Research Alliance for Farrowing, the Weak Link in Alternative Swine Systems

Final Report for LNC03-230

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2003: $149,759.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Rick Exner
Practical Farmers of iowa
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Project Information


The SARE-supported Research Alliance for Farrowing (RAF) project addressed information and communication deficiencies around young pigs in alternative production systems. Intensive case studies provided farmers and veterinarians a better understanding of the health threats in different kinds of alternative production systems. Eleven workshops and four field days have taken place. A herd health toolbox, Managing for Herd Health in Alternative Swine Systems, consolidates current knowledge of best health practices for alternative systems and through case examples shows effective vet-producer relationships and successful health management strategies in alternative swine production systems.


The swine industry is in change. On one hand, consolidation is making it difficult for pork producers to avoid contracting and scaling-up to produce a lean, commodity meat. Many are leaving the industry. At the same time, consumers are showing interest in pork that “tells a story” of sustainable farming in concert with the environment and quality of life ideals. A growing number of farmers who raise pigs on diversified farms, seeing no future for themselves in the former route, are seizing on these emerging markets as a way to remain in farming while enhancing their quality of life and the environmental sustainability of the farm.

However, producers who are raising pigs in alternative systems are among the first to cite the difficulty of doing so. It is true that Midwest farmers once raised hogs more-or-less sustainably by default. Today though, breeds, swine systems, and hog farmers have evolved for five decades in a different direction. Successful pharmaceuticals have enabled this trend. So far, no comparable “silver bullets” have appeared for alternative swine systems. Alternative swine production systems being developed in Europe and North America generally seek to create a “high health” environment. Environmental stressors are avoided, and animals are permitted social behaviors, promoting their resistance to disease. These alternative production systems integrate well with the farm and environment, often utilizing crop residue as bedding, producing a manure in which nutrients are stabilized or composted, and often consuming a minimum of energy.

Rather than creating a biotic vacuum through isolation and antibiotics, these systems are often very open to the outside and may rely instead on a favorable balance of organisms in a low-stress production environment. This approach is often successful when environmental stress is low, as for instance when sows farrow on pasture in good weather. Many producers, however, report that success can turn to disaster when farrowing moves into winter. This is perhaps not surprising, since alternative production facilities do not control the environment as tightly as conventional ones. Moreover, alternative systems may not employ antibiotics, which compensate for suboptimal conditions.

Producers in alternative systems are frequently frustrated in their attempts to resolve health crises in young pigs. Lab diagnostic tests often show multiple organisms present, whether causal or not, but the standard antibiotic and/or anthelmintic treatments prescribed by veterinarians in such cases cannot be used in these systems. Veterinary scientists recognize the connections between environment and disease, but they may be unpracticed in manipulating elements of alternative systems for management of disease and maintenance of herd health.

In order for the new pork markets to grow, and in order for more sustainable farms to be economically successful, we must resolve this dilemma of baby pig health in alternative production systems. We have the human resources in the producer and science communities. We need to work together, and we need to work in ways that will lead to solutions appropriate to these farms. This project, the Research Alliance for Farrowing, the Weak Link in Alternative Swine Systems, was designed to move the alternative pork community in that direction. Field veterinarians, ISU veterinary scientists, and swine producers using alternative systems were convened through workshops, field days, on-farm research, and a three-year collaborative effort to produce a herd health guidebook for alternative swine systems. Intensive case studies of seven cooperator swine systems provided insights into the functioning and health issues of alternative systems. The case studies also helped lead project participants to the principles and strategies set out in the guidebook, Managing for Herd Health in Alternative Swine Systems.

Project Objectives:

Objective: “The three-year project will begin with longitudinal case studies of nine systems (8 private, 1 university farm) representing a range of alternatives.”

Performance: The project held two recruitment meetings and also recruited through the Niman Pork Company, the Organic Valley Co-op pork pool, and Practical Farmers of Iowa. However only a total of 7 farms (6 private, 1 ISU farm) met the criteria for project cooperator. Data collection began in early-mid spring 2004 and continued through late summer 2005, with slaughter checks and environmental microbial sampling extending into 2006.

