Straight talk

Change: it happens!

What has surprised you most about the swine industry over the past 10 years and how has that changed how you do your job?

From John Waddell

“There have been two major shockers for me in the past 10 years in regard to the swine industry. First, the depth and length of the market disaster that occurred in the fall and winter of 1998-1999 was unprecedented, unpredicted, and devastating to many of my family-farm clients. It was a matter of transferring wealth from the balance sheets of producers to those of the packers and retailers. Much of this same wealth was accumulated on the backs of the ‘mortgage lifters’ in the preceding generations on those same farms. The mental toll extracted from the current generation, who knew that they were at the helm when the ship hit the iceberg, was almost more than some could bear. This single event shook many to the core of their existence and changed our practice forever. Gone were most of the family owned and operated farrow-to-finish operations that were the bedrock of our practice and the foundation of a knowledge base in swine medicine that has served so many of us swine veterinarians so well.

The other surprise of the last 10 years certainly has to be the loss of social capital and goodwill that was enjoyed by farms and pork producers of prior generations among the general public and consumers. Certainly this was not a ‘point in time’ event, but nonetheless, it has changed the way the consuming public looks upon our segment of agriculture that we call the swine industry. I cannot pinpoint the year that pig farms evolved into ‘factory farms’ or when ‘Old McDonald’ became ‘McDonald Foods’ in the eyes of the general public, but there is no doubt that the perception has changed. This changes the way we as swine veterinarians are perceived as well, and also the way we approach our city cousins when trying to explain sow stalls, factory farms, and antibiotic use around the dinner table. The public perception of pig farms was based on movies like ‘State Fair’ where Able Frake drove Blue Boy to Grand Champion Hog of the Iowa State Fair while his children danced and sang the night away. Now, more and more, they are wondering what is going on ‘behind the curtain’ in the ‘Emerald City’.”

From Bob Friendship

“A big part of my job for the past 28 years has been to teach swine health management to veterinary students. There are changes in the swine industry that have made that task continuously more challenging. Fewer farms, larger farms with tighter biosecurity regulations, and the emergence of species-specialty veterinary practices are the trends that have had the biggest impact. The result is fewer students having exposure to swine production and swine practice before entering veterinary school, and more problems finding herds that will accept groups of students during clinical rotation. The increased specialization and sophistication of the swine industry and swine practice creates a huge challenge for those designing and implementing a DVM curriculum. These changes haven’t really been surprising in that they are a continuation of a trend that started over 50 years ago, but the speed at which they have occurred has been remarkable. The main effect that these changes have had on the way I do my job has been that I have stopped trying to expose all veterinary students to swine practice and to concentrate on mentoring a small number of students who show an interest.”

From Dave Madsen

“Someone as old as me looks at any 10-year span as a mere snapshot of time. Granted, the rate of scientific discovery has accelerated, allowing progress in disease evaluation, management, and control and production practice refinement in an exponential fashion. The biggest surprise? That corporate greed would cast such a shadow over the needs of an entire industry and, seemingly, stall disease-control progress in one arena and jettison scientific reasoning for customer appeasement in another.”

From Paul Armbrecht

“The past 10 years in the swine industry have been an exciting ride and very unpredictable. No one thought that $10 per cwt market hogs would happen. No one thought there would be a need for more veterinarians that specialize in swine. Both of those events have occurred.

I service independently owned swine farms that vary in size from two sows to 3500 sows. Nearly all are farrow-to-finish, with a variety of systems and sites that even include some outdoor farrowing farms. While some of these operations have changed very little in the last 10 years in the physical sense, the approach to production and economics has definitely changed.

The following items are a short list of things that have surprised me about the swine industry in the last 10 years.

Eradication of PRV. Many people said it couldn’t be done, but when producers and veterinarians work together and have a solid plan (and good vaccine!), a disease can be eliminated.

Herd size. The number of sows per site has increased dramatically in the last 10 years; understanding dynamics and logistics is more art than science.

Labor. Many farms today have a work force that does not speak English. Educating and communicating are tremendous challenges.

AI. The industry rapidly went to breeding most sows by AI, which put great pressure on disease monitoring and prevention at boar studs and potential risk downstream.

How many things stay the same! Bio-security, pigmanship, and environment continue to be extremely important to the industry. There are no magic bullets or machines for these items. It takes dedication and discipline by advisors and management staff to train people and keep them doing things consistently in the correct manner. Small farms are still competitive!

Emergence of new diseases. PRRS and circovirus have taught us that we are still pretty ignorant. These diseases occurred right under our noses and took a while to recognize and identify. The industry is definitely at risk to introduction of a devastating condition because of interconnectivity of production systems. Everyone should be vigilant for abnormal and unusual health-disease events.”

From Roy Schultz

“It’s not the unabated world consolidation of pork production, but the rapidity of that consolidation that surprises me most. A 25% increase in world pork consumption, with only a 12% increase in the world population, also surprises me. This and a weak American dollar have led to increased exports, keeping profits in the United States industry for an unprecedented length of time. The National Pork Board and council have done a marvellous job of creating awareness of the nutrition, healthiness, and safety of pork.

Profitable pork production is more likely to invest in veterinary expertise to control disease and production problems. It brings one more pleasure to work in a profitable industry, and makes me proud to be a swine veterinarian!”

--Tracy Ann Raef