Brenda Wenzel, a husbandry educator in Central Iowa, uses both pork
production and communication skills to connect with farm employees.
Brenda Wenzel, a husbandry educator in Central Iowa, uses both pork production and communication skills to connect with farm employees.

Pig performance is affected by many factors: building design, ventilation, genetics, disease levels and a host of other variables. One of the most important factors – and most difficult to define – is that of human intervention.

The idea of measuring the impact of human intervention is new in the animal health world, though it’s been used for decades by businesses to support continuous improvement. About a year ago, Pfizer Animal Health initiated its Husbandry Educator™ (HE) program1 to provide on-farm training for caregivers and measure the impact of human intervention. Two field trials with well-designed protocols showed significant statistical differences in the impact of human intervention:

  1. Feeder pigs raised under the influence of a HE were 1.7 lbs. heavier at the end of the nursery phase than those raised with standard care (i.e. without HE influence).2
  2. Pigs raised under the influence of a HE showed a medication/veterinary cost savings of $.54 per pig compared to those raised under standard care.2
  3. For every 43 pigs raised under the influence of the HE, one additional high-value nursery pig was produced compared to standard care.

Most importantly, the metrics built around the human interventions showed a positive return on investment for incorporating production practices recommended by HEs in farm situations.2

“Production practices have become more sophisticated, but post-weaning is still one of the most stressful times in a pig’s life,” says Marty Frankhouser, marketing manager for Pork Services and Solutions, Pfizer Animal Health.  “It’s especially important to do everything possible to ensure good husbandry practices during this critical timeframe.”

Implementing the Farm’s Own SOPs

The HE program is designed to benefit the overall operation, the caregivers in that operation and the pigs through improved performance, while implementing the farm’s own standard operating procedures on a daily basis. “The intent of the program is not to change protocols, but to achieve a higher level of compliance through effective execution of existing production protocols,” points out Frankhouser. “That means the engagement of all stakeholders is important, including caregivers, veterinarians and managers.”

Essentially, the HEs work to:

  • Assess compliance with farm health protocols
  • Provide one-on-one caregiver coaching directed at early identification and management of suboptimal pigs
  • Improve the knowledge and skills of caregivers by teaching them how to use quantitative assessments

Robyn Fleck, DVM, associate director of outcomes research at Pfizer Animal Health, helps set up metrics for the HE program. “These are primarily training programs,” she says. “We’re training caregivers on an intense level: The HE spends two weeks in a barn working with animal caregivers to make sure they understand the farm’s policies and procedures. That means the HE needs to be well-versed in the farm’s standard operating procedures. Then, they educate, train, coach and inspire caregivers.”

The HEs don’t just teach and train, explains Fleck. They also provide motivation. Measurement is conducted on a variety of levels. First, did the caregiver like the experience? Third-party evaluators interview caregivers after the HE leaves to make sure the experience was positive.

“We want to make sure caregivers liked the communication style of the trainer, that the information they were given was of value and that they felt their time was well-spent,” says Fleck.

“Another metric is to see if the caregivers’ behaviors changed during the program. We use a blinded third-party evaluator,” she continues. “This person won’t know if the HE has been in the system or not, and he/she will score the barn according to the protocols requested by the client [farm owner].

“Factors such as ammonia level, relative humidity, temperature, feed and water adjustments and number of pigs with certain illnesses are measured. We have six ‘buckets’ for sick pigs: lameness, respiratory, neurological, gastrointestinal, fallback and miscellaneous. Pfizer developed a classification system, Individual Pig Care, to score the disease severity of the pigs within each bucket. We also determine how many pigs have been identified by the producer and either marked and treated or pulled to the hospital pen,” says Fleck.

“You can’t always control the illness, but you can control how people respond to it, so we measure how well staff members are able to identify these pigs, if their behaviors have changed, if they’ve become more aggressive about finding pigs early in the course of a disease and if pigs have been handled appropriately,” she stresses.

Producer interviews also are performed by the third-party evaluator and feedback has been positive, notes Fleck. “We’re told the HEs are very motivational, and a lot of managers have noticed a change in their caregivers. Employees are taking more ownership and understand that it’s not just what you have to do but why you have to do it. When employees understand why, they’re much more engaged in the process.

“We’re pretty good at raising pigs. Pork producers are savvy business people and they’re information-driven, so it’s important to deliver that information. Now we need to learn more about how to take good care of our employees and keep them engaged and motivated. That’s the new frontier for the pork industry. And you can’t improve it if you don’t measure it,” she concludes. 

