Growing up in central Illinois in Hillsboro on a very diversified family farm, young Joe Connor worried a lot about his future.

He loved living and working with all of the species his family was involved with — chickens, dairy cattle, small feedlot, the pigs and even the turkeys.

However, he could foresee that his chances to stay and work on the family farm into adulthood didn't appear too bright.

“I've always been really enamored about agriculture from my background, and the uncertainty and changes that occur from year to year. When it didn't look like I would have the opportunity to farm, I looked for a career that would allow me to be encased with family farmers. That's why I chose veterinary medicine,” says the president of Carthage Veterinary Service (CVS), Ltd., located in Carthage, IL.

Shortly after receiving his bachelors of science degree in 1974 and veterinary degree in 1976, both from the University of Illinois, Connor joined the veterinary practice at Carthage. Just a year later, in 1977, he became a partner, and purchased the practice in 1980. In 2006, Connor received a master of science degree from the University of Minnesota.

Today that practice includes 10 veterinarians, focused exclusively on swine.

Specialized Services

As the swine industry contracts and struggles to survive, CVS continues to grow, but shifts to a two-pronged focus: helping pork producers maintain production efficiencies and weather current economic challenges, and securing their ability to sell to markets through quality assurance programs.

“What is occurring in these tight economic times is that a number of producers need specialized service to make decisions,” Connor remarks. That has created a window of opportunity for CVS to provide specialization in areas such as benchmarking production costs and productivity, Pork Quality Assurance Plus, welfare audits, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) risk assessments audits, biosecurity audits and health strategies.

Each of CVS's producer clients has one primary health care veterinarian who coordinates the health and production protocols, while the other veterinarians conduct audits and collaborate in diagnostic interventions.

By using expertise in multiple disciplines, Connor and his staff attempt to identify and manage the most pertinent production details on a farm in order to set a solid course for the future of the business.

Connor says he is confident that the staff's continued level of specialization will result in additional growth of existing hog clientele and increase the odds of attracting new swine clients.

Staff continues to further their education to meet these new challenges. Sarah Probst Miller, DVM, and Connor just completed the University of Illinois' Executive Veterinary Program designed to upgrade business and management skills.

James Lowe, DVM, is delving further into linking diagnostic data with production data, and diagnostic data with disease intervention to provide the most cost-effective methods for disease identification and intervention. “There are still a lot of unknowns, but there is clearly tremendous value in being able to predict the health of pig flows and using intervention to maximize the outcome,” Connor observes.

Many of the swine farms that Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd. consults with are involved in the PRRS Risk Assessment Program and are now being audited twice a year, using a different veterinarian each time. This effort attempts to more clearly identify the primary biosecurity lapses responsible for introduction of the PRRS virus, he says.

That assessment program is becoming a key part of learning how to correctly weigh biosecurity risks for PRRS, Connor says.

New PRRS Strategy

For years, Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd. has initiated numerous control strategies for PRRS, which have served to control the disease, yet the virus continues to evade elimination.

A three-county, four-year, pilot PRRS elimination project in adjoining Hancock, McDonough and Adams counties will soon be launched in coordination with Carly Dorazio, DVM (Tri-Oak Foods) and other veterinarians. Elimination strategies will be severely tested in this intensive hog production region in west central Illinois, Connor confirms. Currently, first-phase efforts are aimed at identifying swine locations and obtaining preliminary producer agreements for the project.

Location and pig density are key contributors to PRRS infections in individual operations, which are nearly impossible to change, he reminds.

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In addition, there is good epidemiological data to show that as with the spread of pseudorabies (PRV) decades ago, a number of PRRS virus infections are still due to transmission from finishers located close to sow populations, Connor states.

A lot of those PRV infections involved single-site, farrow-to-finish operations, whereas today's operations fighting PRRS are segregated into multi-site systems.

However, the PRRS virus has proven much craftier than PRV in avoiding elimination. “It looks like every other year we develop an aggressive strain of PRRS and then we have a year when it is active, but less active than in those aggressive years,” he says.

It could turn out that some of the population dynamics and segregated systems set up to isolate farms from PRRS and other swine diseases may, in fact, actually facilitate the PRRS virus' propensity for drift and mutation that we are seeing today, Connor points out.

Air filtration systems offer hope, but the high cost of installation and maintenance must be weighed against the sustainability from infection over time.

However, perhaps knowledge from the risk assessment program and the pilot projects can be combined to start building effective buffer zones that can be expanded over time to protect areas from PRRS introduction, Connor explains.

Despite biosecurity lapses and failures, Connor urges producers to avoid falling into a trap of letting down their guard, which could produce further erosion of biosecurity and compromise animal health programs.

In 1995, Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd. was asked by producer clients to spearhead the development of a sow cooperative model to provide a consistent source of healthy gilts for their farms, tailored after a number of related efforts in southern Minnesota.

To control the structure of the venture and to help maintain strict biosecurity, those clients asked CVS to manage the sow co-op.

A daughter nucleus farm and a boar stud soon followed at the request of those owners.

Later, commercial breed-to-wean units were built at the bequest of owners to provide them large batches of weaned pigs, also to be managed by the veterinary group.

Soon it became apparent to Connor that a separate company needed to be formed to operate the franchise, and Professional Swine Management, LLC was formed in 1996. Today this growing enterprise consists of about 260 family farms located in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio.