Objective: “The project will host in-service field workshops to introduce new members of the veterinarian community to sustainable swine systems and their issues. By year two of the project, veterinarians will participate as collaborators and make health care interventions in concert with producers.”
Performance: Over the course of the project 11 workshops were held for vets and/or producers on a range of topics and total attendance of approximately 180. In addition four meetings of project research cooperators and collaborators took place to plan and fine-tune the case study data collection and to provide vet and farmer input into the herd health guide produced by the project. Four project-related field days were held, with total attendance of approximately 210.

Objective: “Additional information will be generated through farm record keeping overseen by ISU Extension as part of its thrust to document the economics and productivity of alternative swine systems.”
Performance: ISU Extension Swine Field Specialist David Stender worked with project cooperators to develop economic profiles of those farms and highlight both strengths and weaknesses.

Objective: “In regular meetings, we will join our experience to move beyond the data to synthesize practical, systems-based approaches and a “toolbox” of interventions appropriate to alternative swine systems. Additionally, an annual project review will be conducted as part of the evaluation component by a committee of ISU scientists, participating farmers, the director of the University of Minnesota Swine Center, and representatives of organizations and offices that are participating in the project.”
Performance: With funding through the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a review committee was convened that included ISU and field veterinarians, producers, and representatives from the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association, the National Pork Board, the Minnesota Swine Center, the ISU Pork Industry Center, the Pork Niche Market Working Group (directed jointly by PFI and the Leopold Center), the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Niman Pork Company, and the Organic Valley Co-operative. The review committee helped set the direction for the herd health guide and established an atmosphere of mutual support with a parallel project on herd health and recordkeeping that is funded by the National Research Initiative.

Objective: “Through a subcontract to Practical Farmers of Iowa, participating farmers will be integrated into the on-farm research network of PFI and will help to disseminate project information through farm field days, PFI workshops, and meetings of marketing organizations to which they belong. Practical Farmers of Iowa will also disseminate project information through press releases, its newsletter, and its website.”
Performance: See above for attendance at workshops and field days held under the auspices of PFI. Project news has been regularly publicized by articles in the organization’s newsletter, The Practical Farmer (print run 1,000) and on the PFI Farming Systems Program website (


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • George Beran
  • Mark Honeyman
  • David Stender
  • Kurt Van Hulzen


Materials and methods:

Activities under the Research Alliance for Farrowing (RAF) project consisted of: 1) pre-project surveys of producers and veterinarians; 2) intensive case studies of a limited number of representative production systems; 3) an outreach phase that consolidated the lessons learned and further strengthened working relationships between veterinarians and farmers using alternative swine production systems; and 4) a post-project survey of producers and veterinarians.

The intensive case studies occupied roughly the first half of the RAF project and included the following observations: management observations (farrowing records and other management notes kept by cooperating farmers); physical conditions (kept on an hourly basis by dataloggers placed in farrowing sites); parasite load (through fecal samples collected twice per farm during the project); pathology (samples submitted for laboratory diagnostics by collaborating veterinarians working with case study farms); carcass evaluation (carried out at Sioux-Preme Pack, Sioux Center, Iowa, by Dr. Fred Sick); production economics (carried out by ISU Extension swine field specialist David Stender). Project evaluation was carried out by the project steering committee, composed of farmers, scientists, and representatives of a broad range of organizations. Production of the herd health “toolbox” occupied much of the second half of the Research Alliance for Farrowing project. Draft material was contributed and/or reviewed by seven veterinarians, four swine specialists, and five swine producers, in addition to PFI staff. Producer and veterinarian surveys were administered at the start of the project and at its completion in order to assess changes in knowledge and attitudes. Project dissemination and coordination of cooperators was carried out through the subcontract to Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Research results and discussion:


Pre-Project Surveys. The pre-project veterinarian survey was sent to 224 individuals known to be involved with alternative swine systems or practicing in communities near producers using alternative systems. Sixty-six questionnaires were returned, a 29% response rate. The survey was intended to test both knowledgeability and attitudes. The vets proved to be generally knowledgeable regarding practices used and motivations behind alternative swine production systems. They estimated the most significant problems for young pigs in these systems to be crushing, scours, and pneumonia, in descending order. Interestingly, veterinarians did not deem alternative approaches to swine production to be highly viable. On a scale from 0 (completely unviable) to 5 (highly viable), they rated the viability of alternative farrowing systems at 2.2 (original data linearly transformed).