Every Pig, Every Day

The job of the HE is to emphasize the importance of observing every pig, every day, says Lucina Galina, DVM, PhD, senior veterinarian, Pork Services and Solutions team, Pfizer Animal Health. “To be more specific, we focus on training caregivers in nursery and finishing sites to promptly identify sick pigs or pigs that are in suboptimum condition, and help them implement treatments in a timely manner (i.e., sooner rather than later) and to be confident about following the farm’s protocol.”

“The HE works with caregivers to ensure pigs receive all the basics they need, including feed, water and the proper environment, but the real emphasis is on individual pig care and early identification of suboptimal pigs or pigs that are beginning to get sick. They go into the pen and move pigs around to identify which ones are developing the early stages of disease so they can be treated right away.”

Positive Results

Galina has been involved in generating technical reports related to human intervention, and to date, she has data on about a half million pigs. “Our research continues because each production system is unique with specific challenges, so the outcomes might be different,” she notes. “For example in one of the trials, we saw .5 percent reduction in mortality which represents 5 additional pigs saved for every 1,000 pigs. We also observed a 50 percent reduction in treatment costs.”2

“In another study, we observed different findings, but also an overall benefit in productivity. We saw a decrease in suboptimal pigs (culls) and an increase of 2.4 percent in high-value pigs coming out of the nurseries.3 In both studies, performed in different seasons of the year and different production systems, we have observed an improvement in pig wellness and therefore, an improvement in productivity and pounds of pork produced.2,3 Implications from this work lead us to conclude that monitoring individual nursery pigs on a daily basis can significantly improve productivity and economic returns while lowering mortality, treatment costs and culls.”

According to Galina, these outcomes were in herds that already incorporated good management practices. “This indicates that good husbandry during the critical time of post-weaning has very positive effects on standard production practices.

“We’re learning a lot,” adds Galina. “Each production system is different, but overall, the findings point to the fact that the caregiver training has a positive impact on pig wellness and pig productivity. We understood the concept before, but our studies demonstrate that husbandry education continues to be important and there is always room for improvement.”

Educators and Communicators

It is one thing to know about pork production; it’s another to be able to communicate animal husbandry skills in a way that will ultimately change behaviors. Galina explains that HEs are trained in both pork production and communication skills, and receive on-going continuous education to hone their skills.  Time and practice are necessary to implement the concepts and effectively change behavior.

“Communication skills are one of the most important components of our program,” asserts Galina. “To make the messages resonate, you have to be an effective communicator.”

Brenda Wenzel serves as an HE in Central Iowa. She says, “I focus on going through every barn, every pen and every pig and hone in on the importance of looking at every pig. Once you get your eye trained to it, it only takes a second or two per pig and goes very quickly.

“I tell producers, ‘If you’re willing to spend the extra time observing and individually treating pigs as needed when they come in the door, especially in the first 30 days, your labor for the rest of the turn will actually decrease because you have those pigs off to a good start.’ It’s important to catch pigs early in the sickness cycle so they have a high response to the medication. Oftentimes, you only have to treat those pigs once because you caught them early enough to bring them back out of it, and they keep right on growing.”

Wenzel has always loved animals and is excited to have a position that allows her to share what she knows about animal caretaking. The response she sees in the caregivers is an even greater reward.

Wenzel has caregivers tell her they feel so much better about what they’re contributing, and as a result, there is less employee turnover in an operation. They do a better job because they understand more about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how to do it correctly. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and a “win-win” for the industry, the owners, the caretakers and the pigs.

“It’s not just about what it means to the operation,” points out Wenzel. “It’s about what it personally means to the caregivers because it saves them time and elevates their position within the operation.

“It’s a common thread among people to feel good about what they’re doing,” she adds. “They want to be recognized and feel appreciated. It doesn’t matter where you work or what you do, you want to feel confident that your role is important. These are the feelings I try to instill in the caregivers: What they do is making a difference – not just in that barn, on that day with that pig – but from a broader perspective as part of the pork industry. They’re a vital part of the industry and the persona we present to the public.” 

1 Husbandry Educator™ is considered a trademark of Pfizer, Inc. ©2012 Pfizer, Inc.  All rights reserved.

2 Galina, L. “Evaluating the Impact of a Husbandry Education™ Program on Nursery Pig Mortality, Weight Gain, and Treatment Costs,” Pfizer Animal Health Technical Update. Nov. 2011.

3 Kuhn, M. “Husbandry Education™ Linked to Production of More High-Value Nursery Pigs,” Pfizer Animal Health Technical Update. June 2011.