Steve Horton has been working with Thomas Livestock for eight years. He currently serves as the farrowing supervisor for four sow barns. In his 42 years in the hog industry, Horton has seen plenty of barn management styles and observed firsthand how that can impact worker and sow productivity. We sat down with Horton and asked him about barn management habits that negatively impact sow production. Keep reading for Horton's thoughts.
Poor Health of Animals
The first thing you need to think about in a barn is bio-security and good animal health. The foundation of this is good daily care of the animals, teamed with good veterinary care.
As a manager your job is to promote good animal husbandry among your staff. Workers have to really care. They have to get the sows up and check temperatures; they have to do what is best for the animal.
I think sometimes standard operating procedures can put limitations on workers, because as managers we do have to be concerned about cost, but the people in the barns have to be allowed to care for the animals as their first priority.
There is always a temptation to over manage, but that can be damaging to morale. We have to keep open communication between the workers and management so that workers feel free to share their ideas and concerns and feel like their opinions matter. I never mind when people come in and call it their barn. Yes, it is Thomas Livestock, but if they don't take ownership then we're missing the boat.
Not Holding People Accountable
Without accountability it is harder for workers to see that they are doing a good job and that they are part of a bigger team. We use records to help hold everyone accountable for their job.
The people in the farrowing house are accountable for the stillborns. The people that are doing the artificial insemination are accountable for the fertility. The people that are taking care of the ESF pens are accountable for the pregnancy rate or the fallouts in the pens. The people that are pressure washing are accountable for barn cleanliness and health. Everybody has an important job in the barn, and holding people accountable for their part in the operation helps them to see that.
We try to set goals and when we hit goals we bring in rewards. For instance if the breeding barn hits their goal of what we set for their fertility rate, we bring in candy bars for everybody. If the farrowing barn hits their goal, we bring in sodas for everybody. When we hit our goal of being a top farm in our swine management system, then we take everybody out for pizza or steak. It is all about teamwork and accountability.
Part of teamwork is not playing favorites. You've got to make sure you're treating everybody fair across the board. For example, if someone asks for days off and always gets them when others don't, that is not okay. Everyone needs to feel as important as the next guy.
If workers feel like you're playing favorites they start talking about it and it creates divisions in the team. Those divisions can lead to poor decision making in the barn and negatively impact sow production.
Not Asking How We Can Improve and Not Acting on Suggestions
A lot of times the workers in the barns have amazing ideas, and if we aren't asking for feedback, we're missing an opportunity. It is important to let your employees know that you are willing to listen and you want them to continue to think about things.
For example, in our farrowing crates we have an underlayment underneath the wire that helps stop a draft from coming up; but that didn't used to be there. A young lady working with my boss actually suggested that we do that. We thought that it was the silliest idea because we thought it would create a more dirty area, but we listened anyway and gave her idea a chance. In fact, it has worked extremely well and we've added that in all of our barns now. All because we were willing to ask what we could do better and listen to suggestions.
Not Having Numbers and Records Available to People
I've seen a lot of farms that keep their records contained within upper management, but I think it is important to involve all barn workers in the records. We have everything posted right up front on a board. We believe that always having it in front of them helps them to see where they can improve and understand the impact their work has on production.
We train all our employees to understand the numbers. You can put numbers in front of people, but they have to understand what they are seeing for it to make a difference. We talk about our numbers quite often, even at breaks. We usually don't even intend to set down and talk about it, but it is something the staff will naturally bring up at least once a week. Once you understand the numbers you want to know what causes them and how your work can impact the bottom line.
Not Having Enough Gilts
When visitors come through our barns they will sometimes remark that our gilt replacement is quite high. We are probably higher than a lot of other operations, but when it comes down to it, if you don't have enough gilts coming into your herd you're going to end up keeping sows that you wanted to get rid of. That's going to hurt your numbers in the end. Having gilts ready to replace sows is a very important part of our success.
Not Having the Gilts Prepared
Prepared gilts are calm gilts. If you don't take the time to acclimate them to where they will be going and train them with the ESF system then you are causing a lot of unnecessary stress on your herd and your staff.
We bring gilts in early to give them time to adjust to the system in a low-stress way. We have found that if you bring them in too late then they are not ready due to stress, and they usually won't have as many piglets.
But that being said, the training itself is actually very simple. The biggest factor is remaining calm with them. The system we've set up takes it step by step, very simply, and with minimal stress to animals and staff.
Not Listening to What the Animals are Telling You
Sometimes we have our minds so set on the way we think things should go and what we are used to, that we just don't take a step back and see what the animals are saying. I've had people that are used to working with gestation crates, and as we went into the group housed ESF system they just had it in their mind as to how things were going to go. But their way involved pushing toward the goal rather than listening to the animal.
In one situation, I went into the pen and found three people trying to coax and train the animals. I went in and got the girls to go through all by myself! When the workers saw this their jaws dropped. They said, "You're not working as hard as we were!" And I said, "No I'm not!" When it comes to working with animals it really is not working harder it is working smarter.
If you observe the sows and follow their cues, they will do the work, you don't need to do the work. The biggest help you've got when it comes to pigs is their natural curiosity. Learn to embrace and listen to that and it will reflect in your production numbers.
Bringing It Together
Looking back, most of these tips involve listening and being observant. As managers our role is to help guide and oversee barn production, not strong-arm or control for every factor. If you take the time to respect your staff, provide excellent care for your animals, and stay accountable to your production numbers, you will see success as a manager.
Listening to sows and helping producers achieve high levels of production with minimal stress is what gets us up and going into work every morning. Learn more below!