If you’ve been in the pork industry for any length of time you know one thing to be true: global pork markets are changing. European markets have moved to loose sow housing and Canada is following closely behind. While the US markets have not yet demanded all producers move in this direction, the writing's on the wall.
Consumers and packers want more transparency, better conditions for pigs, healthier (and tastier) animals. It isn’t enough to wait until you are forced to change to look into alternative barn management systems. We firmly believe that producers can’t afford to be last minute adopters of new technologies for several reasons.
Consumers are Demanding a Change
Packaged Facts, a food and drink focused market research division of MarketResearch.com conducted a survey in early 2017 that revealed 58% of American consumers are more concerned about animal welfare than they were just a few years ago. Their concerns include how animals are being raised, handled, and slaughtered, as well as their housing, feeding, and use of antibiotics.
In response to these demands, food companies are taking more steps to ensure that the animals in their supply chains are treated well and have a good quality of life. On the corporate level, these changes mean that producers who refuse to innovate and accept greater accountability in their swine production can expect to lose market share in the coming years.
Keeping Market Share is Easier Than Regaining Market Share
With the changing landscape it is easy to see that top-down pressure will eventually land in the lap of the individual producer. Whether losing a contract with a packer seems like a big deal at this stage in the game or not, basic economics show that it is much easier to keep your current customers happy rather than try to make up for losing their business. With huge packers like Smithfield and Maple Leaf already committing to group-sow housing, pressure is mounting for other large producers, and small producers as well.
Tighter Markets Demand More Accountability and Automation
Markets go up and markets go down. Despite 2017 being a banner year for pork exports, markets inevitably tighten either due to natural market swings, or political decisions. When markets are up, it is a good time to invest in technology that will help you when markets are down.
As margins tighten for producers, expenses and inefficient processes that may have seemed insignificant previously, suddenly become much more important. It may seem easier to continue with individual stall housing (at least in the United States) since markets have not yet demanded greater accountability in this area. Or perhaps, with a large well-trained staff it may not seem that difficult to continue hand sorting sows by parity and aggression or to use shoulder stall type systems or even free-access ESF systems. But remember, if and when markets tighten, your overhead and labor costs, as well as your management style and systems have to be able to endure those smaller margins.
Dr. Jennifer Brown, a leading swine researcher working with the Prairie Swine Centre, had this to say.
“You need to recognize that the cost of the installation isn’t when you are done paying. The long-term cost of management is higher if any sow can access the feed. You have social hierarchies and (with competitive feeding) over and under feeding leading to great variation in bodycondition. So with these systems you generally add more food to compensate for the skinnier girls, and you also need staff to watch them every day for issues with body condition and identifying any ‘dropouts’ that need to be removed.
With these group feeding systems, when you form groups they need to be smaller and you need to have staff that are good at selecting based on size and parity, otherwise the smaller sows will take the brunt of it. This management isn’t needed with full ESF. With ESF these long term problems are eliminated because you have individual feeding. The sows are protected when feeding, and monitoring is simple because feeder access is recorded automatically."
Full electronic feeding systems like that offered by Nedap, are more than just individual sow feeders; they are barn management systems. They allow you to decrease daily herd management activities and increase the number of sows you can place in each pen by automating essential daily activities including feeding, sorting, and more.
These systems are able to separate animals for health checks, vaccinations, culling, or any other activity based on their RFID chip. They also incorporate heat detection and mark the sows for oestrus, alert for issues with feeding, and have options to collect accurate weights rather than relying on subjective BCS scores or time-consuming backfat measurements.
Full ESF barn management systems allow you full access to your herd’s health profiles on wireless internet anywhere throughout your barn at the touch of a button on your computer or cell phone. Saving money on feed costs, being able to dynamically breed sows as they enter oestrus, and being able to easily single out animals that need to be culled, treated by a vet, or vaccinated can be the difference between success and failure in tight markets.
Young Producers Want Data
Data is everywhere now. Just look at your smartphone and you’ll see that our lives are run by algorithms. The advertisements you see online are hand chosen for you based on the heaps of data they’ve collected on you. Why do they collect this data? Because data allows for greater efficiency in their processes. The same is true for pork production.
With data collected from Nedap systems, producers are able to instantly see which animals are underperforming and which animals are consistently having issues with breeding. All your staff has to do is read the data. Producers are consistently finding that this increase in technology and the information available is allowing them to produce more and better pigs. And that is exciting to the next generation of producers just coming out of college or just entering the family business. They are used to computers and databases, and they are attracted to cutting edge business practices, not just because it is trendy but because it improves operations.
Dr. Jennifer Brown noted that she has seen this shift. She encourages producers to look at their operation in total when considering any change.
“Be sure to look at problem areas and look to the future. Do you want to increase your herd? Are you trying to attract younger family members to take on the business? These are great reasons to take on an automated system,” Brown said. “One of the producers we work with, John van Engelen, has wireless internet throughout his entire barn. He can check his sow records and monitor them from anywhere. Now both his son and daughter are joining him and they are expanding the operation.”
As you enjoy the market upswing, make sure you are also considering investing in the future. Technology is constantly advancing. Continuing business as usual will not work. Consumers want change, packers want change, and the next generation of producers want change. The producer of the future will be driven by data, allowing for the unique opportunity to engage science and cutting-edge technology with centuries of swine farming best practices.