As the soon-to-be president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, Rodney “Butch” Baker is a respected leader in the pork industry. It’s no wonder that pork producers and colleagues alike look to Baker for herd-health and production advice.
The Kentucky native served two years in the U.S. Army before attaining his degree from Auburn University School of Veterinary Medicine in 1978. After 15 years in mixed-animal practice, he turned his attention to pork production. He earned a master’s degree in swine production medicine at Iowa State University, then headed to North Carolina State University to teach.
As senior clinician at Iowa State University’s Veterinary Services Unit, outreach, research and teaching are among Baker’s current responsibilities. As of this month, Baker will serve as AASV’s president for the next year. He will lead the group’s 1,300-plus national and international members charged with maintaining the health of the nation’s swine herd and the safety of pork in the food supply chain. Among his personal priorities is to address some of the animal activists’ issues confronting the industry today.
Baker and his wife Emma now reside in Ames, Iowa, where they enjoy their family, including two granddaughters. When he can steal some time away, you’ll find him out on his sailboat.
Q: Who or what had a big impact on your career?
A: A pivitol point for me was when PIC’s senior staff interviewed me for an opportunity to service one of their farms as a herd veterinarian. That day was a deflection point for me.
Veterinarians Bob Glock, Steve Henry and Joe Connor also have been mentors for me. As a role model, I wouldd point to veterinarian Bill Christianson.
Q: How has the industry changed since you began practice?
A: I still recall a 220-sow operation with a nursery and finisher. I thought “we can never get bigger than this.” Now, it’s common to see 2,500-head or larger, family-owned sow farms and a few that are much larger.
Back when I started, 12 to 14 pigs per sow per year was common. Now, excellent managers and genetic lines can attain close to 30 pigs per sow per year.
By adopting technology, our current production systems have become highly organized and efficient. Managers place high priority on health and care of the animals as well as employee well-being. Over the last 30 years, we have made major strides in genetics and management techniques.
Also, the consumer’s taste has changed considerably. The pork marketed back then was very fat. Today, pork is lean and we have been able to meet society’s preferences.
Q: What are pork producers’ biggest challenges today?
A: A significant challenge for pork producers and swine veterinarians alike is maintaining our public image. Special interest groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States will continue to target us in an effort to advance their agenda. We all must do more to make the public aware of what we do and what we’re about. The pork industry has to step up as a group and say “we are not the enemy.”
Certainly cost of production will be a significant challenge to pork producers as we suffer through this period of expansion in the ethanol industry. It has slowed somewhat, but I suspect it will escalate again as the global economy regains momentum.
We also will continue to see more relocation and consolidation within the pork industry, partly due to future costs, but more importantly from the loss of individual gestation-sow housing.
Q: How has the swine veterinarian’s role changed?
A: Veterinarians have a special role and an obligation to address the public image of our industry and profession. Activist groups too often portray that image inaccurately and negatively. We must continue to spread our message about animal health, well-being and production issues, while at the same time producing a safe and wholesome food supply.
Pig diseases are still causing a significant challenge to the industry. Improving health requires our best efforts. We have done a pretty good job of solving the circovirus crisis with effective control efforts and vaccines. Controlling porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome as well as swine influenza virus remains a significant challenge.
Q: Specific to herd health, what is the greatest concern?
A: PRRS continues to be the most challenging disease facing the industry. We’ve had some success in reducing the disease in certain areas, but even our best efforts have not been successful in keeping it out of hog-dense areas. Biosecurity measures, including the use of barn filters and improved trailer sanitation techniques, have improved our chances of preventing area spread, but the challenge of eradicating PRRS in swine-dense areas is much greater. Site location and the production structure are still the keys to lasting success.
Q: How do you view the swine veterinarian’s role today?
A: Swine veterinarians must be active participants not only in solving herd-health problems and improving productivity but in teaching others. We must be active at the local, state and national levels, convincing legislators and consumers that our indoor production systems have great advantages for both the animal and their human caretakers.
By helping producers maintain a high level of animal welfare, health and biosecurity in their production systems, veterinarians also play an important role in preventing human zoonosis.
Q: What are your priorities as AASV president?
A: The pork industry has many critics and the public is often swayed by those critics’ sensational messages. As AASV president, I will attempt to inform our lawmakers, customers and stakeholders of our industry’s true story.
The AASV is a small group and unless we speak out, no one will hear us. I plan to carry the torch all the way to Washington, D.C., so they can hear the truth that producers and swine veterinarians care deeply about animal welfare and play a vital role in keeping our food safe.
I also hope to take an active role in the American Veterinary Medical Association because swine practitioners are one of their smaller affiliate groups. I have great confidence in (AVMA chief executive officer) Ron DeHaven. He understands that food-animal veterinarians are essential in keeping our food system safe.
Q: What advice would you offer swine veterinarians?
A: Keep up with the science and stay current on all the issues that challenge the industry. We need to be creative and constantly apply the best means and knowledge that science has to offer. We must remain steadfast in our efforts to protect and improve the quality and safety of the national food supply, pig well-being, as well as producer and public health.
We must engage in political activity and voice our goals and philosophy to politicians, consumers and the media.
Q: Long term, what challenges does the industry face?
A: Because of our dependence on exports, this area is a constant challenge. If we lost our exports, production would suddenly face at least 20 percent more pork on the domestic market. Transport biosecurity and other biosecurity areas must be continually addressed at the national, state, local and producer levels.
The loss of individual housing for gestation or lactating sows will continue to challenge us. The safest way for both the sow and farm workers, and the most animal-welfare oriented way to produce pigs, is with individual housing during gestation and lactation. It’s difficult to manage sows in loose or group housing, but if that’s the way the public wants us to do it, then we will find science-based methods to do it. It’s a steep learning curve for producers, and an overly rapid shift of current standard practices will lead to animal suffering.
Q: What is the pork industry’s greatest asset?
A: Our people are our greatest asset. We have many producers who are leaders, many with years of experience and with advanced degrees. The National Pork Board is another great industry asset. NPB is committed to education and marketing the pork brand — The Other White Meat.
Also, there are many university personnel in the country who are dedicated to teaching swine production efficiency, the importance of animal welfare and best-management practices.
Q: What advice would you offer pork executives?
A: As an industry, we have not recognized the swine veterinarian’s full value. I hope they are given the opportunity to join production operations’ inner circle of advisers. If allowed, they can play such a vital role in profitability through health and welfare improvement. Health is still the pork industry’s greatest opportunity for value creation, and the swine veterinarian can add significant value to the industry
We can’t assume that the public will continue to support how we produce and care for pigs. Veterinarians are a trusted resource and are critical to consumer confidence. We must promote the industry.
What’s your favorite cut of pork?
A: A good, smoked Iowa chop is a favorite. I also enjoy a salt-cured Kentucky country ham. It’s cured three to five years, and it’s delicious.