“The addition of the breed-to-wean units has allowed individual family producers to focus their efforts on wean-to-finish production, and the health of the sow herd has dramatically improved the health of these growing pigs,” he adds. Sow litters are batch farrowed, reducing age and group variation.

“Batch farrowing improves herd health, but that clearly pulls along with it the ability to capture very good production data, which drives further improvements in wean-to-finish production through the use of those records for those family farms,” Connor explains.

Wean-to-Finish Focus

Despite those improvements in wean-to-finish performance and health, the Illinois veterinarian suggests that research gaps still exist:

  • The ideal pen size continues to be somewhat of a dilemma because not everyone can manage large numbers of pigs in a pen (200-500 head). It can be difficult to locate sick pigs that need immediate treatment.

  • Managing pathogens such as Haemophilus parasuis, Streptococcus suis and swine influenza virus will require new interventions and new predictive strategies.

  • As the pork industry continues to increase wean age and weans a heavier pig, the standard deviation of weaning weight is increasing from the lightest to the heaviest pigs in a group. The ideal marketing strategy is changing from reducing sort loss to optimizing the return per head.

“The latter scenario is a logical consequence of weaning pigs at an older age. What is happening is the pigs that are nursing the best milking glands are gaining at a more rapid rate than the ones on the lower-output glands, and so as those pigs nurse longer, the weight spread gets wider,” Connor explains.

The result is that some older-weaned litters are turning up with wide variations in weight, which are becoming very noticeable, Connor reported in a recent research abstract.

“We might have 23-24-lb. pigs in with 10-lb. pigs. There is nothing that you can change to reduce this variation in wean-to-finish pens that will be good for disease management. Realize this is going to happen,” he notes, “but strategies such as within-herd parity segregation may offset some of this.”

The problem of increased standard deviation of weight variation continues through production and creates a marketing challenge, Connor adds.

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Defending Getting Better

However, Connor defends older weaning age as one of the keys to producing healthier pigs and optimizing the system — just as he argues the industry's quest to produce 30-plus pigs/sow/year (PSY) is necessary to optimize production to meet global competition.

“We have always had the attitude that we need to optimize production, and if we do that, we can always make a decision to reduce the number of sows if we have too many pigs,” he states.

Optimizing production is different than maximizing production, because optimization takes into account those factors from birth through finishing that produce a positive net return to the swine farm, and strives to achieve a balanced net return system, Connor says.

The 30-plus PSY goal simply provides another benchmark for producers to strive toward. A benchmark is needed because just being an average producer is not good enough. The bar keeps rising at a faster pace, he says.

“We keep telling our clients this is occurring not only in the pig business, but in every business. Average performance is improving at an accelerated rate,” Connor says.

Training Modules

Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd. offers a variety of training modules on CD for breeding, farrowing and wean-to-finish production (“Walking the Pens” by Pfizer Animal Health). These modules have web-based quiz tracking, allowing one to monitor lesson progress and understand areas requiring focus.

“We know today we are going to be utilizing individuals who have limited livestock experience and those who are not certain about that career. Those two factors generally mean a high turnover rate at least during that first year of employment. We are focusing on identifying and training individuals to get them engaged early in the process. This will ultimately reduce turnover, which improves productivity,” he says.

That training will also extend to managers and supervisors to help them do a better job of overseeing farm staff and mentoring those employees.

Mentors

Connor recalls a host of mentors who influenced his veterinary career.

Staff at the Wyoming (IL) veterinary practice where he interned taught him volumes about family producers.

The late Al Leman, DVM, at the University of Minnesota; Ralph Vinson, DVM, from Illinois; Roy Schultz, DVM, from Iowa; Steve Henry, DVM, from Kansas; and Jack Anderson, DVM, from Nebraska, among others, provided strong veterinary consultation and educational support.

Local Carthage, IL, farmer Jerry Graf taught Connor how to work with people.

For Connor, learning how to deal with clients comes from the Leman quote replayed over the years: “Would you hire yourself?” He amplifies: “At the end of the day, that question makes you look at yourself as a customer, and if you are satisfied that you have done everything that you as a customer would want, then you have provided good service and you have provided good advice.”

Accolades, Goals

In his many decades as a swine practitioner, Connor has accomplished numerous achievements, including:

  • President of the American Association of Swine Practitioners in 1988;

  • Howard Dunne Memorial Lecture presenter in 1992;

  • Swine practitioner of the year in 1995;

  • Allen D. Leman Science in Practice Award in 2004; and

  • First honorary member of the Japanese Association of Swine Veterinarians in 2008.

He has traveled and consulted extensively throughout the world and has given more than 210 presentations.

As lofty as those honors may be, Connor says his goals for the next 10 years trace closely to his basic roots back on the farm. “I really want to focus on being an effective teacher and implementer of production and health strategies. I want to focus on getting actions successfully implemented day after day at the farm level.”

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Moving On

For Connor and the 50-member veterinary and support staff, by next fall the group expects to move into remodeled offices at the site of the former Carthage College in the center of town.

Also in that building complex will be a training center featuring scaled-down production facilities to be used for training, and space for commercial companies to display swine production equipment.

Dormitory-style rooms will house veterinary interns, students and international visitors.

The complex will host the 2010 Carthage Veterinary Service Annual Swine Conference. The 19th Annual Conference is set for Sept. 1, 2009 at Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL. For more information, call the CVS office at (217) 357-2811 or online.