With high input costs, a global economic slowdown and the Type A H1N1 influenza threat, it may seem that all the cards are stacked against you.

Although these macro issues may be beyond your control, there are things you can do within your operation to contend with the many and varied challenges. Focusing on the micro issues, that is to say at the pig level, is an area that you can influence. Here, Joe Connor, DVM, Carthage, Ill., provides strategies that he and his colleagues at Carthage Veterinary Services, share with their clients.

He begins with this sobering assessment: “We have to assume, for now at least, that we will have limited or no (profit) margins, and we need to look at minimizing the losses.”

Connor recommends looking closely at areas driving production costs, including reproduction, feeding, facilities, pig health and people. “Everyone is aware of the volatility that has taken place during the past couple years,” he adds. “We have to constantly ask ourselves, ‘is the decision I made yesterday, or last week, still the right decision?’”

You have to determine if your operation is a sustainable model. “Some of our clients are just running out of cash,” he adds. Some clients supplement revenue with corn or manure sales, which can help.

It starts with a balanced system. “You can’t make decisions based on just one input,” Connor warns. Decisions need to be based on the entire system, the herd health level and the pigs; they must be based on the operation's own parameters.

Understand the costs of all phases within the operation. Often, it’s a matter of how well you fix a problem and how quickly it gets done. At the farm level,  this requires that you keep actions basic and implementable.

To keep the herd on the right track, you have to work toward eliminating feed interruptions such as blockage or out-of-feed events. Cotinuously evaluate feed additives to determine what’s still needed or what ingredients or levels may require adjustments.

Some producers still don’t have sufficient records. “We’re in a period when decisions have to be made more rapidly.  Today, we all have to spend more time keeping records current, and we have to constantly review production costs and balance sheets,” Connor notes.

Benchmarks are continually rising. Not long ago, 25 pigs per sow per year would put you in the top 10 percent in productivity. Now, you would only make the top 50 percent. “You must set aside time to evaluate productivity drivers and where improvements are possible because the target is moving,” Connor says.

The number of quality pigs weaned per mated female will be the benchmark to optimize weaned-pig costs, he notes. Look at birth weights and weaned weights as well as pre-wean mortality. For sow productivity, key drivers are gilt development and genetic improvements.

“Producers must constantly measure their performance and cannot remain static,” Connor says. He suggests setting intervention levels on important performance drivers such as feed conversion, to signal when improvement is required. “It’s important to set benchmarks based on your own farm’s health, weaning age and weight parameters,” he adds.

Health will continue to be a key driver in all systems. Of course, the consequences of health problems include mortality, morbidity and reduced average daily gain. 

Connor emphasizes the need to have constant interaction with a herd veterinarian to evaluate health levels and provide direction on standardizing vaccination programs. Again, this is a dynamic situation and interventions which were not cost effective in the past may be effective today.

Try to get things right at the pig level. Training workers, walking pens and evaluating pig health are critical components. Make sure workers know what to look for in terms of sick pigs, such as head tilting, body fill, lethargy and more. “We stress timing of treatment,” Connor notes. Identifying sick pigs and starting treatment early is key.

Make sure workers see every pig every day. Keep instructions simple, but provide guidelines on how to make accurate pig assessments. Set up checklists to ensure that interventions are being done.

Assign one individual to start piglets off because the first two weeks are critical. That person will work with the other barn workers to make sure all tasks are implemented.

As for training, someone must review all aspects of the job with each new employee because most functions, if not done properly and on a timely basis, will result in failure of a performance parameter. Even with existing employees, you cannot just announce a new protocol in an e-mail message and then expect it will be accomplished.

Producers need to spend time training people, Connor says. Because of staff turnover, your operation’s performance can boil down to how fast and effectively you can train a new individual. It’s wise to look at your whole system and review the resources you’re using to train new people. Whenever there’s a directive on a new procedure, Connor recommends assigning a specific individual to train others and ensure that the new procedure is implemented correctly.

Spend time at the barn level to ensure that each step along the way is done correctly. What sets operations apart is how well pigmanship knowledge is passed on to others. The mechanics of learning effective observation of pigs is often hard to convey. It takes time and commitment to educate employees and help them develop this skill. “As a whole, we just haven’t been spending enough time on it,” Connor stresses.

Maintaining a balanced and sustainable system requires a coordinated effort involving you, your employees and your consultants, including veterinarians, lenders, nutritionists and environmental engineers. “I am a strong believer in a coordinated effort,” Connor says. “Collect input from each discipline and then form an action plan. It is all part of a complete, balanced system.”

Finally, Connor is optimistic, considering the world’s protein needs. “But I know we all have to work hard to get through this difficult year,” he says.