In 1976, straight out of veterinary school, Joe Connor, DVM, joined and four years later purchased the mixed veterinary practice at Carthage, IL. In 1990, Connor converted it into a swine-exclusive practice: Carthage Veterinary Service (CVS), Ltd.

In the early days, Connor's largest client averaged just under 300 sows and most producers were farrow-to-finish. Today, but some of the small producers who survived are in the driver's seat because they raise their own corn and have a land base, he says. Clients range up to 100,000 sows.

Veterinary services at CVS evolved from a staff of one or two to today's staff of nine veterinarians, two staff nutritionists and a total office staff of 53.

Expanded staff help oversee Professional Swine Management (PSM), a family-based cooperative that provides weaned pigs for clients' farms from 2,500-6,000-sow pools. Multiplication systems to produce replacement gilts and boar studs to provide semen for breeding were added to provide a complete genetic program for thesed clients.

Consequently, client-owners have been able to take advantage of superior genetics and health to elevate the size and quality of their operations. Many producers receive batches of pigs to finish out every eight weeks or so, Connor notes. There are 250-300 farm families getting pigs who are involved with direct ownership of PSM.

“This was a natural transition for a number of these smaller family farms in the tri-state area we serve (Illinois, Iowa and Missouri), to allow them to increase their throughput by increasing the number of pigs they could finish at their one-site operations, while typically elevating health and capturing split-sex feeding and other technologies if they wanted to,” he explains.

CVS is charged with providing day-to-day management of those sow pools. Out of that production system has evolved a center for individual sow research, Headed by Laura Greiner, which is embedded in one of the sow farms.

Changes in the Practice

Over the years, biosecurity measures have expanded to include coverage of all forms of transportation, service providers, inanimate objects and even the use of filters to screen out pathogens.

Services offered through CVS have expanded into more of the diagnostics and records and environmental analyses, says Connor, and the veterinarian has been transformed into a swine consultant who coordinates other specialists in assisting producers.

Databases have emerged that help to combine and interpret health and production reports, and in the process, allow operations to begin predicting performance rather than just looking back at closeouts. New programs also track mortalities on a more current basis.

Segregated pig production in Illinois, as elsewhere, hasn't worked very well to eliminate health challenges like PRRS (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome) or swine influenza virus (SIV).

PRRS can be eliminated on individual farms, but it has returned all too often for many producers. “The real unpredictability is area spread and high pig density. In south central Illinois, we are pretty fortunate that we've got a lot of sows, but we've got good separation from finishing to sows and some natural barriers to locate facilities with some protection,” says Connor.

All in all, health progress has been achieved in the CVS coverage area, Connor says. With use of vaccines to control porcine circovirus Type 2 and other co-infections, it is not unusual to see 97% marketability of pigs in the top 10% of closeout records.

That compares with about 92% marketability of pigs in the top tier of production records a few years ago.

Weaning age and weaning weight correlate well to finishing profitability, says Connor. Clients are bringing up the average and the minimum weaning age. “Most farms we work with are trying to stabilize weaning age as well (narrow the age spread).” Currently at 18-20 days, Connor says clients are zeroing in on a 21-day-average, and he expects that 23 days will be the next plateau.

Expanding Training Tools

At CVS, the technical support staff started out by simply looking at ways to educate and train farm staff, Connor recalls. Differences in low and high productivity are due to stockmanship and access to key information.

With that knowledge, support staff began development of key technical information across farm staffs and managers. Training modules feature web-based, educational programs including quizzes that work quite well for new-hire programs and include employee incentives, says Connor.

“A lot of technicians who supervise staffs on farms are not inherently good teachers, so this effort supplants that somewhat,” he says.

Recently developed educational CDs include farm safety and biosecurity. Today's production staffs need to know the proper precautions and steps to take in both areas, and why these issues are so critical to the farm's success, he emphasizes.

Moving to New Location

Starting sometime this fall, CVS and support staff will begin the move to renovated facilities at the site of the old Carthage College (See: “Carthage Group Expands Outreach Services,” page 34, Aug. 15, 2007 issue of National Hog Farmer) in the center of Carthage, IL.

The facilities will serve as an educational center for hog production, featuring scaled-down models of hog barns and equipment.

There will be no live animals in the training facilities, but production basics will be covered, including some new strategies on electronic sow feeding, biosecurity, the use of computerized monitoring equipment and detailed information on day-to-day facility management.

“We believe there is going to be continued, significant turnover at the farms, and our preparation for that is to use this center to develop and educate people as quickly as possible into becoming skilled, productive stock people,” Connor stresses.

Becoming Better Prepared

With today's economic downturn, clients are continually reviewing how they manage costs to optimize returns.

That amounts to looking at 50-cent-a-pig and dollar-a-pig strategies that producers forgot about because profitability was so good the last few years.

“We are talking to producers on a weekly basis about how to optimize slaughter weights,” he says.

Mandates have been issued to clients to control costs. A good example is the removal of feed antibiotics in grow-finish diets and reliance instead on preventative vaccines.