Dennis DiPietre
Dennis DiPietre

As we pause to consider 2014 and beyond, we can see there is a lot of change afoot in our world. Change is certainly not a new characteristic of the strategic environment for agricultural business. However, the speed of change now working its way through our world in technical innovation, communications, social media, culture, government policy and our collective weltanschauung (perspective of the world) is very new and compels us more than ever to keep one eye on the present moment, executing our current plans well, and the other eye squinting toward the horizon for clues about tomorrow’s opportunities and coming challenges. 

Simply knowing what is likely to come is not sufficient to qualify for a seat at the table in the future. In “Six rules for Effective Forecasting,” (Harvard Business Review, July-August, 2007), Paul Saffo notes that the “goal of forecasting is not to predict the future, but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.” More than ever before, flexibility and the ability to be creatively restructuring today for tomorrow’s opportunities is the price of admission to long-term access of the stock of scarce global resources: Characteristics and resources we must acquire to feed a growing population with rising incomes and demands for food.

As hard as it is to comprehend in an industry and a world that has struggled economically now for more than half a decade, the opportunity presented by what is coming is without question more exciting. It also is more profitable and even more human than what we have experienced in our world to date, but it will not be available to everyone.

As in every great move forward, there is a driving force, an insight or a discovery that unlocks a new era of progress for a world ready to step up and possess it. The key that unlocks the next step in our future is the emergence of precision as both methodology and mindset for technical innovation and applied practice. Those who can embrace both have a ticket to ride.

Precision to Identify Issues Sooner

Precision is about details and about achieving the goals we set out to accomplish with greater frequency. Precision is about understanding far more quickly when, where and why things are going awry and being able to make timely and targeted responses to fix problems in effective manner. That requires some dramatic changes in what we measure and the way we measure it in order to close the deviations gap between our planned production goals and our actual outcomes. 

Peter Drucker, the 20th century’s most celebrated business management expert once said, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.” Now consider that in modern pork production, apart from test barns, no one measures what an individual pig consumes or weighs at any time during the production process. Therefore, when an individual pig is starting to fail to achieve our production goals, there is no way to know the precise moment it is happening or when intervention might be successful. In fact, the extent of the failure must reach a pretty high level before an individual animal begins to draw significant attention to warrant a possible intervention on its behalf. 

In the Past, It’s Been About the Group
We only measure the weight of the group, perhaps at weaning or when loaded on the truck for market.  We divide the total weight by the number of head on the truck and believe we have useful information for profitable production. Many farms don’t even do that.  On those farms, all weaned pigs are magically 12 to 14 lbs. Since we are not measuring pigs at all, we cannot and do not manage them in the current production technology. We care for them and hope for a positive outcome. Management is the activity that achieves, or makes real, the plans we set out in advance. Caring and hoping are fine things to do, but they are not management. 

What we seemingly manage is the outcome of the group, or do we? Most farms only measure group feed consumption and pig group weight after the fact, i.e., when the last feed truck ticket is summarized (which can be several days after slaughter in some systems). Producers discover actual pig weights when the kill sheets are received, so it is hard to mount a credible argument that we even manage groups of pigs much less individuals. What we have come to call management is observing what happened after nothing can be done about it and then reacting too late with a reasonable strategy for the last group, which often has little relevance to the present/future group.

Consider These Parameters

The focus on feed during the production process is to ensure there is not a stock out of the appropriate diet in the bins. Some farms have developed means to understand if the flow of feed or water consumed is different from expectation so that an intervention can be made if something is broken or disease is emerging but this is hardly something we can call a precision practice. 

Judging from the number and characteristics of pigs that make it into a finishing barn’s “hospital pen,” we can clearly see the gap between catching a few pigs that need serious intervention and effectively identifying and flexibly applying a new strategy (be it small changes in diet, changes in temperature, stocking density, ventilation etc.) to the bottom 33 percent or even 50 percent of pigs by weight in a barn.

The “Bottom 50 Percent”

As gross a measure as this sounds, the bottom 50 percent is not readily identifiable by the human eye in a quick walk through and a glance. A few extreme individuals in the group may be pointed out, but that is much less than the number of possible subjects of an intervention to mitigate emerging deviations from our plan and/or goals. 

Enter Precision Technology

The emergence of precision technology in agriculture happened first in cropping enterprises some twenty-plus years ago. Its emergence was tied to the technical breakthrough of GPS technologies being made available to the public. Once it could be known exactly where a tractor, truck or combine was located at any given time, field maps in layers containing different sets of information about every square foot of farm were married to GPS location tracking. This allowed producers to achieve precision input application and to both discover emerging problems (through satellite photography and infrared imaging embedded on maps) and precisely apply the fix to just those areas needing attention. 

How Does This Translate to Pig Production?

At the present time, every pig in a typical finishing barn is fed the same diet at the same time despite the fact that in late finishing, there may be a 100-pound difference in the largest and the smallest pigs, the presence of barrows and gilts together, varying health status among the pigs and different environmental conditions across the pens. What might happen to growth rates, feed efficiency, labor requirements, overall animal welfare and throughput performance of the barn if an analogous map of the building was available daily or weekly for pigs, allowing the differential application of inputs and treatments to individual pigs? And what if we could then measure responses and make more adjustments versus the current one-size-fits-all for the group? Lots of people are working on pieces of this puzzle right now and some have made bold forays into actual barn and equipment investments testing promising ideas of precision agriculture in pig production.

In the coming year we will explore some of the advancements on the drawing board and/or being made in building technology, measurement systems, software and feeding systems. These technologies will help ensure your place in the future of global pork production through precision practices.