It's assumed that if you work at the Swine Vet Center (SVC) in St. Peter, MN, you'd better be prepared to work extra hard.

That assumption brings a quick grin from SVC co-founder and co-owner Tim Loula, (pronounced Low-la), who says it provides a clear understanding of how the clinic operates.

“The hours are long and the commitment is great, but that has been part of the ‘formula’ for what has made Swine Vet Center successful,” the well-known Minnesotan explains.

“That reputation is kind of our model — we are going to work hard for the client and try to help them be profitable and grow,” Loula says.

Growing up in nearby Northfield, MN, that commitment stems from an enduring passion for pigs.

If fellow veterinarians don't share that passion, they probably won't last at SVC, but Loula says he never worries about the work getting done by the nine staff veterinarians in their southern Minnesota clinic. Over the years, there has been very little staff turnover.

Rewards

For Loula, those 30-plus years of hard work in veterinary practice have been rewarding:

  • Received the American Association of Swine Veterinarians' (AASV) “Swine Practitioner of the Year” award in 1990;

  • Served as AASV president in 1992-93;

  • Completed the University of Illinois Executive Veterinary Program in 1995; and

  • Other Mentors

    Awarded the Allen D. Leman Science in Practice Award in 2001.

Loula also gives credit for his success to his partners and associate veterinarians at the Swine Vet Center, and especially to his wife, partner and mentor of 30 years, Ruth Loula, DVM.

The Loulas met while fellow classmates in veterinary school at the University of Minnesota, and married in their senior year. She has helped him and other SVC staffers become better communicators, editing presentations and providing graphic illustrations, while also serving as controller and office manager for SVC.

Involvement in the AASV and the International Pig Veterinary Society has provided group mentoring to Loula that has brought about “friendly competition” in the industry. Loula has done swine consulting work in 30 states and 28 foreign countries, representing over 400,000 sows.

There have been many mentors, in Loula's estimation. Roger Green, DVM of the Faribault (MN) Vet Clinic, who helped train Loula while he was an undergraduate; Bob Martens, DVM, during Loula's first years in practice at the Nicollet (MN) Vet Clinic; and Al Leman, DVM, while Loula was in college for his doctorate of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota.

“Dr. Leman had a unique way of challenging me to greater achievement. He had peer groups that kept me connected with the best pig veterinarians in the Midwest,” Loula says.

In those days, Loula recalls fondly, Leman led the University of Minnesota to sponsor winter swine day meetings in the heart of the state's hogbelt, in Worthington, Fairmont and neighboring towns. Hundreds of producers thirsty for knowledge about hog production would pack those seminars.

Leman also instilled much good advice into the budding veterinarian. “He always said to listen to the people at the ‘pig level’ on the farm. Before he left a sow farm, he would always make a point of touching base with these people. If you want to find out about a farm, you need to talk to more than the owner or supervisor — those aren't the people doing the work. Talk to the workers, and if you can convince them how to raise pigs, then you are more likely to get the change you are looking for,” Loula explains.

Growing Up Together

“You can be a great communicator, but if you're not talking to the people doing the work, you won't get the message to the right people,” Leman told Loula.

Learning is best done incrementally, according to the Minnesota veterinarian. “We are big on that — little wins,” he stresses. “For instance, if sow death loss is at 10%, we will break that down to how many sows per week and per room can die in order to reach a new goal, and then take the same approach in other areas, such as preweaning mortality,” he says.

Using records to keep score daily and weekly provides ways to steadily improve. It also provides a means of motivation as workers make incremental improvements and earn praise for the small advances they are making, he notes. Daily barn charts and weekly records are a big improvement over recordkeeping systems of 20-30 years ago.

Loula's goal is to keep staff engaged and make working in the hog barn fun, interesting and rewarding.

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Growing Up Together

SVC's reputation as a staff that works hard has paid off over time, Loula believes. The clinic has been very fortunate to have a very stable clientele that has grown larger over the years.

Plus, Loula feels lucky that the bulk of their Minnesota/Iowa clients are simply exceptional producers to start with. “I was very lucky to begin practice in what turned out to be a great pig area,” he asserts. In fact, some of the top 40 U.S. pork producers live within 50 miles of his home practice area.

“These clients were young, intelligent, knowledgeable, aggressive, great learners, had a willingness to learn, wanted to grow and wanted to be the best,” Loula observes. “Honestly, we learned together, taught each other and grew and expanded together.

“That is why I tell people that we (SVC) kind of grew up together with these producers — we did the first pseudorabies eradications with them, the first swine dysentery and atrophic rhinitis eradications. When you think about these producers, they have been through a lot,” Loula stresses.