The pre-project farmer survey was sent to 130 swine producers associated with sustainable agriculture organizations or alternative pork marketing groups. Twenty-three surveys were completed, an 18% response rate. Farmers were asked what their most severe health problems were before weaning and after weaning. Most severe problems encountered before weaning were crushing (by far most cited), milking/feeding problems, vaccination issues, Clostridium, scours, respiratory problems, wet conditions, E. coli, runts, drafts, predation, and improper sow care, in descending order. Farmers reported the most severe post-weaning health issues to be Salmonella, ileitis, scours, runts, vaccination-related problems, moving stress, E. coli, wet conditions, dehydration, early weaning, and worms, in descending rank.

Post-Project Surveys. At the close of the project in spring 2007, surveys were sent to 236 veterinarians, of which 92 were returned, a 39% response rate. The veterinarians again ranked the chief problems of alternative farrowing systems to be crushing, scours, and pneumonia, in descending order. We presented the veterinarians a list of five factors that the RAF project has determined to be important to alternative systems. The vets ranked all highly, with all-in-all-out the most highly rated followed by closed herd, vaccination timing, distance from other swine operations, and stress reduction.

We again asked veterinarians their opinion of the viability of alternative farrowing systems. Three years and three months after being asked the same question, vets responded with an average rating of 3.9 on the scale of 0-5, a marked change from the earlier 2.2. Ten vets whose practice was more than 3 percent alternative systems rated the viability at 4.2, and the three veterinarians who reported that alternative swine systems represented more than 10 percent of their practice rated the viability of these systems at 4.7 out of a possible 5. Thus there is both a “familiarity effect” and a general change in opinion in the veterinarian community about the viability of alternative farrowing systems. The Research Alliance for Farrowing project has worked to increase veterinarians’ familiarity with alternative swine systems, and this project deserves at least a small part of the credit for the change in veterinarians’ attitudes. On the other hand, there have been many other news reports and public events bearing on alternative pork in the last three years, and these are cumulatively changing the climate regarding niche pork production.

End-of-project surveys were sent to 269 swine farmers with sustainable agriculture connections of some sort, and 51 surveys were returned, a 19% response rate. We asked farmers to respond to the top causes of pre-weaning death that farmers had identified in the pre-project survey. In the post-project survey, swine producers rated these (in descending importance): crushing, drafts/temperature stress, lactation/feeding problems, wet conditions, Clostridium, scours, E. coli, runts, respiratory problems, and deficiencies in sow care. By far the highest rated cause of preweaning death was crushing (4.1 out of 5). Interestingly, the 10 organic farmers responding to the survey gave crushing essentially the same rating (4.0). Organic farmers in Iowa have somewhat greater flexibility on farrowing pen design than farmers serving some of the non-organic niche markets; nevertheless, crushing of newborn pigs by the sow remains the top concern of the organic producers responding to the survey.

The end-of-project survey also presented farmers with the top-listed causes of post-weaning death provided by farmers returning the pre-project survey. In the end-of-project survey, farmers rated these (in descending order) as: respiratory problems, scours, ileitis, runts, E. coli, worms, wet conditions, dehydration, Salmonella, and weaning stress. The parallel herd health study funded by the National Research Initiative found that respiratory problems from Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae are more frequent in alternative swine systems than in conventional ones, while respiratory issues due to swine influenza virus and PRRS (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome) are less frequent in alternative systems.

Producers were asked the same question about viability that was put to veterinarians. Not surprisingly, these farmers rated the viability of alternative farrowing systems at 4.4 on a scale of 0 to 5.

