In the beginning, Jim Allison was a veterinarian. Fresh out of college in the 1950s, he dove enthusiastically into his veterinary practice of treating sick pigs. Soon, the bloom wore off.
"I didn't like veterinary medicine," he recalls. "It was salvaging the perishable. We were just putting out fires."
The Kansas veterinarian discovered, instead, that offering well-needed counsel was much more rewarding, especially when the advice was taken and implemented with success.
What grew from this discovery was one of the first swine consulting practices in the country. Gradually, Allison turned his veterinary practice into a full-time consulting business, which he maintains today.
Allison was virtually alone in his business until the 1970s when swine consulting caught on and has grown to a major profession today.
Allison must be one of the busiest consultants, travelling 325 days a year from his Corsicana, TX, office. He won't call this job work, however, because it is his love.
"My ambition from the beginning is to be able to assist people and help them become profitable in their venture," he relates. "And that's always been the driving thing behind what I do. I know that is not very modern, but that's what made me enjoy this, seeing people grow and prosper."
Instead of just a veterinarian, he also takes on the role of a teacher. He says education is really his main business with his 50 full-time clients around the U.S. After visiting the hog units and poring over their PigCHAMP records, Allison sits down with the clients and staff to help them plug the holes in their operation. This educational process takes time, and Allison relishes it. Often, he pulls in other advisors for financial, genetic or engineering help.
Allison's education must work. He has had one client on his roster since 1953 and many others for 20-30 years. Most are independent producers who Allison has helped stay viable through some tough hog markets.
In his extensive travels, Allison has a unique window on the hog industry. What does he see? Here are a few of his insights:
Biggest Limiting Factor "Besides environmental issues, I would say the availability of qualified people is the biggest limiting factor," Allison says. "The personnel thing has been a problem from the beginning. It doesn't matter if I'm in Florida or Minnesota, I hear the same thing. Producers have problems finding qualified people.
"I don't know if there is a solution," he adds. "It's a growing industry. (My clients) are reaching out and bringing in people from the local community who know nothing about pigs. Incidentally, a lot of these people are becoming good hog production people."
Some hog operations expand to keep their good employees. "If the hog farms are at 1,200-1,400 sows and are bringing in good people, they have to grow to keep them," Allison says. "You see these units growing all the time.
"In my opinion, that's why you see the mega farms," he speculates. "They face the same thing. They attract these young people from all over the country. They want to keep the good employees, and to do that, you have to keep growing your business. It's just like increasing sales."
Allison's clients have had to learn good employee management. "They can't work them from sunup to sundown," he says. "And these employees have to be well compensated. There is no such thing as cheap labor in efficient pork production."
He sees great opportunities ahead for young people entering the hog industry.
Change Allison has had to help his clients work with change in the fast-growing hog business. Changes in handling personnel, handling money, and business partners have all occurred.
Often, a producer's attitude gets in the way of responding to change. "When the subject of change comes up, they hesitate and say, 'Why should we change? We're doing all right now,'" he relates.
"Changes are occurring around us all the time. We have to look at change as opportunity and not with fear. I have seen in producers a lot of fear as they read what's going on with the big farms, etc."
Networks, for example, represent one big change for his clients with a silver lining. He works with three networks and finds them good for the producers.
Family Farm Future "I feel there is definitely a place for the family farm and that is not a new thought," Allison says. "I have not witnessed anything on the mega-farm level that makes me think otherwise."
Allison believes some of the very large hog operations will decentralize in the future. "We will see them lease sow and pig units to some of their better qualified people in the units," he says. "These people will become independents. Some of that is going on now and I think it will pick up.
"What some corporations are beginning to find out, and the same thing the family farm has found out, is that there is a need to use an independent (consultant) to give them a different critical viewpoint."
For a family farm to survive, it must keep up with accepted business practices and be capable of changing with technology, Allison adds. "But as long as they produce a good quality product efficiently and at a volume required to sustain their level of living, then I think you will see family farms for many more years."
Rebuilding Ahead "The whole infrastructure in the Midwest is going to have to be rebuilt," Allison states. "I've said that for 10 years. In my opinion, a lot of buildings being built are not based upon the good environment we have to have for these pigs.
"The buildings don't have to be fancy, they just have to meet the basic ventilation requirements." Allison wants manure removed from buildings, too. He believes pits under buildings hinder a good environment.
And good buildings must be managed correctly. Teaching people how to manage ventilation can be a slow, arduous process, Allison admits.
Learning the limitations of ventilation can be difficult for him, too. For many years, Allison struggled to minimize a seasonal breeding slump through ventilation.
"Four years ago, a seasonal slump hit 98% of my clients from the East Coast through the Midwest and Southwest," he says. "It got my attention. After many hours of studying my database, I finally figured it out. There is a seasonal slump in breeding animals that is normal and can't be prevented through environment. We kept thinking it was the grain, or the vacations people were taking, and all these things."
Now he plugs in a seasonal fallout. He did find purebred stock is affected more severely. Crossbreds are less affected and three-way cross animals even less. But the seasonal slump will still hit them all.
The lean, low-backfat animal is here to stay. But the trend for extreme leanness has tapered off, Allison says. Reproductive problems were developing with the extreme animals.
"I think there will always be a need for purebred animals," he says. "We're going to have to maximize heterosis. Those breed people who control that and don't have the foresight to engineer their breed will then fall by the wayside.
"There's going to be room for the private seedstock supplier. They will grow and become networks, as they are already doing."
Nearly all of Allison's clients generate their own genetics with help from a genetic consultant.
"One basic philosophy I have is I feel a producer should control everything that they possibly can," he says. "They don't have to be experts at it, but should know enough about it that they can sift through the information and determine if it is right or wrong."
Mental Discipline "One thing I've seen for many years is we have lacked mental discipline," Allison says. "This is the ability to focus and concentrate on learning the methods of modern swine production. We're living in a society today with lots of people and we have to network and communicate with each other," he continues. "Yet there are very few people who are willing to think on their own.
"After going over production records, lots of young men and women with college degrees will say, 'Gosh, this is hard work.' I don't laugh because it is hard work. I've done it for all these years and I'm not ashamed to say I'm exhausted every evening when I go back to that motel."
He says producers must do this mental exercise of learning and challenging the conventional. This will keep a farm on track. Instead, many people in hog organizations build "security blankets" to protect themselves and their positions.
Allison sees his role as rocking the boat in these hog operations where he sees change is necessary to improve and build for future success.
Sepcialization Of Products Allison believes hog farms will soon produce pork designed for a specific product or market. He has some clients producing hogs for market niches.