Those producers were industry leaders almost from the start. Loula says part of the success of SVC has stemmed from their leadership in the areas of management concepts and particularly disease eradication programs. “I think we have become known for either being the leader or being early adapters of most new technologies,” he says.

SVC was an early pioneer in moving pork production clients to improved genetics, artificial insemination, multi-site production systems and disease eradication, he adds.

In turn, SVC's producer-clients have been unique in that they have been open to help from SVC in many areas over the years, seeking ways to improve production efficiencies.

Loula says he has always prided himself, and urged SVC staff as well, to push clients to excellence. “Our veterinary staff is committed to making sure that our clients make good decisions, and we challenge them if they are about to make poor decisions. It's been part of the relationship that we have built with them over the years. They've come to expect that we'll challenge them if we feel that something they are proposing is not the right thing,” he says.

Learning through Education

Client training dates back to when Loula began his swine practice career.

Loula started a “Breakfast Club” with 7-8 producers that met once a month. These were the “big players” in Minnesota pork production.

“We would sit around and talk pigs, and after breakfast we would sometimes go out to see someone's new barn we had talked about or look at someone's new genetics. I bragged about that small group to others because they produced about 30,000 market hogs annually. Now that group has probably tripled that number weekly!” Loula reports.

In 1993, Loula hosted a half dozen producers on a trip to Europe to study artificial insemination (AI). Just three years later, all of these producers had adapted AI on their farms.

Big client meetings continued over the years, but in the last decade these have been downsized to small group sessions for more one-on-one discussions.

Loula says the current producer client list is an interesting mix. There are large family operations as well as 100- to 200-sow, traditional family farms.

“We don't treat them any differently regardless of their size. We feel they have to adapt the same technology — modern buildings, AI, modern genetics, etc., to make money.

“So if you go to our smaller farms, the majority of those would look just like the bigger farms, except for their size,” Loula points out.

Successes, Challenges

Loula ticks off the successes his clinic has had over the years in eradicating major swine pathogens — pseudorabies, mange, atrophic rhinitis, Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia and Transmissible gastroenteritis — plus big gains in controlling porcine circovirus.

Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) has been eradicated from many farms in Loula's practice, but just like other areas of the country, a number of these hog units became reinfected.

The catch was the pork industry lacked a real vision as to the means of preventing the spread of this devastating virus, he says.

“Ten years ago, PRRS was spreading across Iowa and southern Minnesota, and we thought it was lateral aerosol spread of the virus. But we first had to improve biosecurity to eliminate boots, equipment and people factors,” he explains.

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With aerosol transmission now known to be the major cause of PRRS spread, SVC veterinarians Darwin Reicks and Jeff Feder have become leaders and early adapters of air filtration. They have the highest number of filtered boar studs, sow farms and finishers in North America today.

Paul Yeske, DVM, who joined SVC in 1985, has been very involved in the PRRS risk assessment program that evaluates various parameters for the likelihood of a PRRS infection.

With the cost of air filtration at $150-$250/sow — similar to the cost of one PRRS break — air filtration is looking more and more like a good investment, Loula emphasizes.

Loula and SVC have constructed two, state-of-the-art, 2,300-head, wean-to-finish research facilities where leading edge production research is conducted. This has helped some of SVC's clients to adopt not only new technology, but also to fine-tune nutrition and profitable production practices.

Industry Threats

In Loula's view, one of the major challenges to the future of U.S. pork production is the growing encroachment of animal welfare activism, fed by bad publicity, such as the recent HBO film highlighting abuse on an Ohio sow farm.

“We are not doing enough to get our message out. In the pig business, it seems like only one side of the story is told. We need to be better salespersons and marketers of how we raise quality pork,” he says

Media often portray the pork industry in a negative light. He recalls back in 1990 when he was the president of the AASV. The TV show “60 Minutes” planned an exposé on problems with antibiotics. That program was quickly cancelled, however, when investigators for the news program failed to turn up any abuses at hog farms or feedmills.

On the plus side, programs such as the National Pork Board's Operation Main Street are reaching millions of people in the Heartland, but there are millions more on the coasts who never hear the positive story of pork production practiced by the majority of producers, Loula points out.

What's needed is a spokesperson who will relay the positive message about agriculture and meat production, he urges.

For Loula, responsible pork production is a way of life. SVC clients follow humane standards of raising hogs.

He says another future challenge for the U.S. pork industry is the trend away from sow gestation stalls, set to be banned in Europe in 2013. A handful of states have taken action to ban stalls in the next few years, with similar efforts being proposed in Illinois and Ohio. Castration without anesthesia is another looming welfare issue.

Loula still enjoys the everyday challenges of helping his clients to be “the best.” He feels his success has always been linked to the success of his clients.