How to attract people to work on your hog farm

The biggest issue facing most hog farms today is a shortage of workers, according to Laura Bruner, DVM, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota.

“If you ask (producers) what their challenges are in their day-to-day life, it’s finding labor and enough labor to be able to take care of the sows and get the production they want,” she said.

COVID initially played a role in having fewer workers available. But other issues are also involved. “People are getting farther and farther away from the farm,” she added. “Finding people who want to work with pigs was difficult before COVID, and it is certainly more difficult now.”

Create strong company culture

Producers hoping to attract workers who are interested in agriculture need to consider their company culture and if it’s a place people want to work.

“The culture that is probably the most successful is the culture that puts pigs and people first,” Bruner said. “When you’re making decisions, you ask two questions: Is it good for the people, and is it good for the pigs? That’s a culture that across our client base has never failed.”

Operators wondering if they have a good culture can figure that out by asking employees if they would refer a sister or brother to work there.

“If the answer is no, then you probably need to take a look at the health of your company,” she said.

Improving a culture can start with a well-written mission statement to reflect the company’s overall purpose. Bruner said most of their clients have mission statements.

“It’s the one mission that everybody, from the person feeding the animals all the way up to the owner, are all striving for,” she said. “They are all pulling toward the same goal, and everybody knows that goal and mission.”

Help workers win

Attracting and keeping employees means making sure they feel like they are “winning” either professionally or personally with the job.

“I think everybody, when they go to their job, wants to feel like they’re winning in some capacity,” Bruner said. “For a guy or gal just starting a family, winning for them might be learning and gaining more experience to make more money and support the family.”

Flexibility in the job may be a winning solution for other workers. For example, she suggested some people may want to assist sows overnight or work evening hours versus early morning.

“Everybody is different, and if you’re a company that can flex to that, I think you’ll have a better shot at getting and retaining employees,” she said.

Where to find workers

In today’s culture, social media is the best way to find workers, besides personal connections in the community.

“Everybody is on social media, and developing that platform is important,” she said. “Plus having your employees who currently work for you being your advocate and recruiter is a good thing.”

Temporary visa workers

Another option to find workers is the Trade NAFTA (TN) visa program that allows professional agricultural workers from Canada and Mexico to work in the US for up to 3 years. Bruner has seen some farms use just a few TN workers while other farms hire TN workers for a majority of their positions.

“This has been a good resource for finding farm labor,” she said. “But it comes with a bit of ownership because these people are coming from other countries. They usually don’t have a driver’s license, and they don’t have a place to live…So it takes a little bit of time and investment for the employer.

“The TN visa program has been very good for our clients, and we have the ability to help them on the recruiting and training end,” Bruner added. “It is just another example of the industry continuing to think outside the box to solve problems in their business.”


M. hyo elimination or control: ‘We have the tools to succeed’

Hog farmers and veterinarians no longer have to accept the poorer performance that results from Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae (M. hyo) infection. Whether the decision is to control or eliminate M. hyo, there are numerous options and tools available, and the payoff is real.

Having completed his first M. hyo elimination in 2004 — a herd that remains negative today — Paul Yeske, DVM, Swine Vet Center in St. Peter, Minnesota, is a leader in the elimination effort. “There are a lot more negative herds today, but M. hyo continues to be a problem for the swine industry,” he said. “Compared to when we started, today we have the tools to succeed.”

He is quick to add that M. hyo elimination is not the only option; there is nothing wrong with committing to control or stabilization strategies within a herd.

“It does take time and effort, and you’re not always successful at ongoing stabilization,” he said. “You have to do things right consistently. You’ve got to be very committed to a gilt developer unit and have a strategy to uniformly and routinely expose replacements and that groups turn [M. hyo] positive. It’s a challenge.”

A range of options

M. hyo elimination and control programs do not rely on a standardized methodology. Rather the decisions are influenced by the operation’s goals, risk tolerance, timeline and willingness to commit to the required steps.

“You’ve got options,” Yeske emphasized. “There’s depop/repop, the Swiss method, herd closure, whole-herd medication programs, and even more are surfacing from them.”

