Research Alliance for Farrowing, the Weak Link in Alternative Swine Systems
One-third of the way through its three-year lifespan, the Research Alliance for Farrowing (RAF) project is well on the way to assembling detailed case studies relating farrowing success or failure to specific management and environmental factors in alternative swine systems. Combined with outreach facilitating more productive relationships with veterinarians, this information will help niche hog producers manage their herd health and succeed. In the process, the RAF has become an important nucleus for further discussion and action on niche pork herd health issues in Iowa and beyond.
Objective 1: Perform intensive case studies of nine alternative farrowing operations in Iowa, developing a comprehensive picture of human, animal, and environmental factors related to herd health in these systems. Monitor pigs’ physical environments and document management practices employed. Employ veterinary diagnostic tools as appropriate to monitor, detect, and evaluate health problems. Incorporate cooperating farmers into niche pork cost of production documentation and analysis efforts.
Objective 2: Conduct outreach to farmers and practicing veterinarians. Provide these clients opportunities for initial familiarization with alternative swine production systems, for enhanced understanding of appropriate herd health practices, and for strengthening farmer – veterinarian relationships. Ultimately, begin to utilize veterinarians’ skills to enhance achievement of other project objectives. Develop and disseminate a “tool box” publication of appropriate herd health management practices.
Objective 3: Evaluate project results and progress toward objectives on an ongoing basis through a standing Review Committee of industry, university, and producer representatives (funded by the Value Chain partnership for Sustainable Agriculture, an effort supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation). Through the Review Committee discuss project methods employed and current results, soliciting feedback on project management and compiling lessons learned. Conduct regular meetings with members of the farmer, researcher, veterinarian, and niche pork company communities. Employ surveys of farmers and veterinarians at the beginning and end of the project to evaluate changes in knowledge, attitudes, and practices.
Objective 1: Perform intensive case studies on alternative farrowing operations.
Data collection on seven cooperating farms is in its 13th month. Recruitment of two additional farmer cooperators to bring the total to the nine originally proposed proved difficult, and ultimately led to the decision to proceed with those cooperators currently participating to avoid generating partial data sets for late-joining farms. More recent experience in a related project suggests that more intensively promoting recruitment in our work with relevant niche pork companies could have greatly facilitated that process.
Detailed documentation of housing systems, herd genetics, nutrition programs, pig flow practices, health interventions, and other management practices has been compiled for each cooperating farm, and data collection continues. The past year’s experience drives home the point that system characterization in alternative swine systems is a year-round job: four out of the seven farms switch housing systems (between pasture and indoor) as the seasons progress, and all of the farms experience some significant seasonal change in management practices. These seasonal changes amplify the cooperators’ heterogeneity with respect to a number of management practices (e.g., strict batch farrowing vs. continuous flow), reemphasizing the necessity of well-documented case studies to encompass the variability while capturing the unique dynamics of these systems. Temperature and humidity dataloggers installed in the farrowing facilities, combined with weather data from area weather recording stations, supply an additional dataset pertinent to animal performance and health.
Farmer cooperators provide detailed records of farrowing performance, noting number of pigs born to each sow, litter weight, management practices applied (e.g. date of castration of males,) and number of pigs successfully weaned. Notably, each of the seven cooperators already had a detailed record keeping system in place with respect to those parameters, with the exception of litter weight. Cooperators also report piglet death loss in detail, noting the litter the particular animal belonged to, day of age at which each mortality event occurred, and the apparent cause of death. The resulting dataset encompasses several key measures of farrowing success.
The project also makes available to farmer cooperators the services of the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Iowa State University, in an effort to understand “mystery” death loss events. Diagnostics are performed to assess the presence of major swine pathogens and detect the signature of past or current morbidity. Additionally, as market hogs from the cooperator farms arrive at the slaughter facility, they are periodically subjected to standard slaughter checks by a cooperating veterinarian. The resulting information on animal health history provides both a snapshot of overall herd health status and hints at specific health problems encountered in the pre-wean phase of life.