Intensive Case Studies
Intensive case studies were carried out on seven representative farms, of which two at that time were organic and five were marketing pigs through other sustainable agriculture-related labels. The project worked with these producers to document their practices, the physical conditions in the systems, infection rates, farrowing statistics, and production economics. The small sample of farms was selected not for purposes of statistical analysis but to provide insights into alternative swine systems that might be verified in subsequent studies that would be larger but more focused.

Farrowing Statistics. Number of pigs weaned equals number born alive minus total mortality from all sources. Several sources of mortality are shown; crushing, starving, unknown cause, and “other causes” add up to the total mortality. Farms 5 and 7 showed the greatest numbers of pigs born alive, but they also reported the highest pre-weaning pig mortality. This is likely in part a reflection of the difficulty of keeping complete farrowing records. Dead baby pigs can fail to appear in records because they are removed by predators, lost in the field, eaten by other pigs, or because the farmer falls behind in reporting. The number of pigs weaned per litter varies less from farm to farm, probably because the quality of the records affected similarly the numbers reported born and reported mortalities.

Standard errors are provided for some of the summary statistics to suggest the range of farrowing outcomes that occur. While the overall death loss per liter averages 1.3 pigs, the standard error is 2.2 pigs per litter, suggesting perhaps 15 percent of litters experience a death rate of 3.5 pigs (1 standard error from the mean) or more. Unfortunately, “unknown” was a more frequently cited cause of death than even crushing, so we are unable to provide greater insight on this issue. Certainly everyone, from the producers to their marketing organizations to the animal welfare organizations, has a stake in reducing the mortality rate of young pigs in these systems.

Farrowing results for different environments incorporates uncontrolled effects for season and farm differences, but the pasture environment is uniformly at or near the top in numbers of pigs weaned per litter. This is consistent with the isolation and with the relative lack of stress afforded in the seasons in which pasture farrowing is practiced. In the cold months, most producers go to lengths to avoid chilling young pigs. A datalogger placed in the center-rear of the farrowing room registered an average temperature of 49.7 °F., while near the door to the lot the temperature averaged 47.9 °F. Moreover, there was greater fluctuation in temperature near the door, suggesting periodic cold drafts as animals came and went from the farrowing barn. A ½-mph breeze lowers the effective environmental temperature of a 45-lb pig by 7 °F., and for smaller pigs by even more. As a result of this inquiry, the Farm 5 producers built an L-shaped entrance extension that reduces cold air penetration into the farrowing barn.

Midwestern summers, in contrast, place temperature stress on the large animals of the breeding herd. The temperatures partly represent the difficulty of placing dataloggers in sow-safe locations, but the corn crib that was put to use as a farrowing structure clearly experienced much lower peak daytime temperatures (below 90 °F.) than did the datalogger beneath the roof of a metal farrowing hut (115 °F. and higher).

Disease and Internal Parasites. Most farms were sampled twice, once in warm weather and once in cold weather, approximately 20 samples per sampling date. Because consistent seasonal differences were not found, data in the table is summarized across dates. Some cooperating farms showed relatively high levels of certain parasites, other farms showed relatively high rates of other parasites. On the parameter summing all parasite ova in a sample, there were significant differences among farms (see table). Based on the sampling of farms here, factors associated with low levels of parasites include relatively low density of animals, rotation of facilities and fields, and separation of pigs by age. Farm 2, also with relatively low parasite levels, has only recently started production and maintains isolation from other operations.

The parasite ova numbers are transformed from the categorical results provided in the McMaster flotation method. As such, the ova numbers for individual parasite genera are summed for a “total parasite” figure. While the individual parasite genera are in low numbers, the total in one system (Farm 5) is into the moderate range. Standard deviations reveal wide variation, in this case even within herds. While the overall total parasite level 2.44 may fall between Few and Moderate, the standard deviation of 2.26 suggests that many fecal samples from these farms contained numbers of parasite ova that would be categorized as Moderate or Large.

