Video monitoring supports employee training and troubleshooting efforts in sow farms.

Bill Beckman suffers from a common plight facing production supervisors and managers throughout the swine industry — the inability to be in more than one place at a time.

As director of sow operations at Professional Swine Management (PSM), Beckman oversees 21 sow farms with nearly 65 managers and 400 employees.

PSM, a division of Carthage (IL) Veterinary Service (CVS), Ltd, uses precise standard operating procedures (SOPs) covering everything from how supplies are disinfected, to the time of day heat checks occur, or how technicians assist sows during farrowing.

Recently, Beckman started relying on video cameras to help monitor whether employees are following the SOPs consistently. “We make sure people are doing their jobs correctly so we won't be blindsided with a compromise in production or herd health later on,” says Beckman of the use of video cameras to evaluate employees' on-the-job performance.

The digital video cameras are set up at various PSM farms in production unit rooms, “dirty” entrance areas, break rooms, pig load-out hallways, truck delivery areas and parking lots. In addition to monitoring performance, video cameras are used to train employees, monitor animal behavior, provide backup monitoring of ventilation systems and bolster security against intruders.

PSM employees are aware of the cameras and understand the company reserves the right to monitor occurrences at all farms. None have objected to the use of the video monitoring system, according to Beckman.

Video surveillance at worksites is becoming increasingly popular. A 2005 study by the American Management Association indicated that 51% of employers surveyed use some type of video surveillance to counter theft, violence or sabotage, compared to only 33% in 2001. About 10% currently use video equipment to monitor employee performance.

Getting the Job Done Right

Although Beckman says many employees perform tasks correctly when tested by a manager, he believes behavior naturally can slip if no one is watching. The cameras are a good adjunct to hands-on evaluation because they detect differences between SOPs and what is actually occurring in the barn.

For example, a video camera is set up at one PSM farm to track employee activity in an isolation nursery where replacement gil ts are raised. “We use the camera to monitor that the staff is correctly walking pens, feeding and treating pigs for illness,” says Beckman. “In that case, we haven't seen any problems.”

Beckman says the cameras are especially helpful in monitoring mundane, yet important duties such as following proper biosecurity measures. “We can look at video recordings for specific times of day and see that people are disinfecting their lunch boxes or taking out the trash and bringing in supplies appropriately. It gives me a sense of security that certain things are being done right,” he says.

PSM sow farm manager Steve Wittig agrees the cameras help keep everyone on their toes. “I think it is good; it makes us accountable in doing things the way we are supposed to, following good workmanship around the animals,” he says.

Training Tool

PSM relies heavily on video for training purposes. “We have numerous videos that employees can watch as part of their training lessons to become certified in various positions,” says Beckman. Each PSM farm has a personal computer dedicated to employee training, giving them access to training CDs and videos and the quizzes used for certification.

Recordings are also used to demonstrate new procedures. “For example, we can show the correct way to feed sows with the INTAK (lactation) feeders,” says Beckman. Employees view the videos during breaks or downtime at the end of a shift.

Joe Connor, DVM, senior partner at CVS, says video monitoring is not only effective in pointing out how well employees are following procedures, but it may also shed light on any flaws in the operation's training program. “It can be used to gain an understanding of what is going on and any deficiencies in training,” he says.

“Video training can create accountability, troubleshoot areas of focus, and allow management to intervene before it snowballs out of control,” he adds.

Other Applications

PSM has used video cameras in farrowing rooms to monitor sow eating behavior with automatic feeders. “We can see how many times the sow gets up and eats and drinks,” Beckman says. “If we notice a specific time frame when sows eat more, we can alter the feeding time to accommodate what the sows are telling us.”

The cameras also help keep PSM farms more secure — inside and out. Wittig says installing a camera in his farm's break room has prevented “sticky fingers” that occasionally led to missing lunches and other petty thefts before the cameras were installed.

Cameras are set up outside facilities to monitor incoming traffic and prevent intruders. These cameras are mounted inside video camera enclosures with fans and heaters to prevent weather-related malfunctions.

There have been some other, unexpected benefits, too. Beckman recalls a time when the ventilation controllers weren't working properly in a barn, and the video recordings helped provide an accurate history of when the fans were switching on and off. The videos helped correct the problem, he says.

What's Required

PSM uses 4XEM brand Internet Protocol (IP)/Network cameras that retail for about $275 each, explains Bill Waller, an information technology (IT) specialist at CVS. Cameras were purchased through CDW, an Internet IT supplier.

Cameras come with PC software required to access, control and record from up to 16 remote cameras.

PSM uses network cable to wire cameras to the training PC in the main office. Cameras are mounted to the ceilings or walls.

Wireless cameras are also available, but Waller says they are more expensive, and he's reluctant to use wireless in a swine facility where metal ceilings and walls could interrupt signals.

If electrical outlets are not located near the desired mounting locations, Waller says Power over Ethernet (POE) adapter kits can be used to draw power from the central PC. The kits cost about $70.

To handle the huge files, Waller dedicates two 500-gigabyte external hard drives for each farm's training PC. “That makes it easier if it has to be transferred offsite,” says Waller, explaining that hard drives can be switched back and forth. When Beckman or other managers or consultants want to view a specific time of day or task, the recording software allows Waller to provide an exact segment.

“The cameras record pretty much in real time and you can set a certain date and time frame for viewing,” says Waller. “You can also make a mini file and burn it to a CD to keep a record.”

Beckman plans to use cameras in more locations within the PSM system to help identify procedural problems early. “Even if I can't get to a farm because of downtime or other reasons, I can still see what's going on there,” he says.