Each of the seven cooperating farms has begun working with ISU Extension Swine Specialist David Stender in an effort to enhance documentation of production costs and facilitate the use of that information as a management tool. According to their respective needs, Mr. Stender is assisting cooperators in establishing a record keeping system and in enhancing the use of existing records.
As the data collection phase of this project winds down, instances of “success” or “failure” as described above will be correlated with the management and environmental parameters prevailing at the time. This analysis will shed light on “why it worked” or “why it didn’t” for given farrowing groups on given farms, and suggest lessons for alternative farrowing systems in general. The results will also serve to generate better-informed hypotheses for testing in further research.
Objective 2: Conduct outreach to farmers and veterinarians.
Outreach efforts began at the inception of the project and are ongoing. Workshops pertaining to the project’s efforts to generate and compile information about herd health management in alternative production systems were conducted at the 2004 and 2005 Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) research cooperator meetings and at the 2005 PFI annual conference. A PFI / ISU field day was held on a cooperating farm in 2004, co-located with a “vets’ circle” round-table discussion for veterinarians. Staff have also made regular reports on the status of the project to the Pork Niche Market Working Group (PMNWG.)
Each of the venues described has provided the opportunity to dialogue with a range of farmers, veterinarians, researchers, and company and organization representatives. The process has in some ways represented a positive feedback loop in which information presented at an event has provoked questions and comments that have allowed the information to be refined and augmented for the next event, and so on.
A major outcome of the veterinarian round-table discussion was the conception of a herd health guide for alternative swine systems, which is discussed more fully in the Outcomes section. Notably, the herd health guide effort now underway represents a jump-start for the “tool box” bulletin of management alternatives intended to be a major outreach product of the RAF project.
At least two PFI field days focused on the RAF project will take place in 2005, complemented by further in-service opportunities aimed specifically at veterinarians. Relationships with the veterinarians serving the project’s farmer cooperators will be continued and strengthened. One of the veterinarians who attended the July, 2004 vets’ circle discussion has requested assistance presenting alternative swine opportunities to producers in his area, a number of whom have raised pigs in the past. He has sent a letter to his clients assessing the level of demand for such information. This request may allow us to develop a template for presenting producers and their vets with comprehensive and objective information on herd health, production methods, and marketing for alternative swine systems.
Objective 3: Evaluate project methods and results and compile lessons learned.
A project Review Committee consisting of university researchers and extensionists, organization and company representatives, and farmers was recruited and convened. Although the committee was originally intended to meet only annually, discussion at its first meeting was so fruitful that the committee elected to meet on a more frequent basis, and three meetings will be held in project year 2. The first of these, at the cooperator research planning meeting Feb. 10-11, 2005, allowed Review Committee members to meet farmer cooperators and to set priorities for the coming year together. Committee members have provided valuable feedback on the methods employed and observations compiled in the intensive monitoring phase of the project; this input has been useful in fine-tuning data collection efforts. Importantly, the Review Committee has also come to function as a forum where individuals with key pieces of expertise in alternative swine systems can cross institutional and departmental lines to discuss management issues, formulate research and extension needs, and communicate about potential projects.
Pre-project surveys of veterinarians and of alternative swine producers in the fall of 2003 yielded the results summarized in Appendix A (included in paper copy of report.) Producers were identified through the Practical Farmers of Iowa membership and through several niche marketing companies (Niman Pork Company, Organic Valley Co-op, Beeler’s Pork, and Eden Farms Natural Pork Co.). Veterinarians came from the Iowa membership of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and from those members of the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association who practice near known alternative swine systems. Veterinarians and alternative producers agreed on the major health challenges in alternative swine systems (crushing before weaning; scours, E. coli, and Salmonella after weaning). However, veterinarians had a much more pessimistic evaluation of the viability of alternative swine systems than did the producers using those systems.
