Paradigms in pig science: Manage the process and the people

UK- Tackling disease on large-scale pig systems is better achieved using process management. It's how US pig production giant Smithfield, practices its health and veterinary management and it pays off. Jane Jordan, ThePigSite Editor reports from Nottingham University's international Pig Science conference.
calendar icon 4 July 2007
clock icon 6 minute read
Speaking at the conference, veterinarian Mike Mohr Head of Smithfield's Technical Services said that the principles of controlling disease were the same for every pig enterprise - to contain and/or eliminate the problems cost effectively, However, on large scale operations, resources were pushed and other parameters came into play, such as return on investment, company margins and shareholder dividends.

Global economics were the driver. And as a producer, Smithfield had to be competitive in the pigmeat market and also in attracting investment funds. "We compete for money like other public companies - we are competing with the likes of Tesco and it's a very tough," said Mr Mohr.

In his opinion, modern paradigms for pigmeat production should focus on farm flow and not the pig; because the overall concept must be business led. "For health management, our focus is on return on investment and not on curing all disease; it is the system that has the disease not the pig," said Mr Mohr.
He believed that health was the largest risk component for any pig business; more so than market structure. It influenced every facet of pigmeat production and so managing it effectively and economically, was a priority. "By taking a system approach we can evaluate the return on investment of prevention and control tactics. Other solutions may be a better option," said Mr Mohr.

He referred to a case relating to mortality and respiratory disease. Data analysis showed that although death rate was high, it only accounted for 50 per cent of lost output. Other factors were equally responsible for the poor performance.

"Could we achieve greater output if we focused on other areas, not just mortality. Sure, it's a significant contributor to lost production, but it is not the only factor. We may be able to increase the amount of pigmeat produced by tackling other issues - and that may be more cost effective," he explained.

Managed disease
For Smithfield, control programmes were important business decisions. In most cases, herds had to learn to live with a disease and manage it economically.

Mr Mohr said that policies that were justified on a family farm are not always viable for a large integrator, because of the scale of the business. "In effect we are managing a pork production machine. We're looking at input, output and throughput. It's not the pigs that have the disease it's the system and the decisions made are focused on maximising pigmeat output," he said.

Disease monitoring and data analysis were central to Smithfield's health management. Infection levels are monitored monthly using serology and ELISA tests. Any disease outbreak is diagnosed using post mortem tests and pathology. In persistent cases, selected pigs are euthanased for further investigation.

And veterinary practice at farm level has changed too- Smithfield's vets were also business men, epidemiologists and forensic investigators. They now used data processing to asses the impact that disease has on pigmeat output and what, if any, control measures are required to sustain or improve efficient performance.

However, the process relied on good data collection and skilled observations from competent livestock technicians. "In an ideal world we'd have one-to-one vet contact and individual attention, but that's not practical, or economic. Our business model places a higher reliance on skilled stockpeople - they are our frontline in the defence of disease," said Mr Mohr.

Investment in people gives nine fold benefit

Richard Longthorp, NPA training guru, agreed and said that having skilled staff was central to business success. Pig producers needed to understand that the return on investment in training and career development far outweighed any of the costs involved.

"Money is not a motivator. Spend £10 a week on training and developing someone's career and you get back so much more than if you just put it in their pay-packet," he said.

The benefit in monetary terms for a pig business equates to about £4500 a year - for an investment of just £500, said Mr Longthorp.

He told delegates that education in the agricultural sector had been tarnished as a result of poor funding and a low-grade image. People think farming is a dead-end job when in fact it requires skill, expertise and often an acute understanding of technology and economics.

"We don't want dross, we want the top; that's the challenge we have across agriculture," said Mr Longthorp. He said that education ethics had to change. Training and career development needed to have solid links to business and produce benefits to employers if they were going to invest in their staff. This was certainly true of the pig business and the driver behind the recently launched Pig Industry Professional Pig Industry Register (PIPR).

The continual professional development (CPD) scheme ticked all the boxes named in the Government's Leitch report, which called for greater business-based, industry-led skills training, and is already putting those recommendations into practice. It was open to anyone working in the pig sector, was the first of its kind for the agricultural industry and had total government backing.

"We're taking a pragmatic approach to training and education. It's simple, structured and more inviting so hopefully people will get involved and we'll all benefit," said Mr Longthorp.

He said that the NVQ and Skills Sector Learning initiative was not popular with farmers. It was disjointed with too much paper work. However, wondered if farmers lack of communication as to what they actually needed had been partly responsible for its 'failure to launch' in the sector.

He said the pig industry needed an education system that was comprehensive, yet unitised, and structured so that 'students' could build on their knowledge and skill base. "But is has to have business benefits at its core," said Mr Longthorp. The UK pig industry was well on its way to achieving these goals through PIPR and its dedicated training initiative.
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