Intense is a word that comes to mind when you meet Joe Connor. Another adjective would be passionate. In more than 30 years practicing swine medicine, this Illinois native hasn’t lost his drive to pursue excellence in everything he does.

Arriving in Carthage, Ill., upon finishing his veterinary degree at the University of Illinois in 1976, Connor has been in perpetual motion. Today, he and his partners count about 200 herds and 500,000 sows among their clientele, stretching from Iowa to Ohio. His resume, which reads like a historical record of swine health, reveals many achievements, including serving as American Association of Swine Veterinarians’ president. Recently, he and his partners ventured into uncharted waters by purchasing the former CarthageCollege campus, with hopes of educating the next generation of pork producers and employees.

In this rare timeout, Connor shares his insights into what he sees on the horizon for the U.S. pork industry.

Q. What’s the biggest change you’ve witnessed in swine health?

A. Several that are inter-related; key changes are segregated, multi-site production and the pig populations housed at one location. These really revolutionized the way the industry and the veterinary community started thinking about disease transmission and population medicine. We just now understand technology's limitations and that the sow-to-pig transmission is a primary method of infection.

Q. How have producers and their operations changed?

A. Producers are much more specialized than when I started practicing in the 1970s. Operations have subdivided each production phase, yet maintained an overall objective for the enterprise. Today, more producers view themselves as running businesses that are part of the food chain, which is different from 20 or 30 years ago.

Q. How has the swine veterinarian’s role changed?

A. It has evolved from being an on-farm troubleshooter to becoming more of an advisor in a multitude of disciplines beyond health — such as genetics, nutrition and engineering --— to becoming more of an advisor. Today, the veterinarian is a coordinator or conduit of these disciplines, interacting with other consultants and specialists.

What hasn’t changed is the veterinarian’s diagnostic role. It has, however, evolved to include population dynamics, pig flows, risk factors and long-term solutions, including vaccination strategies, treatment strategies and disease interventions. Today, veterinarians work on issues such as biosecurity as it relates to disease introduction or movement within a population. Veterinarians also have become more involved in process verification as it relates to food safety.

Q. What's been your biggest professional challenge?

A. Integrating science with health, production and process verification. Many of the decisions are still made at the barn level, with interventions based on historical data, but they also are heavily influenced by current diagnostics and experience. Often, the results are influenced by the employees’ disease recognition abilities and compliance with standard operating procedures. This makes employee education critical and emphasizes the ongoing challenge it presents.

Q. What’s the best thing about being a swine veterinarian?

A. Veterinary medicine is a great profession because it interacts with numerous disciplines, it melds production with economics, and the people are tremendous.

I enjoy the decision-making processes — everything from determining the best weaning age for an operation to evaluating biosecurity and pathogen-management strategies. I enjoy helping producers adapt new technologies to improve their businesses.

As for the future, I think it’s really unlimited for veterinarians. It’s exciting as we assume a greater role in health management, biosecurity and food-supply stability.

Q. What do you view as the biggest swine health threat today?

A. Without question it is porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome. It’s an ongoing threat that must be aggressively addressed until we ultimately eradicate this pathogen. 

Looking forward, there’s a combination of threats — foreign and domestic animal diseases, as well as emerging diseases that could interrupt our pork exports. Unfortunately, we don’t have a system in place that’s responsive enough to control such disease outbreaks. This system is challenged by our pig movements, slow tracking systems, diagnostic confirmation lag time, lack of authority to intervene with control strategies, lack of animal disposal methods, lack of indemnity funding and a general unwillingness to accept false-positive interventions. 

Q. Do you think the industry will eliminate PRRS?

A. Yes, we have to. It continues to be the most devastating disease problem we face, due to economic and morale losses. The costs to the industry are staggering. We are very good at eliminating PRRS from the herd or system — now we have to find a way to prevent re-infection. I believe we will prevail.

Q. What’s the most common mistake you see pork producers make?

A. Discipline in disease prevention and sustaining production principles. However, it’s partly our failure as veterinarians; we haven’t convinced them that there are critical pathways to prevent and control disease. We haven’t done enough teaching and training to build an understanding of disease prevention and what steps must be taken.

Everyone in the barn or system makes decisions every day that affect herd health and production. It’s evident that producers don’t put enough dollars into biosecurity and disease prevention education. As veterinarians, we need to do more to improve awareness.

Q. How well are producers doing in keeping pigs healthy today?

A. We have many new technologies, but disease agents have an innate ability to survive. Producers face pathogens that change and adapt to a system — swine influenza virus is a good example. Of course, producers would like a vaccine, treatment or some other intervention that is predictable, easy to administer and cost effective.

Most producers realize what it takes to raise and move healthy pigs to market. They will continue to look for help, using tools such as disease resistance through genetics, improved vaccines, population-based treatments and improved sow-herd pathogen management.

Q. hat issues present challenges or opportunities to the industry?

A. Starting with biofuels, they will impact the world-wide production of pork and will likely shift production geography. Organic production will continue to slowly increase, but the majority of the world’s population still needs to be fed. Antibiotic use will continue to come under scrutiny, driving forward other health interventions. We’ve come to realize that employee turnover and shortages are key production and health-management drivers. This will only accelerate as we have fewer people educated about livestock practices. This is an opportunity for veterinarians to be part of the education solution.

Q. Where do you see the U.S. pork industry heading?

A. With the convergence of several factors, the next five years will determine how the U.S. pork industry will look. The influencers will include biofuels, the strength of the U.S. dollar, animal welfare, antibiotic usage, exports, emerging diseases, production technology and the international politics surrounding food.

Industry consolidation is still on the radar, which raises the question of whether additional U.S.-based producers will look to other countries to grow production. Areas such as Brazil, Argentina and Eastern Europe hold potential.

Q. What advice would you offer producers for their long-term business success?

A. Create and implement a business strategy that treats your operation as a real business. This means continually evaluating strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats -— the SWOT analysis. Also, commit to separating short-term interventions from long-term goals.

At some point, diversify from the “Hedge Hog” concept.  In other words, it’s no longer wise to remain content with your pork production skills. Today’s volatile markets present challenges and opportunities to diversify and your manage business risks, even if it means looking beyond agriculture.