President's message

September and October, 1999

It was 1976 and I was enrolled in LAC 478, Swine Herd Health Clerkship, a 1-month intensive study of swine production, medicine, disease, and diagnostics. This was an elective course offered during the senior year at Purdue University. The instructor was Dr. L. J. Runnels, Professor in the Large Animal Clinic. It involved Dr. Runnels providing swine consultative services to privately owned herds, in exchange for which the producers allowed Dr. Runnels to use their swine herds as teaching laboratories. Students that enrolled in LAC 478 accompanied Dr. Runnels during his monthly visit to these herds. This was a unique and experiential teaching program. Dr. Jack Stockton was the Dean at Purdue University School of Veterinary Science and Medicine. He encouraged Dr. Runnels to develop a swine health curriculum to meet the needs of a changing swine industry. Dr. Runnels, like many of the faculty during that era of veterinary medical education, had practiced and then returned to the university to teach and do research. His dedication, intelligence, hard work, and his family's sacrifice resulted in the development of LAC 478. That was a boon for students. Swine producers who participated received excellent swine consultative veterinary service from Dr. Runnels. The expertise and services of the Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory faculty enhanced the learning experience for students and services offered to producers. There was a link between the veterinary school, the diagnostic laboratory at Purdue University, and Indiana swine producers. In addition, veterinary practitioners called Dr. Runnels for expert advice on matters pertaining to swine production, disease, diagnostics, and other topics.

Ten herds participated in LAC 478. They ranged in size from small to large, with the largest being approximately 1000 sows. Most herds used farrow-to-finish production. One herd was a farrow-to-wean, feeder pig producer with sows gestating on pasture lots, but farrowing inside. Students learned the art of pig rodeo whenever vaccinating sows while on dirt lots. Dr. Runnels purposefully provided surgical castration services on piglets at this herd in order for students to participate and learn the procedure. To this day, I remember the open surgical technique for inguinal hernia repair by ligating the spermatic cord without suturing the muscular layers of the inguinal ring. Dr. Runnels provided regulatory testing and paperwork for boars submitted to the Indiana Boar Testing Station. I will never forget collecting blood samples on a frigid January day, from animals housed on straw in the modified-open front facility. The collection needle would freeze between sampling due to the extreme cold temperatures.

Pork producers of that era were not vertically integrated. Pigs were produced and delivered either to a plant or to one of many "buying stations" located throughout the state to buy, sort, and then ship pigs on to markets or plants. Many feeder pig producers throughout the Southern United States raised and sold feeder pigs via the "sale barn" to producers in other parts of the country. Producers made decisions to purchase feeder pigs based upon potential profitability with an eye toward the live pigs' futures price, the price of corn, and a simple calculation known as the hog:corn ratio. This feeder-pig industry vanished in the 1980s and was gradually replaced by larger herds farrowing pigs on a regular basis.

Today, vertically integrated companies are defining the future of United States swine production. The integrator companies continue to expand their share of swine production despite record low prices for live pigs. Apparently, it does not matter since they own all phases of production and processing. The ability to lose money in one division--pork production--and still earn profits in another division--processing and selling of branded products--alters the decision-making process. The price paid for live pigs today, depending upon the market, remains below profitability levels for most producers.

Pork production has always been a business. Profit is the reason pork producers choose to raise pigs. No longer does the producer or company enter or exit pork production based solely on the profitability potential of live pig production. The management of the integrated (pork) company may decide to expand production to provide pigs for their processing plant and the ability to earn profits on the sale of pork products. The pork producer that does not share in the ability to earn profits from the sale of pork products is in jeopardy. Their survival is at stake. The time is too late for some of them since the lending institutions are examining the risk of extending further credit.

And what is to keep the integrated pork companies from further expansion? Perhaps individual state permitting restrictions or environmental concerns, but that is not a certain barrier. This is a period of unprecedented change in the United States swine industry. This change is adversely affecting both large and small producers. By the time politicians and policymakers react, it will be too late to save many pork producers. The changes will have occurred. What it means for the future remains to be determined. The AASP will not be insulated from these changes, since many of our members have been mixed animal veterinary practitioners with some swine emphasis. The changes occurring in the United States swine industry will affect the AASP. The AASP will change in the future. That much is certain.