These data are consistent with the observation that consistency is a challenge in many alternative swine systems. If this is in fact true, there could be multiple reasons. Pigs are under less control in systems that allow animals to move about relatively unrestricted. This benefits muscle development and reduces stress, but it also can lead to loose pigs vectoring disease around the farm. It is known that antibiotics reduce the difference among animals, allowing runts and “tail-enders” to catch up to the group. The absence of routine antibiotics is also consistent with the variability sometimes seen in alternative swine systems. In these situations, other tools/methods can be brought to bear to reduce stress and exposure to infection. However those tools are more effective as prevention than rescue methods.

Data which shows results of slaughter checks, confirms the presence of gastrointestinal worms. Only one or two lots of 6-12 finished hogs each were sampled per farm, but the results are suggestive. Liver scars from parasites were common and were at high levels in hogs from three of the six farms. Likewise, signs of chronic Mycoplasma pneumonia were common. On the other hand, dermatitis was an issue only with animals from one farm, and not an organic operation at that.

Manure, bedding, feed, and water samples from the seven cooperator farms were also submitted to the laboratory of Dr. Scott Hurd, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Risk Analysis, at the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine. Hurd’s lab evaluated the samples for the presence of Salmonella subtypes. Salmonella is a pernicious threat in the food system, and it has been an open question whether the pathogen is any more or less present in alternative swine systems than in conventional ones. Samples were cultured in Xlt/4 and Rambach media. Table 4 shows that cooperator Farm #1 yielded two bedding samples that tested positive (out of 41 bedding and manure samples). Farm #4 tested positive for Salmonella in both media in 8 of 40 samples (4 manure samples, 4 bedding samples). This is a small swine operation using a re-purposed barn, several other buildings and sheds, and the surrounding yards. Pigs are well-bedded and appear to be well cared for, although they are in relatively close proximity to one another. The Farm #4 samples were drawn in August 2005. No other cooperator farms provided samples positive for Salmonella during the 2005 RAF sampling.

In May-August 2002, prior to this project, Farm #3 and two other farms provided a number of positive bedding and manure samples (see Table 4). These were analyzed by Dr. Hurd when he was at the USDA National Animal Disease Laboratory, in Ames. During that earlier sampling, there was some indication that actively composting bedding was unlikely to test positive, whereas Salmonella was detected in fresh, uncomposted corn cob bedding. However, Salmonella was detected at one time or another in pastures, hoophouses, Cargill units, and other environments on the farm. The table also provides detection rates for the two additional 2002 farms. The incidence of Salmonella increased over the three 2002 sampling dates for all three farms. However Farm #3, which provided numerous positive samples in 2002, was completely negative for Salmonella in the 2005 sampling.

There is much to be learned about the factors that influence the appearance and disappearance of Salmonella in a swine system. Based on this project there is no indication that the pathogen is any more or less present in alternative swine systems than in conventional ones.

Economics. Although the focus of the Research Alliance for Farrowing was herd health, the intensive case studies included assessments of the economic functioning of cooperator farms. See the Economics section below.

Lessons Learned
The intensive case studies described above were extremely useful to the project coordinators and, likely, to the cooperating producers by sensitizing us to issues and pushing us to extend our technical knowledge. We became more expert on subjects like stress, parasites, and the design of farrowing pens. However, the necropsies and laboratory diagnostics performed never revealed a short list of causative agents, much less suggested a remedial course of action. Just as no smoking gun was revealed, no silver bullets were discovered. Their discovery will require a more focused study than this one.

Yet from the first gatherings held under this project, we began to understand that there are better ways to raise pigs. This new view of alternative swine systems emerged as producers put their toughest questions to the veterinarians and university scientists who took part in project events, and the project deserves some credit for bringing together all these parties in a way that led to these exchanges.

