\r\nThe world is changing," says producer Paul FitzSimmons. "We have to ask ourselves, what can we do to compete?" His answer is installing an electronic identification system on his 3,000-sow operation near Good Thunder, Minn.
FitzSimmons started the ball rolling by talking with other producers about how to improve the pork they send to their packer.
After meeting with representatives from Global Animal Management and Digital Angel (formerly Destron Fearing), he and his partners – three other producers, two veterinarian clinics and an accountant – decided to tryout the electronic ID system.
The system is fairly easy to implement, says FitzSimmons. Shortly after farrowing, employees fit each baby pig with an electronic ear tag. Each tag contains a microchip and antennae that is preprogrammed with a 15-digit number. In addition, each sow is tagged, as well as every crate and pouch of boar semen.
Once the tags are in place, employees use a hand-held scanner to read the tag and track each pig's progress on a portable palm pilot or handheld computer. The information is sent electronically to the main computer database, called PigSmart. This system allows FitzSimmons to automate data collection on management and husbandry practices, personnel and product use for each individual pig.
A couple appealing points about the traceability system is that FitzSimmons didn't have to change his production protocols, and it didn't increase his labor costs. It only adds an extra 3 to 4 seconds per pig, including all the work with the dam, sire, genetics and fostering for his six employees.
When he first replaced the PigChamp recordkeeping system with PigSmart, which includes the electonic ID system, FitzSimmons thought there would be an immediate market benefit, but for now, he sees that the benefits are more internal.
Those benefits include his ability to conduct on-farm genetic trials, involving different genetic lines with different attributes. For example, PigSmart has allowed him to track two female lines and two boar lines from the same genetics company, and he was able to follow their pigs through to market.
"We saw differences in pigs as individuals that were co-mingled in same barn under the same living conditions," explains FitzSimmons. These tests led to him to switch to a newer line of female genetics. The PigSmart system sped up the process, showing him which pigs grew better and produced preferred pork.
The systems allows FitzSimmons to track a wealth of farrowing and nursery data including: Sow heritage; birth weight of pigs; weaning weight; weight of pigs leaving the nursery; pigs born alive; stillborns; mummies; pigs weaned per sow; types, doses and dates of vaccination; and boar semen heritage and serial number.
As a litter of pigs is born, all of the littermates are identified with the dam. If pigs are crossfostered, he records the original dam and the new dam.
In addition, he has just started tracking data in the gestation and breeding area. Some of those numbers include matings per sow; how often a sow is in heat and the artificial insemination technician's name.
"Having a traceable system lets me take pig care to another level," says FitzSimmons. "The pigs truly become individuals, with the ID working like a name."
The system helps him answer more questions from birth to weaning, and on through the nursery. The information has prompted FitzSimmons to make several management changes in his operation, making his business run more efficiently. A specific example that he points to is pig weight at weaning. The data collected through the electronic ID system helped him make adjustments in the way pigs are fed by weight in the nursery.
The data also provides improved insight into vaccination timing. He's able to track pigs through the system to see how they respond to vaccinations given at different growth stages.
Another benefit is the ability to track any fostered pigs. FitzSimmons can monitor what happens with the foster pigs after they are moved and if there are production differences between the fostered pig and ones that remained on the sow.
"The key to information flow is the ability to have multiple uses and processes within the same production system," explains Brian Buhr, agricultural economist, University of Minnesota. "With this system, you get one size fits all – the land, buildings and pig numbers."\t
He believes that the most intriguing aspect of FitzSimmons' operation is to have what Buhr calls a "nested supply chain". This is where you have the ability to segment different groups of pigs within the same production system, such as with different genetic lines – and, you're able to do it without additional investment costs.
Another advantage for FitzSimmons and his employees is the ability to treat some pigs with antibiotics and not others. The ID system allows them to easily track antibiotic use electronically for each individual pig.
"The system allows me to do these types of things cost effectively and I can get a niche advantage; it's not all or nothing," adds FitzSimmons
Buhr views the type of system FitzSimmons installed as accomplishing more from a production side than a marketing side, because the producer can gain production efficiencies.
"This is the first time in the U.S. livestock and meat industries that I've seen this type of system," says Buhr. Right now, the market potential for electronic ID is limited, but the more that you can link the entire pork chain, the better off you will be."
Right now there are no U.S. packers with an electronic traceability system in place. However, FitzSimmons is working with his packer to conduct test runs to trace his hogs in the processing plant until the head leaves the carcass. The plant is testing an in-line system that coordinates a trolley number with the pig's identification number.
FitzSimmons also is running trials to look at the carcass quality traits associated with different genetics and on-farm production practices.
Right now, Rick Sibbel, DVM with Global Animal Management, estimates the tracing system costs 1 cent per pound per pig from the time you identify the piglet through to the processing plant.
While it's becoming obvious that an electronic ID system can benefit producers and packers, but retailers are still an unknown.
"Everyone wants to link through to the retailer, but the retailer hasn't decided what specifications they want," says Sibbel. "Right now, pork producers are more willing to change than other segments of the chain."
Wal-Mart is the only retailer that is managing the meat entering the store down to one-tenth of a pound, notes Sibbel. All other retailers are still using traditional pricing methods at the meat counter.
He also points out that retail grocers are moving away from managing meat internally. Instead, they're negotiating with packers to help them do it. Wal-Mart is leading this charge, being the first to have the packer/suppliers help manage the meat case. It is working on an automatic replenishment system with all of its suppliers. Under that system all sales data will go to suppliers so that they can track product movement and provide each Wal-Mart store with the right product mix.
FitzSimmons believes that Wal-Mart's specific product demands will eventually bypass the middleman – the packers – and the company will go straight to the producer.\t
"The domino effect could be huge when the retailer makes an exclusive pact with a producer group for products," adds Sibbel.
There's no question that a traceable production system allows producers to look closer at how their products are being produced. Still, it may not be for everyone.
"You have to balance operational efficiencies gained with market opportunity," says Bill Grande, consulting director for Critereon. His company develops quality-control systems for the agricultural industry. "You need to determine if these opportunities will yield enough value to pay back your investment."
"I'm more convinced now that a traceability system is going to work in the United States in one form or another," says Buhr. There are still many questions concerning what the system will look like, but there are more possibilities than constraints. We have to ask ourselves, what can we do now?
"With this type of system we may be as high tech as we can get on the farm," says FitzSimmons. "Other links in the pork chain will have to step up the make changes."