It’s hard to identify exactly when small, farrow-to-finish, single-site producers became a small minority of the clients we serve. While there has been a gradual decline of that type of producer for years, some specific events accelerate the process. Disease outbreaks, low market prices (especially the fall of 1998), high grain prices, and market access all limit the profitability of small producers.
Most swine veterinarians generate a majority of their revenue by providing services to larger farms. We can spread our knowledge and expertise over many animals in a short period of time. Small farms represent a small portion of our revenue, but they are an important part of the industry that cannot be ignored. It is our responsibility to see that the remaining small farms get the service they need. Small producers tend to have limited experience and many have to make do with older or minimal facilities. There are welfare issues that these producers need to be made aware of, and they need to understand the pros and cons of outside, natural, and organic production. Food safety and consumer satisfaction are very important aspects of pig-meat production. Finally, health, disease prevention, and biosecurity programs tend not to be well defined for many small producers. While most smaller producers mean well, in many respects they need the most help. Veterinarians are the perfect source for this help and information.
How many small farms are there in today’s industry? The USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service Report for 20121 indicates that 71% of US swine farms (48,700) have an inventory of fewer than 100 pigs. Those farms combined sell less than 1% of the pork marketed. Eighty-two percent of US swine farms (56,000) have an inventory of fewer than 1000 pigs.1 This group produces 4.3% of the pork sold.1 While 4.3% is a small part of the industry, the pigs that come from those farms are likely to be underserved by veterinarians. It is important that the end product for this 4.3% of the industry is just as safe and nutritious as the other 95.7% that comes from larger farms that are more likely to be well served by veterinarians.
Servicing 56,000 swine farms can be a daunting task, especially when we hear that there is a shortage of rural food-animal veterinarians. But is there truly a shortage? Our colleagues at the AABP believed this, but then learned that new graduates who desired food-animal positions had difficulty finding jobs after graduation. The AABP formed a committee to study rural veterinary practice. They concluded there is NOT a shortage of graduates to fill rural food-animal positions.2 Their study showed that even though there are enough graduates to fill those openings, positions often go unfilled for a variety of reasons, most of which revolve around the downturn in the overall economy. A depressed economy is particularly hard on rural towns. As the economy struggles, small farms struggle, and they, in turn, use veterinarians less. When small farms go out of business, the remaining farms get spread out farther. This makes it difficult for veterinarians to service those farms effectively and profitably. Even though a new graduate may love working in a rural area, increasing costs of veterinary education and student debt can preclude their accepting rural positions. Lifestyle choices, such as dual-income families, may also limit where a new graduate can work.
The good news is that more awareness of the plight of rural food-animal veterinarians is reducing the number of unfilled positions. The AABP study, the Academy of Rural Veterinarians, and the National Food Animal Veterinary Institute have enlightened food-animal graduates as to what to expect in a rural food-animal practice, and more positions are being filled. The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has a veterinary medical loan repayment program that pays $25,000 per year for new graduates to work in an underserved area for 3 years after graduation. These programs are ultimately working towards providing proper veterinary services to small producers of all species.
Remember that small farms are still out there. They likely do not generate a large percentage of the revenue for your practice, but they produce meat for consumers. We are responsible to see that the meat they produce is safe and nutritious. Be creative as you work with these clients. Designate a day every other week to work with small producers. Call on several in an area in one day to conserve trip fees. Hold group meetings to train them in proper production practices. Take their phone calls to answer questions. These practices will help ensure that 100% of the pork meat is produced safely, responsibly, and under proper veterinary care.
1. USDA, National Agriculture Statistics Service. Farms, Land in Farms, and Livestock Operations 2012 Summary. February 2013.
2. Summary Opinion of the American Association of Bovine Practitioner’s Ad Hoc Committee on Rural Veterinary Practice. May 2011. Available at: http://www.aabp.org. Accessed 24 April 2013.
Jim Kober, DVM, MSc, Dipl ABVP Swine Health Management
Swine Veterinary Services of Michigan