What we were led to may seem trivial. It is that swine production on sustainable farms can apply the basic principles of herd health. Here are three such principles, taken from the project publication Managing for Health in Alternative Swine Systems:
● “Control exposure of swine to both normal and pathogenic microbes. Controlling exposure is absolutely key to success in alternative systems. You need to have control over exposure to the world outside the farm. A disease outbreak can even be triggered by introducing a healthy animal in the wrong way, to say nothing of infected livestock and contaminated people and equipment. Also control exposure of young pigs to organisms already on the farm until their immune systems are ready. That includes exposure to pigs older than they are.”
● “Maximize the natural resistance of your swine through environment and stress control. Sanitation is more than public relations. Manure harbors what was ailing the animals plus whatever the flies have added. Beyond that, it can contribute to an air quality that promotes respiratory problems. If the manure gets ahead of the bedding, animals may lack a dry sleeping area where they can maintain body temperature. Poor sanitation lowers animals’ vitality and resistance to disease, killing profits if not animals. And are you ready for this? Bond with your pigs! If they get riled up every time they see you, it contributes to stress levels that are measurable in the blood – theirs and yours. Stress depresses the immune response as well.”
● “Enhance the disease resistance of your pigs with timely vaccinations and other practices. In your operation there is a constantly changing balance between pathogens and the resistance that your pigs have to those microbes. You want to enhance that resistance without overwhelming the animal. You protect newborn pigs from pathogens and parasites as much as possible, but you expose their mothers to some pathogens prior to farrowing to maximize resistance. That way newborn pigs acquire temporary, “passive” immunity to those diseases with their first mother’s milk (colostrum). You build immunity in the sow through vaccinations and by the feed-back of manure from the farrowing and production areas of the operation to gestating sows and gilts. Gestating stock also benefit from back-feeding placentas and mummified fetuses from the farrowing barn.”

Most producers in alternative swine systems would not disagree with the three principles above. But if these three principles are, in fact, all you have to work with as a producer, you have to think seriously about how to put them to work. This leads to a set of strategies based on those principles, and this is where some alternative swine operations may need to change. The following (from the guide) are powerful strategies for raising healthy pigs in alternative systems. Every producer will not adopt every strategy, but every swine farmer should give them serious consideration.
● All-in-all-out (AIAO) Everybody, including the runts, is out the door before the disease organisms have time to build up or transfer from another group of pigs. Then clean up and allow a cool-down period.
● Closed herd If you can manage it, this strategy is one of the best ways to stop a run of herd health problems. Keep your herd genetics up with artificial insemination of disease-free semen.
● Separation by age This goes with AIAO. Work the young stock first, then move on to older animals. Sound fences will keep that little wandering pig from bringing down your whole separation strategy.
● Separation of units Sunlight is a great disinfectant. The more separation the better; some producers even work with a neighbor to farrow off-site.
● Stockmanship Stockmanship and husbandry skills are a strategic advantage of the producer on a sustainable farm. Use your management skills to create a low-stress, “high health” environment for the pigs. Think dry, clean, and, where appropriate, draft-free.
● Partner with a vet Your farm is more complex than most, and your herd health issues may be too. In addition, a vet probably can’t just prescribe an antibiotic or other “silver bullet” for you. The vet needs to know you and your farm before problems arise so that he or she can help you work with your whole system.

A companion study funded by the National Research Initiative and involving some of the same farmers and investigators surveyed swine farmers using alternative systems. The NRI survey found that:
● In 52% of the operations, there is a continuous flow of pigs through the system.
● Twenty-three percent reported mixing tail-end pigs with the next group of animals.
● Forty percent of producers surveyed do not isolate incoming animals.

On the face of it, this makes no sense. Why would the very producers who cannot rely on antibiotic rescue treatments be endangering the health and productivity of their herd in these ways? It may be selective perception. Producers on sustainable farms are very good at seeing opportunities for integration of enterprises. Indeed the “system efficiency” of sustainable farms is based on this integration. Livestock and crops feed each other; multiple species may graze a single field; animals are naturally out in the open as much as possible. The sustainable farm seems the last place where biotic barriers would be successful. Instead, sustainable producers work to maintain a positive balance in a biotically diverse environment.