Depop/repop is the fastest way to eliminate M. hyo, but it’s also the most dramatic and costly. Medication without herd closure can work but has about a 50% success rate 1 year out. “It’s a coin toss, but if you’re on the right side of that, it feels pretty good,” Yeske said.

Herd closure has evolved into the more reliable and moderate option, with a success rate around 86%. And, for herds already closed for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome clean up, M. hyo is an easy add-on, requiring just an extra 30 days for a total of 240 days. “I don’t think M. hyo elimination would have moved as fast without that,” he added.

The key to success with M. hyo is to secure a supply of negative replacement gilts, inoculate them and honor the 240-day shedding period. “We don’t want to be shedding at farrowing, so you have to work backward and expose those gilts by around 80 days of age,” Yeske said. That means it will not work to bring replacement gilts in at select weights and try to expose them to M. hyo; there’s just not enough time.

While the 240-day closure is critical today, Yeske expects that “as we go forward, we need to find ways to shorten that time frame, maybe with different medication strategies.”

Big changes and tools

Advances in diagnostics are among the big changes that have boosted efforts to address M. hyo. Serology used to be the only sample option. Today, there are polymerase chain reaction tests that can use multiple samples — tracheal/bronchial samples are the gold standard, and laryngeal swabs are easy to get. Oral fluids have limitations, but a positive test signals there’s a real problem.

Sequencing is a helpful tool today. “When we started, we didn’t sequence for M. hyo, but as time went on it became more feasible,” Yeske noted. “Now we can identify the sequence to see if we’re dealing with the same M. hyo before an elimination, so if there is a rebreak we can determine if it is a new one for the herd.”

Moving from intratracheal inoculation to aerosol/fogging inoculation has been a game changer. Not only is it effective, it’s much easier on pigs and people.

While biosecurity is not a new tool, it’s too important to overlook. “Even after you’ve done an elimination, M. hyo can still get around it,” he added. And oftentimes a biosecurity review reveals a need to refresh the basics.

Finally, there’s a lot of talk about filtered barns, and they have proven to be another useful tool. “Filters are a plus,” Yeske noted. “Today, so far in our practice, we haven’t had a filtered farm that has broken.”

Motivation behind elimination

Mortality associated with M. hyo is not the driving factor behind elimination efforts. Yes, there’s an impact, but it is not as dramatic as some other herd health challenges. So, why do people continue to work on elimination over time?

“At the end of the day, it’s all about pig performance and the return,” Yeske said.

A review of production records showed the impact of M. hyo was $3.60 to $5 per pig. The scientific literature cites a range of $2 to $10 per pigs. Yeske believes $5 per pig is a solid average.

That money comes from productivity impacts, and elimination offers improved average daily feed intake, average daily gain and feed conversion. Mortality rates and medication costs also decline.

He worked with Daniel Linhares, DVM, Iowa State University, on an economic model measuring return on investment (ROI), using a 5,000-sow farm and a $5 average cost for M. hyo. They also considered the costs of an elimination project and reduced revenues for a time. They found that the ROI for a herd closure was 3.12 months; for a medication program it was 11.36 months

“So, it’s pretty quick; it’s not a long time to stay negative to get your money back,” Yeske said. “That’s why we’re seeing interest in elimination.”

It’s all been an evolution that has developed better tools from aerosol exposure to the diagnostics to sequencing, Yeske noted. “There will be even more methods — new and different methods for the swine industry in the future. The evolution will continue.”


Filtration audits help prepare for PRRS season

Regular biosecurity checks with a close look at filtration and ventilation systems will help prevent the spread of airborne pathogens like porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), according to Jeff Feder, DVM, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota.

“With all the [PRRS] breaks we had last fall that continued into June…it’s an important time to start refocusing on biosecurity if you’re not already,” Feder said.

“And one way we’ve done that is to have a system of conducting audits on farms, whether you call it a filtration audit or biosecurity audit,” he added. “It is really a combination of those two things.”

Ventilation inspections

During biosecurity audits on a filtered farm, Feder inspects all filters to determine if any need to be replaced. He also looks for air leaks, especially in negative-pressure ventilation systems where air is pulled through filters to prevent pathogens from entering the buildings.

