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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


  • Animals: swine


  • Animal Production: preventive practices, vaccines
  • Education and Training: workshop
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development
  • Pest Management: sanitation


    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 (

    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.