Diversity serves sustainable farms well in many respects. But just as a farmer favors the crop over the weeds, a farmer must favor the stock over the disease organism. Through this project it has become clear that ways must be found to impose some of the control measures that conventional swine systems are known for. Vulnerable stock can be isolated from infected stock and from contaminated equipment and people. The breeding herd can be strategically exposed to the organisms that would infect baby pigs if they did not acquire passive immunity in the milk of their mothers. And multiple benefits will flow when a veterinarian is working with the sustainable producer to diagnose pathologies, fine-tune vaccinations, and structure the whole operation for herd health. We have seen that once producers begin to perceive how strategies like those above are linked to the fundamental principles of herd health, they make sure that things change in the operation.

Research conclusions:

One of the goals of the Research Alliance for Farrowing has been to strengthen working relations between vets and producers in alternative swine systems. The idea of the “Alliance” approach is that the challenges in alternative production systems require all parties to be engaged working for solutions. We have certainly seen shining examples of farmer-vet collaboration. This must become the norm as producers see the return to their dollar invested and independent veterinarians refocus on these independent producers.

The pre- and post-project surveys of veterinarians indicate that in three-plus years veterinarians have come to regard these systems more positively, and this project has likely contributed to that change. There remains much to do, however, to strengthen the veterinarian-farmer relationship. In a day when most swine veterinarians have gone to work for integrated production companies, independent vets more than ever need independent producers as clientele. We have seen the benefits that result when farmers using alternative swine systems develop ongoing relationships with veterinarians. This project has consolidated the knowledge in a herd health guide that is now on the Web and in the hands of several hundred farmers and vets, and the project developed personal relationships among some vets and some farmers. As such, it is a stepping stone for the efforts that will follow.

Economic Analysis

ISU Extension Swine Field Specialist David Stender worked with participants in the intensive case studies to develop economic profiles that would help explain the functioning of these systems. These records bear both on herd health and on the overall production strategies pursued on these farms.

From 2002 and 2006 - during this period the producers on this farm developed a long-standing relationship with a veterinarian and successfully resolved a chronic herd health situation. Death loss experienced after weaning went from 25.1% in 2002 to a remarkable 1.3% in 2006. Largely because of the improvement in health, feed efficiency went from 436 lbs grain per cwt gain in 2002 to 385 lbs of grain in 2004.

Other changes have not been so positive for net profit. These are related to the fact that the herd was downsized from 321 sows in 2002 to 157 sows in 2005-6. As is often the case, labor availability motivated the cutback in scale. Also as a result of the labor situation, some pigs were sold as feeders, hurting the operation’s overall feed efficiency and further reducing profit. (Sows continued to eat although their pigs were no longer producing meat for this operation.) Table 5 shows that the reduction in costs has not been as great as the reduction in pork marketed by the farm. The net profit for the operation was actually somewhat less in the 2005-2006 period than when the farmer was fighting diseases in 2002-2003.

Farm #4 was a very small-scale operation. This producer successfully cut feed costs $9.44/cwt from 2002 to 2005, not by fixing a disease problem but primarily by switching from a high-priced feed to a plain, NRC-level base premix. The table shows that the low volume of production achieved by this producer kept the swine operation from being a major profit center. This was partly by the producer’s choice, since he had off-farm employment. However, as both Farm #7 and Farm #4 illustrate, the scale of an operation does set the range for possible profits. As ISU Extension swine specialist David Stender writes, “Niche producers need to realize that cost structure is one of the most important issues in being cost competitive. You can’t cut the sow herd in half without being able to cut foundational non-feed cost in half as well – regardless of the herd health status.”

Farm #6 showed a reduction in feed costs from 2004 to 2006. In 2006 non-feed costs also fell. This was achieved in a number of ways: feeders were adjusted, rations modified, and fuel costs were cut by consolidating production on fewer farm sites. While the operation has made gains, outstanding issues remain. One of these is reduced vigor and conception rate linked to inbreeding in the herd.