As the number of independent swine producers in Iowa has waned, so has the number of swine veterinarians. The majority of practicing swine vets now work with large contracting companies. Thus, many of the veterinarians returning the pre-project survey have had no direct experience with the systems on which they were asked to comment. This trend in veterinary practice also affects those remaining vets who service independent producers, contributing to a sense of isolation that works against new initiatives such as those being developed through this project. This project is working to build a supportive “space” in which vets can exchange information about alternative swine systems.
We have found that producers involved in alternative swine systems often are skeptical of vets, believing that they have little to offer in systems where antibiotics are not routinely used. That belief, combined with the thriftiness typical of many alternative producers, has contributed to a counterproductive “chicken and egg” situation in which producers’ skepticism and vets’ pessimism reinforce each other. An important function of this project is to develop and promote examples of a “middle ground” where producers make a financial investment in veterinary care and vets make an investment of time to really learn the dynamics of their clients’ operations well enough to make the structural and management changes that lead to herd health.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
After its first year, the most salient impact of the RAF project has been an increase in the ability of Iowa niche pork stakeholders to effectively solve problems, individually and in groups. University researchers and some field veterinarians have increased their familiarity with and ability to work in alternative swine production systems, and farmers and niche pork industry personnel better understand the use of research techniques and the established scientific knowledge base regarding hog production. Important relationships have been established and strengthened between stakeholders that have facilitated discussion on production principles, research needs, and opportunities to work together. The RAF’s project Review Committee has been an important forum for this activity, as described above, as has the vet-farmer committee advising on the development of the herd health guide.
A key indicator of these increases in social capital has been the conception and rapid development of several further alternative swine-related projects. As mentioned above, one of the outcomes of the veterinarians’ discussion the project hosted in 2004 was the start of work on a herd health guide for alternative systems. Spearheaded by two ISU research veterinarians, the draft guide addresses pig flow, seedstock management, parasite control, biosecurity, and other high priority practices. Extension and PFI staff have facilitated contributions to the guide from farmers and additional veterinarians as well as distribution of guide drafts for several cycles of review and “ground truthing.” When completed, the guide will be the first resource of its scope and depth for alternative hog farmers and their veterinarians, and will address a key information constraint in the success of those systems.
Emerging in a large part from the discussions surrounding RAF, a project entitled Enhancing Small Farm Prosperity: An Integrated Research, Education and Extension Program for Niche Pork Production recently received major funding from the USDA National Research Initiative program, and will commence soon. The NRI project will build on the questions raised through RAF by deploying available veterinary diagnostic and farm economics tools on a large scale, generating baseline information on disease pressures and production costs for over a hundred farms in the North Central region. Significantly, the second phase of the NRI project will return to the same farms to test management strategies tailored to the specific health and economics challenges found there. That experience will allow bad strategies to be weeded out and good strategies to be disseminated widely.
Finally, again emerging directly from RAF-related discussions, a proposal is under development for the creation of a veterinary residency in alternative swine production at the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine. If funded, the residency position will help address a concern often cited by farmers about the lack of available swine veterinarians who are knowledgeable about alternative systems. It will do so by providing direct experience to the new veterinarians cycling through the College, and indirectly by feeding back to the veterinary teaching program.
An additional important success of this project is that, as the farmer cooperators have contributed significant levels of time and management to the project, they have also benefited directly from their participation in it. Cooperators have remarked favorably on the value of the diagnostic information they have received, the direct applicability of the cost of production analysis (one farmer was able to reduce his feed costs by approximately 30% immediately), and the opportunity to receive farm visits from ISU veterinarians and swine extension specialists.
Extension Swine Specialist, Northwest Iowa Area
Iowa State University Extension
209 Centennial Dr., Ste. A
Cherokee, IA 51012-2203
Office Phone: 7122256196
Suidae Health and Production
2200 Hwy 18 East
Algona, IA 50511-0598
Office Phone: 5153410110
Distinguished Professor of Veterinary Microbiology
Iowa State University, emeritus
2134 Veterinary Medicine, Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
Office Phone: 5152947630
Director, ISU Outlying Research Farms
Iowa State University
B1 Curtiss Hall, Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
Office Phone: 5152944621