“If you have not installed a shutter wall (double-shutter system) yet, I would also highly recommend this to prevent backdrafting of unfiltered air through inactive fans, and fans not used in the winter should be sealed,” he said.

Another big ticket item to reduce risk on filtered farms is pressurized loadouts to prevent unfiltered air from entering the farm while animals are being moved in or out.

Filtration on sow farms has gained ground since the first filters were installed 15 years ago. “Well over half the sows we work with [are filtered], and some large systems would be up to 100% of sows are filtered,” Feder said.

“There’s getting to be more interest in filtering wean-to-finish and finishing barns as time goes on, to protect those animals and also as a buffer to keep pigs clean that are [near] sows and boar studs,” he added.

Other biosecurity concerns

Of course, biosecurity includes many other components including people, supply and animal entry.

“Another part of biosecurity is isolation of incoming animals if live animals are entering the farm,” Feder said. He reviews entry protocols, which include testing for pig health status.

Feed entry has become an important part of biosecurity since research shows pathogens including African swine fever and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus enter hog farms through feed.

“There’s been a lot of excellent research looking at ways…to reduce that risk, whether those are chemical mitigants, time or temperature mitigation,” he added.

Another biosecurity risk Feder and his colleagues are reviewing is manure pumping.

“There’s the risk that neighboring farms pose as they pump manure from potentially PRRS-positive farms,” he said. “But there’s also a risk to farms themselves as they pump. In filtered farms, that creates more risk as you open up and allow some unfiltered air to enter the farm.”

Feder recommends all hog farms conduct regular biosecurity audits to ensure all disease risks are addressed.

“I encourage people to work with their veterinarians and look at some sort of program to analyze biosecurity before getting into a high-risk time of year,” he added.



New group prepares for possible ASF outbreak

A new group led by pork producers, state veterinarians and USDA might be able to help the pork industry maintain exports should the US experience an outbreak of African swine fever (ASF) or classical swine fever.

The new Swine Health Improvement Program (SHIP) will develop monitored certification plans for producers and packers/slaughter facilities.

“We can certify that herds are free-status today, and if there were ever an outbreak of one of those diseases, we can help producers get back to business as quickly as possible,” reported Paul Yeske, DVM, with Swine Vet Center. He has been involved with the program since it started in 2020.

Modeled after poultry

The impetus for SHIP came from a similar program called the National Poultry Improvement Plan in the poultry industry. After the last avian influenza outbreak, it helped poultry producers who were part of the program export products from specific regions, Yeske explained.

Key to making this program successful is including state government, USDA and the pork industry so they work together developing the solutions for health challenges.

“Everybody has a seat at the table, and hopefully this helps with the buy-in from all parties to make it easier to implement,” Yeske explained.

Funding for this program is still in the works. “In the poultry model, there’s state-federal sharing. So, we are hopeful the same thing can be set up [for the pork industry] as we go forward,” he added.

Exports allowed in outbreak

While there are other organizations getting prepared for ASF outbreaks, this one is different, according to Yeske.

“I think SHIP takes work on ASF to the next level by looking at biosecurity, specific testing protocols and traceability,” he said. “Those are the three cornerstones in this initial program.

“Then, if some areas become exposed, there is a mechanism to verify the status of herds. With the verified status, hopefully our export partners will accept it and allow those producers to continue to move product.”

It is anticipated that producers in the program will use the Secure Pork Supply Plan as a guideline for their biosecurity program and expand on it. Routine monitoring and testing will provide a status of the overall industry.

Now that ASF is closer to the US in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Yeske admitted there is more urgency to getting plans ready.

“Producers have raised their level of awareness and are going back to review their Secure Pork Supply Plans and biosecurity protocols,” he added. “They’re making sure we don’t get that inadvertent contact that nobody wants to have.”



Late-weaned, parity-1 sows benefit from skipped cycle

New gilts entering a farrowing room face some big demands for animals still maturing while supporting their first litters.

“We can be pretty demanding as far as what we ask from gilts, especially once they get ramped up in lactation,” reported Henry Johnson, DVM, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota.