Farm #3, which during the period of this study erected a gestation barn. Total non-feed production costs increased from $39,000 to $60,000 from 2002 to 2006, an increase of 53%. Between 2004 and 2006, the producer culled the sow herd from 113 animals to 80, but with more intensive management the number of litters per sow rose from 1.6 to 2.0 per year. The farm sold 21% more pounds of pork in 2006 than in 2002. Non-feed costs rose 53% in that period because of the gestation barn, but feed costs fell, so total costs per cwt were essentially the same in 2006 as in 2002. The producer feels strongly that the investment in the gestation barn was a good one because it helped him to manage more efficiently and sell more pork. It should be noted that these objectives could largely be realized without constructing a gestation barn. But the barn does increase this producer’s control over feeding and breeding.

Alternative swine systems are as different one from another as are farmers. They are products of the farm, the manager, the entire farm family, and the agricultural economy. The preceding economic profiles suggest that real improvements in profitability result from management changes that favor herd health and management changes that optimize the available facilities. The examples also suggest that perfection is an elusive goal. When the situation allows, investments of management, and sometimes capital, can pay real dividends. Many times the situation does not allow that. Nevertheless, a producer with records and a little coaching is in position to make the right moves when opportunity does knock.

Farmer Adoption

As the original proposal stated, farmer adoption is largely a long-term outcome beyond the scope of this project. Nevertheless we have seen remarkable changes in the practices of some farmers involved in the project. One producer closed his herd, put up a separate gestation facility, and backed off the production pressure on the swine system. Another producer family, in the midst of a crisis, found a vet they could talk to and established a long-term relationship.

However, the statistics show that basic sound practices in pig flow and separation are still not observed. As noted, about half of farmers surveyed allow a continuous flow of pigs into and out of the facilities, with one group inoculating the next. Practices like this allow disease to continually cycle. Farmers who do not use antibiotics need to be the first, not the last, to take advantage of basic principles of herd health. Over time the situation will change. Pork marketing companies, interested in a reliable supply of pigs, are beginning to make technical advisors available to their producers. In Iowa, the ISU Extension Service is turning its considerable expertise to the issues of niche pork production. Perhaps most important, we now have farmer spokespersons who can vouch for many of the sound practices described in this report. Organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa give those farmers a platform to reacher the wider community of pork producers.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The project proposal included production of a herd health “toolbox” for farmers in alternative swine systems. That effort was initiated in July 2004 at a “vets’ circle” held the morning before a project field day. The session was moderated by Patrick Halbur, D.V.M. of the Iowa State University Department of Production Animal Medicine. Dr. Halbur challenged the veterinarians there to take part in development of a herd health guide for alternative swine systems, and he produced a first draft for their review. Since 2004, field veterinarians, ISU scientists, and experienced swine producers have contributed to and reviewed many drafts of the guide that came to be known as Managing for Herd Health in Alternative Swine Systems: A Guide. Special credit also is due Dr. George Beran, ISU Distinguished Professor of Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine, emeritus, whose deep understanding of the human-pig relationship always brought us back to the fundamentals, and Dr. Kurt Van Hulzen with Suidae Health and Production, Algona, Iowa, who contributed much practical and current knowledge.

The guide was published in June 2007, and copies were mailed to 500 swine vets and alternative swine system producers. Managing for Herd Health is also available for download at As further edits, corrections, and additions are made, they will be available at this site, where visitors can also leave their comments and suggestions for future revisions.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

Pharmaceutical “silver bullets” have been a factor in the evolution of pork production for half a century. The silver bullet available to alternative swine systems is management. This is not to suggest that alternative systems cannot benefit from basic research. At present we can only conjecture why certain diseases seem more prevalent in alternative swine systems than conventional ones, while others are less common. Further research would help us understand why. Another example: vaccine research benefits all swine producers; however an immunization approach to gastrointestinal parasites would particularly benefit farmers whose use of synthetic wormers is restricted.

At the same time, many of the challenges in alternative swine systems are practical ones that require research in kind. The greatest cause of piglet death is not disease but crushing. Producers need unbiased comparative data to select farrowing pen designs that minimize this unfortunate outcome. Similarly, farmers need case studies with dollars attached, showing the outcome of changing a number of suboptimal practices. SARE can play an especially useful role in this practical research and demonstration, since it focuses farmers and scientists on the challenges of sustainable production systems.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.