The loss of “stockmanship”

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The National Pork Producers Council is in the middle of several webinars discussing Group Sow Housing. I have been participating and would like to comment on Dr. Levis’ presentation. During his presentation he often referred to “people” being involved in physical contact, physical intervention, additional tasks, and most importantly, animal recognition.

For upwards of 40 years, our industry has moved sows from outdoor operations into some sort of confined, concrete, barn and more recently (last 30 years), to environmentally controlled and crated sow facilities. Along this same time frame, the number of farm units has drastically declined. In the 1950’s, when I was a young lad, a half-section of land was a very large farm. We had 30 sows, a dozen milk cows, 40 laying hens, and fed 60 steers yearly. Our farm was typical of many in the Corn Belt. Children were raised with an understanding of the intense importance of animal care and well-being, as the animals were an integral part the family’s success. Boys and girls headed off to college with inherent Animal Sense. The next generation of successful animal caretakers was guaranteed.

Our industry’s largest problem stems from the disappearance of this family unit. Farms are four to 10 times the size of farms in the 50’s and 60’s and as a result, we’ve seen the disappearance of young people with the stockmanship to lead our industry. Today’s sow farms consist of nearly 90 percent of workers who are task oriented ONLY! Processes are well defined and mapped out by the day and even by the hour of each week (think PigCHAMP’ Breed Week). The labor source, in most cases, is focused on accomplishing the tasks, taking a scheduled break, starting another task, breaking for lunch, wrapping up afternoon tasks and showering out. Animal Sense has been traded/lost in the maturation of agriculture. Stockmanship is mostly nonexistent and we are going to witness this loss much more as we move sows into groups. I believe death loss, nonproductive sow days, farrowing rate, lameness, etc. are all going to escalate.

So where are the new young people for our industry going to come from? I see a tremendous number of young people exhibiting their pigs every year at World Pork Expo in June. Problem is, I fear Dad does most of the work.

Paul Meers Swine Consulting LLC

Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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Iowa  |  April, 15, 2013 at 09:40 AM

Paul makes some good points. I went to college and majored in animal husbandry, showing my age. But I do not believe task oriented and stockmanship are mutually exclusive or size related. Stockmanship is a frame of mind and "task oriented" ensures that the stockmanship is accomplished. As farms increase in size the task completion record is essential in passing on current observations to the next person entering the facility. The job is not complete until the paper work is done.

kansas  |  April, 15, 2013 at 12:38 PM

"Task Oriented", in most but not all cases today, results in something like the Blind Men & The Elephant fable. If you've never seen the whole "elephant", or had to care for it - complete, you cannot truly know what it is - complete. The "elephant" will always be an Abstraction to you, not a practical, concrete Reality. This is, for better or worse, what's happened to most work in the modern world since the beginning of the industrial revolution and especially the assembly line. Farming is not unique, just a few decades behind. "Family" businesses of all types functioned similarly, with all ages and generations participating, and therefore learning how the entire business works. Very few of these remain - again, for better or worse. I don't think there's a moral or qualitative judgement that applies, simply a need to recognize and address. Development of broadly educated and experienced "general managers", from "task performers" needs to be the focus. This is not as common a practice as it should be. If we wish to avoid the decline and damage described in this column, it had better become one.

SD  |  April, 15, 2013 at 01:39 PM

That whole scenario is pretty foriegn to me, but so is raising pigs, for that matter. Not since the very early 1950's have I been closely involved in that, and it was more 'open range' than scientific. My guess is that quite a bit of the area west of the corn belt, even in some of that, family ranches persist in raising cattle on native range pastures with 'the help' consisting of family members, often more than one generation of them, in fact. It isn't necessarily 'small' operations, whatever 'small' means. Most are quite up to date, with family members either having gone to a 'cow college' or studied the literature andparticipated in workshops, educational conventions, etc. They run the gamut from mechanized to horse based and many combinations thereof. IMO it would be very challenging, to impossible, to manage cattle effectively WITHOUT being quite 'hands on' in all the necessary processes. Recent efforts to run cows completely away from grass fields or pastures may change that, however. Outrageously high costs for land will probably drive that in areas of high quality farm land. Then, the question may become: what can we do with all the marginally productive land which is excellent cattle range????

Tom Christian    
NW Arkansas  |  April, 15, 2013 at 08:12 PM

Where are the young people going to come from? Good question... What % of the US population is actually engaged in "hands-on" animal production? Less than .5% maybe? Why would we expect to find hands-on husbandry skills among the you? Better look to the old farts like me who began swine production by farrowing sows in mule stalls or A-frames out in the pasture. When it's all said and done animal husbandry skills are significantly down the list from numbers or lbs. out the door.

IA  |  April, 15, 2013 at 09:52 PM

While I agree human capital is a major concern in our industry, I can tell you that I see more hope than most of you! As a mother of "farm kids" who show livestock (who, by the way, get up for school 45 min early to go out and feed, and it is NOT Dad doing the work), an advisor to many youth livestock organizations, and involved in undergraduate Animal Science education, I think the future of animal agriculture is bright - but we must change the way we think about it, AND change the way we educate the next generation. For those youth who grow up in livestock production - we must encourage them to pursue careers in agriculture. The opportunities are amazing! By the way, the ag youth of previous generations were encouraged to seek employment OFF the farm, and the "next generation of successful farmers" was NOT guaranteed! For those whose only opportunity to work with livestock is the show ring - lets harness that passion! Showing livestock means working together in our family - also a life skill. These exhibitors already LOVE livestock - lets encourage them to learn the science behind it and bring them into our industry. For those interested in food animal production who did not have the chance to be born into a farm family, lets embrace them and provide opportunities for them to gain experiences that they did not have growing up. Hands on internships, and a modern curriculum (bringing husbandry and stockmanship in with the science), provide great opportunities. These students bring passion and new ideas to our industry. Face it, we cannot feed the world with only "farm kids"! We will need all the help can get!

Paul Meers    
Smithville, Mo.  |  April, 19, 2013 at 09:10 AM

Thank you for the comment! It is my purpose to rile a few feathers out there!. Yes I know there are many young people who really do all the work on their projects. Congatulations to your group for stressing the importance of hands on experiences. You are absolutely correct in that our industry must harvest the very best in dedicated animal caretakers and a few are going to come from pig projects. I presently work with an operation who's owner started with 2 sows for an FFA project. Today he owns and manages 14,000 sows. We truly do need "All the Help We Can Get"!! Thanks again for the comment.


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