Swine Specialist Looks Back On Illinois Extension Career

URBANA — A little more than 25 years ago, the new University of Illinois Extension swine specialist was introduced to a meeting of producers in western Illinois as “the man the university says is our new swine specialist.
calendar icon 28 February 2003
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Let’s see if he knows anything or not,“ recalled Gilbert Hollis with a chuckle. Nearing the end of his Extension career, Hollis long ago answered the question in the affirmative.

As a native of Arkansas, a Purdue University Ph.D., a University of Florida researcher and an Extension worker at Texas A&M, Hollis was short on Illinois background and the man he was succeeding, Dick Carlisle, was well-known and respected around the state.

“After a short time in Texas, I realized that Extension work—not research—was going to be my niche,“ he said. “I really enjoy working with people. And when Dick Carlisle came through Texas one day and said he’d be retiring in a couple of years, I knew I wanted to go to the University of Illinois.“

Illinois was—and is—a top pork-producing state and Carlisle was well-known not only in his home state but nation-wide. “People asked me why I wanted to go to Illinois and try to follow a legend like Dick Carlisle?“ he remembered. “When I got the job I handled that by telling people I came here to be Gilbert Hollis—not Dick Carlisle—and I was going to do the best job I could.“

In doing that job, Hollis has had a front-row seat for the transformation of the swine production industry in Illinois. In 1920, 93 percent of U.S. farms had pigs. Today that figure stands at 4 percent. In 1977—the year Hollis began with U of I Extension—the state had 36,000 farms with pigs. The latest figures show only 4,600 farms. Nationally and state-wide, the trend has been either abandonment of swine production or consolidation into larger units.

“It used to be that the pigs on the farm paid the mortgage,“ Hollis said. “In other words, the swine operation provided extra income for the farm family and literally allowed many of them to remain on the farm.“

Over the past 25 years, Hollis noted that a series of changes have swept through the state’s swine industry, affecting everything from the weaning of pigs to diets and housing to ownership of the animals. He worked with producers trying to hang on in the economic collapse of 1998 and has pointed to emerging challenges in the industry.

“Any success I’ve had I owe first to the Lord, next to the tremendous support I’ve enjoyed in the Department of Animal Sciences, and the help I’ve received from the producers in this state,“ he said.

Today’s producers are doing things differently than when Hollis arrived in July 1977 to begin his duties. The industry was beginning to take the first tiny steps into confinement facilities and accelerating weaning from the standard 35 days to 28 days and then 21 days. Artificial insemination and contract production were literally decades away. University of Illinois research and Extension played a role in helping producers make the transitions.

For instance, the move to a 21-day weaning created some problems. Part of the problems was attributable to the environments into which the young pigs were placed; other problems stemmed from the diet. Essentially, the then-standard dietary guidelines for pigs had to be reworked to meet new conditions and demands. Diets were adjusted, finely-tuned, to the nutritional requirements of pigs at more numerous stages in the production process. And the housing problems were addressed with improved heating and ventilation systems.

“Today, more than half the pigs are weaned at 17-18 days,“ Hollis noted.

And today’s pig is built differently than his 1970s ancestor. As packers began paying a premium for increased lean muscle tissue, pigs now have 54-55 percent lean muscle as compared to 47-48 percent in the past. Genetics and improved nutrition have helped make that possible.

Hollis credits an Extension colleague, the late Lief Thompson, for pioneering another evolution in the industry.

“I always say that Lief was 10 years ahead of his time when he went around the state talking about using artificial insemination to enhance efficiency in pork production,“ said Hollis. “At first, he encountered resistance. In the early 1990s, only about 5 percent of Illinois sows were bred artificially. By 2000, that figure was up to 60 percent and today it is 90 percent-plus on farms with 500-plus sows.“

The on-farm structure of swine production has changed, too. In the 1970s, most Illinois swine operations focused on one of three systems—farrow-to-finish, farrow-to-feeder pig, or feeder pig-to-finish. And most confined whatever system they chose to one site.

“Now it is not unusual to see one operation with multi-sites and multi-systems,“ said Hollis.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hollis imagined he would have “been thrown out of the room“ for talking about contract production of swine at an Extension meeting. Illinois producers had always owned the pigs they produced and saw no reason to change; even as that change in the industry was taking root in Iowa.

“Over the last five years in Illinois, we’ve seen a move to contract pig production and specialization,“ he said. “A number of producers no longer actually own the pigs—they own the facilities which they lease, along with their labor, to the animals’ owner. Other producers specialize in various segments of the production cycle. This has been a tremendous change.“

Competition once involved other producers in Illinois or neighboring states. Today, Hollis noted, “The Illinois pork industry is part of a global swine industry.“

Export markets are an important concern for today’s producers who face “tremendous“ competition from Canada and Brazil. “And in the future, I think we’ll see the swine industry grow in Mexico and South America,“ he said.

Nearing his Feb. 28 retirement date, Hollis pondered the future of the Illinois swine industry and identified several challenges.

“The number one challenge is public perception of the industry,“ he said. “As swine production systems have grown in size, large livestock confinement systems are perceived by some as a public nuisance because of odor and environmental impact. The problem is that too often the public perception is based on emotion rather than science.“

Hollis added that a number of laws and regulations are in place to address these problems. “The challenge is to keep an ethically and environmentally sustainable swine industry in Illinois,“ he said.

Producers also face an activist animal welfare movement that in Florida won a legislative victory that banned the use of gestation crates in swine production. A similar effort is underway in Iowa, the nation’s top pork-producing state.

“Food safety is another area of challenge,“ he said. “The public deserves to know that the food they are eating is safe and that meat is free of drugs, growth hormones, and things like salmonella.“

Swine producers also need access to markets and diversification as well as stable prices so that they can recover from the devastating economic collapse of 1998-99.

“A number of producers still haven’t recovered from their losses in 1998-99 and have faced 18 months of unstable prices,“ he said. “This translates into more and more producers going out of business.

“Unless producers can get a foothold in a marketing system such as a producer-owned slaughter plant, they will probably have to align themselves with a packer.“

Other challenges include the availability of skilled, hired labor; maintenance of animal health in the face of biosecurity concerns; funding for applied research; information and technology delivery; and continuing consolidation and specialization.

Source: ACES News - 24th February 2003

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