“Because we want that gilt underline developed for subsequent farrows, gilts end up weaning a lot of pigs and putting out a lot of milk in their first time up in the farrowing house,” he explained.

As a result, some gilts use up their fat reserves during lactation and come back into the breeding barn thin. Many times, these will also be the sows coming into heat on day 6 or 7.

Instead of breeding these sows, Johnson suggests skipping a cycle to let them put on weight and become more productive sows in the herd.

Skip a cycle — bigger litter

“We see an advantage to skipping some of these sows we call late weaned,” Johnson said. “Most of the time these parity-1 (P1) sows performed well and weaned a lot of pigs. But they need extra time to recondition.”

When these sows are bred on day 6, 7 or 8, they become some of the herd’s worst performers on a total-born basis for the farm, according to Johnson.

“If we skip a late-wean sow to give her 21 days to cycle again and provide enough feed to allow her to put some condition back on, then she is ready for that next service,” he said. “We will see a more efficient animal in breeding and one that will provide a higher total born when it comes time to have that next litter.”

Target animal

A farm can easily set up the criteria for staff to determine P1 sows that will benefit from a skipped cycle.

“If a sow comes back in heat at 6 days or later, most likely it will be a P1 and she will be very thin,” Johnson said. “It keeps it pretty simple for the farm staff.”

The number of P1 sows falling into this late-weaned and underconditioned category is typically about 5% of the breed group. This also represents a 5% drag on the breed group if those sows are bred first cycle.

“That’s part of the reason why it makes sense to give these P1 sows this extra time,” Johnson said. The extra cost for space and feed will be repaid with increased performance.

“You take the five worst-performing animals and put them in the five-best category and the entire group average shifts up dramatically,” he added.

“Then it quickly turns into a different story…I have all these pigs and how do I keep them alive.”


Don’t forget biocontainment of disease when following biosecurity plans

The latest disease outbreaks fueled by new disease variants are good reminders that the best biosecurity plans must include strategies to keep disease contained within a barn as well as ways to prevent new disease outbreaks.

“We have to remember it’s not only bio-exclusion where we don’t want to bring in new, harmful disease onto a farm, but we also want to make sure that we contain diseases, so we are not transmitting it throughout the area or to any other barns within the system,” reported Erin Kettelkamp, DVM, Swine Vet Center.

“We have to worry about all the different movements that go on around the farm,” she explained. “Ultimately, we want to minimize any type of exposure rate. The fewer movement of either people, pigs or supplies, the better.”

Audits necessary

With fall arriving, Kettelkamp recommends hog farms conduct audits to make sure biosecurity plans cover all necessary areas and are being followed correctly.

“This time of year, it’s a good idea to have either a system’s audit or a veterinarian do an audit,” she said. “It gives another set of eyes on the farm to evaluate if we are doing what we say we are when following processes or make improvements.”

The audits should be conducted at least annually by a veterinarian or quarterly by an impartial employee or a veterinarian.

“We can’t always assume our procedures are being completed as we had them written down on paper,” she explained. “That’s why auditing all these processes is important.”

Kettelkamp conducts a variety of biosecurity audits ranging from a general farm audits to specific audits like truck washes and filtration systems. She offered strategies for making biosecurity plans stronger.

Control supply entry

Supply orders for the farm should be coordinated to reduce the number of deliveries to a farm. Instead of multiple deliveries in a week, supply orders are minimized to a couple a month.

For other types of supplies and equipment, the best strategy is dedicating the items to a specific farm.

“It is something like moving weigh scales or bringing in any other type of supplies such as those we plan to use on the farm for sampling,” she said. “Cost is a big concern. But if there is any way to have all these items dedicated to each site that’s good.”

If these items must be moved between farms, cleaning and disinfecting methods must be followed every single time.

“Other things to think about on farms is if they are filtered,” Kettelkamp said. “Continue to assess the filters and make sure it’s an airtight space.

“If focusing on sow farms, don’t forget about protecting the health of downstream pigs. We must be aware of where we put disease-challenged pigs or where we keep clean pigs. We also should evaluate biosecurity in a similar way as a sow farm, and the same with people movements.”

