameters reach the change point.

When studying trends in performance within a herd, it is essential to include enough history to present an accurate picture. If using weekly data, at least 10 weeks worth of information are needed before any conclusions should be drawn. When monthly averages are studied, it may take a year or more before there is enough history to identify trends. It is also important to keep seasonal variation in some performance traits like reproduction in mind when analyzing changes in productivity. Because many people are visual learners, graphs and charts often make it easier to identify and explain changes in key performance factors. The use of statistical process control in the form of control charts can be an effective tool in this regard.

While rolling several factors together into a few broad indicators provides a reading on the operation’s overall efficiency, e.g. pigs marketed per sow per year or return on equity, it is of little value when trying to pinpoint specific production problems. Specific performance measurements are also helpful for keeping employees informed about what is going on in the phase of production they are responsible for, e.g. matings per week or pre-weaning mortality.

Diagnosis of the Cause

After production and/or financial records have been reviewed, an on-site visit combined with a discussion of the issues and questioning techniques is utilized for diagnosing causes of identified problems. If additional records, reports or tests are deemed necessary they should be requested prior to this discussion or at this time.

What is the general approach to conducting a good on-site visit? To be effective remember the following points:

  1. You are working with people: meet their needs and make them feel good so that they want to work harder with the pigs.
  2. Concentrate on the biggest issue(s) first.
  3. Be realistic and allow expectations to vary from farm to farm.
  4. All variation in production is not negative, it may be the first step to improved productivity or a better system.
  5. If recommendations from a previous visit have not been implemented, try to understand the human or physical elements of why they were not implemented.

When reviewing records before and after the farm visit, look for areas of concern and items that have the most financial advantage to focus on. Also, it may be helpful to consider all operations that you work with as a group. Try to recognize and make producers aware of variation between their farm and this group. In addition try to recognize variation within individual farms and then identify the real reasons for the variation.

To evaluate operations effectively, you will need to be able to think as if you were the pig, as if you were an employee, and as if you were the owner. Each of these perspectives will provide different insights and are important to overall productivity and profitability of the operation. Use all of your senses, hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling and occasionally tasting. Examples of areas that are important to observe are temperature and ventilation settings, social environment, animal behavior and how routine procedures are conducted.

As you walk through an operation, you must learn to listen! Listen to the manager or worker in charge of each section of production. When asking for more information it is important to first focus on routine management practices by asking “How things are done” and then following up with observation in the unit to check the answers. When observing production practices also question workers on why things are done a certain way. Often there are physical or structural limitations to implementation of management practices that may not be obvious. Try to concentrate on particular problems that concern the producer. These may not be areas that have the greatest potential for financial reward, but they are ones that you must address to satisfy the producer and get their attention. Try to make the operator feel comfortable and trust you and most importantly understand what is profitable and recommend what will make money or provide other tangible benefits and ignore things that do not.

Listen and pay attention to pigs. What should you look for during the walk through? Specifically variation that is different from normal. Major causes of variation in pig groups include: people, sex, age, environment, disease, genetics and nutrition. Often problems are easier to identify if they can be associated with a period of time, building or specific group of animals. Learn to recognize variation by examining groups of pigs, looking for variation in size, quality, and health status. Also try to estimate the economic impact variation has on the operation. Try to decide whether pigs are performing optimally, and if they are not determine how this can be rectified. By walking the operation from youngest to oldest pigs during the growing phase and sequentially from breeding through farrowing it is possible to visualize animal flow and how problems in one area build and impact later steps of production. Be sure to understand how animals flow through the operation, looking specifically at days in each phase, number of pigs per building/room/group/pen, and stocking density. Remember major costs of production are incurred on finishing floors and this is often an overlooked area for improvements.

It is important to record your thoughts while going through the unit so small details that may later be identified as important are not forgotten. To do this a voice recorder or a notebook can be used. The checklists included with this publication were developed to assist in this recording process and to serve as reminders of areas deserving close observation.

Additional diagnostic and analytical data to be collected may include blood samples, feed analyses, necropsy reports, semen evaluations, and measures of air quality and movement. Pick out pigs representative of a disease condition to be submitted for postmortem exams. Use this as an educational opportunity and to point out obvious lesions. Collect appropriate specimens, tissues, feed and water samples for subsequent diagnostic evaluation.

Diagnose the true cause of the variation. After identifying potential breakdowns in optimal performance from records, dig deeper into the subcomponents that influence the diagnostic parameters to find root cause(s) of the variation. If necessary, walk through the operation again to look for manifestations of problems indicated by the records. After the producers immediate concerns are satisfied, be sure to evaluate other areas of production and all areas of environment, management, and nutrition for background information.

Initiation of Change

Recommend a course of action for the producer to follow and spell it out. This should be a least cost/most profit solution designed to improve profit and reduce variation. The economic effect of a recommendation should be confirmed with records, benchmarking and maybe even trials before it is made to the producer. Often recommendations are more readily adopted if production or financial projections on anticipated results from proposed changes can be presented. All recommendations, even those for the breeding herd, should be evaluated for their impact on other phases of production.

An exit session should be held with farm management before leaving to review basic findings and possible solutions for improving production with all the people involved. If needed, be cautious in outlining recommendations until you have had time to think and follow up on certain areas that may require additional information or review. Remember to talk to the producer in plain language to convey an understandable message. When possible oral, written and visual communication should all be used.

Provide the owner/manager with an action plan in writing. A complete written report and detailed recommendations should be made available to the producer within one week of the visit. This report should not be over one to two pages and should include a general evaluation, specific recommendations, expected results, action plans in priority order, date to be completed and financial implications. Always list several positive points first before detailing any problems or concerns. Bullet points makes for easy reading and the information should be as condensed as possible. Try to summarize an action plan of things to do into no more than three points and make them realistic and specific. Copies of this report should be made to everyone involved that it takes to get a commitment. Do not overwhelm the producer with a 10-page report that will likely never be read. When appropriate provide background information related to the problem, e.g. Pork Industry Handbook bulletins or research articles.

After the initial evaluation and recommendations have been made, it is your task to motivate the producer to action. Three basic things motivate people - money, recognition or power. Recognition and praise of a job well done is often the most effective. Follow-up visits for further evaluations or assistance with implementation of recommendations, or training should be scheduled before leaving the farm.

Monitor and Evaluate Subsequent Performance

A farm evaluation should be followed up with a review of the impact of your recommendations and suggestions. Follow-up evaluation is also critical to provide further refinements that assist in implementation of the recommendations made. Visiting a farm and making a recommendation is not the end of the process; you need to be concerned with the implementation and ultimate result. Documentation of results and continual monitoring of performance is the only way to ensure that a satisfactory solution is reached.


The productivity and profitability of a swine enterprise can be improved by routine evaluations conducted by someone not involved in the day-to-day management of the farm. These farm evaluations allow potential opportunities and problems to be identified and addressed. The steps of an effective farm evaluation program include problem identification, diagnosis of cause, initiation of change and the monitoring and evaluation of subsequent performance. Service people, veterinarians, extension personnel and other farm advisors can readily apply these techniques.

July 2012
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