Control equipment movement

Another area of biosecurity concern is manure handling.

“We want to be diligent [and not hasty] about how we handle all that equipment,” Kettelkamp said. “Make sure to sanitize and move it between farms in a biosecure way.”

Ideally, the equipment should be segregated so anything used on a farm experiencing a disease outbreak is not then used on a clean farm. If this isn’t possible, then the focus should be on cleaning and sanitizing with downtime before the equipment is moved to other farms.

Similar rules also apply to feed mill trucks and other contractors entering the farm, like a service crew. Make sure a biosecurity audit covers all these activities, as well.

Truck washes

Kettelkamp has performed truck-wash audits that include environmental sampling to look for pathogen transfer.

“For truck washes, it’s best to use high-pressure and hot water as well as a large volume to remove the manure,” sha said. “It’s important to follow-up by applying a disinfectant to the entire surface of the truck.

“Common areas missed are ceilings on any decking in the trailer and tight corners in hard-to-reach areas. Keeping truck cabs clean, whether vacuuming or using disinfectants also shouldn’t be ignored.”

Kettelkamp also has seen problems with load-out chutes on farms. These areas need disinfecting.

While people errors continue to be a major cause of biosecurity breaches, audits will help reduce those slip-ups.

“Make sure audits are in place and we do what we say we are doing and pick up on any area of improvement before we have a disease outbreak,” she said.

“Biosecurity audits are tedious, and they should be. It’s a good thing to be careful.”


How to minimize summer’s impact on sow fertility

Sow reproductive performance drops off in the summer, and this year will be no different, according to Paul Yeske, DVM, Swine Vet Center, St. Peter, Minnesota.

“We typically see reproductive performance drop off as we get to week 29 through 40,” he said. “With hot weather in late May and early June, we may see it a little quicker than normal for us in the upper Midwest.”

To minimize the impact of seasonal infertility, Yeske recommends producers take steps to keep November and December farrowing numbers up.

Environmental impact

One main cause of seasonal infertility is overall environmental temperature, which can be handled several ways.

“Mitigation steps include increasing ventilation rates and using evaporative cooling like cool cells, drip coolers or misters or a combination to keep sows as comfortable as possible,” Yeske said.

“Typically, we see in this period more 21-day returns to heat, so sows are not conceiving as well,” he explained.

“In the past, those numbers would be more exaggerated. Today, they are in the range of 2% to 5% and not a huge number, but it does show up this time of year.”

Day length changes

The other cause of seasonal infertility is the change in day length.

“As day length shortens, the sows don’t want to be pregnant and farrow in the middle of the winter,” Yeske said.

“We see more irregular recycles. The sows were pregnant, and they either lose the pregnancy or reabsorb the litters.

“We want to be sure to identify these animals and decide if we are either going to get them rebred and back into the system, or cull them because performance is low,” he added. “We don’t want them sitting around taking up space and time.”

Yeske recommends heat checking early, because there are more 21-day recycles, and being diligent with second pregnancy checks around 50 to 60 days to pick up early pregnancy losses.

“Historically, we would see some sows not-in-pig as we get to November when those animals should be farrowing,” he explained.

“If we can get them identified now, then we don’t have them tie up space until November or December and not have litters.”

Some farms use lighting to help counter the changes in length of daylight. Timers keep lights on up to 16 hours a day in a bid to mimic the longest day of the year.

The impact of this lighting is hard to say for sure, but Yeske said many farms use this approach and it isn’t hard to do.

Increase breeding target if possible

Another option for minimizing seasonal infertility is to breed more animals if you have the room to do so.

“Farms will use their historical information to compensate by breeding, in general, 2% to 3% more animals, depending on what they’ve seen in the past,” Yeske explained.

Seasonal infertility used to be a much larger issue when boar services were required.

“Boars would get heat stressed, and semen quality would go down,” he said. “With nearly everything switching over to artificial insemination, we’ve been able to mitigate that issue.

“But seasonal infertility still shows up every year,” he added. “While the losses aren’t big, there are always some…so the quicker we get them identified, the quicker we can get animals bred back and into the system and be as efficient as possible.”