Paul FitzSimmons has reconfigured management guru Peter Drucker's axiom — “You can't manage what you can't measure.”

With the advances in electronic data recording and analysis technologies, FitzSimmons says, “there's virtually nothing you can't measure.” Furthermore, if you measure and record it accurately, today's software will provide valuable information that will allow managers to get answers and make decisions almost immediately, on-site.

FitzSimmons and his associates at Protein Sources Management (PSM) have spent the last four years testing the Digital Angel Corporation's data collection computer hardware and software technologies that drive the PigSmart database.

Armed with Destron radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and electronic tag scanners and Hewlett-Packard iPAQ handheld, touch-screen data collectors, PSM provides production recordkeeping and consultation services.

FitzSimmons' Proving Grounds

The basis of the FitzSimmons family pork production system revolves around three farms:

  • RFS Farms, the original 1,200-sow, farrow-to-finish farm near Good Thunder, MN, begun by family patriarch, Robert FitzSimmons. Seven brothers and two sisters are actively involved in the family's pork production systems.

  • F&H Pork, a 1,600-sow multiplication unit near Cokato, MN, owned with Larry Hollrich. Two maternal lines supply PSM-managed sow units with about 9,000 gilts annually.

  • Flagship Pork, a 3,000-sow, breed-to-wean unit near Good Thunder, MN, supplies pigs to shareholders, including the FitzSimmons, the majority shareholder. This unit served as the early research and development herd for PigSmart.

PSM was formed to provide management-consulting services to nine additional pork production systems in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, with another 30,000-35,000 sows. Digital Angel's windows-based software program, PigSmart, is the linchpin for this consulting service.

FitzSimmons was originally introduced to electronic tracking capabilities when he agreed to participate in a nursery-through-finisher study prompted by pending legislation for country-of-origin labeling (COOL).

“We did lots of small trials, putting the tags in at different ages and in different spots in the ear,” explains PSM's Patti Uhrich.

They soon learned that pigs should be a week old before tagging, and the center of the ear was the best location. And, tag retention was much better with a square back vs. a round back, explains Uhrich.

In all, they tagged and tracked about 40,000 pigs, weighing them individually at birth, at weaning, out of the nursery and at slaughter. In the end, tagged at 7 days of age, the retention rate was 99%, FitzSimmons says.

Thinking ahead, they also tagged sows so they could link pig data back to their dams and litters. Satisfied that the tags were dependable, they turned their attention back to performance tracking in the breeding herd.

FitzSimmons and Blaine Witte, former manager of Flagship Pork and now database manager for PSM, saw great potential in electronic identification of sows. For the next three years, they developed and tested the tracking programs that launched the evolution of the PigSmart program.

Early Challenges, Rewards

During the pig tagging experiment, individual identification enabled them to identify the lowest 10% of market hogs on a semi load and track them back to their dams and cull the genetically poorer sows.

“From there, it turned into a recordkeeping program that was faster and delivered information in real time,” explains Witte. “We realized we could track things that our current recordkeeping didn't — like deads and mortalities or treatments given to individual animals — and be able to tie it back into production, immediately, on the farm,” he says.

“The real value is tracking sow information and doing our recordkeeping off of that,” he continues. “Then, we thought, wouldn't it be nice to be able to track all of the animals coming into the unit — where they're from and their history, like vaccinations and medications — and have instant reports.”

In 2001, F&H Pork began tagging all gilts at 18 days of age and entered their birth date, sire and dam. Crossfostering at F&H Pork is limited to males only, ensuring all gilts can be linked back to their dams.

As the replacement gilts are delivered downstream, a simple scanning of the electronic identification (EID) tag will reveal their history, to date. Roughly 66% of the gilts tagged at F&H Pork are placed in PSM-managed sow herds.

Lifetime Tracking

When a gilt arrives in a gilt pool, her EID tag is scanned, a visual (numbered) ID tag is attached to the EID tag. This ties the visual number and the EID tag's unique 15-digit number together in the computer record.

“I would say, our production system changed when we started tagging all of those gilts,” states FitzSimmons. “There's been one thing after another that we've learned. It's actually helped simplify our production system.”

Now, any activity affecting a female can be recorded. In the FitzSimmons operations, entries include date and time of mating, who inseminated her, semen identification, semen age, semen genetic line, the number of times she was mated and her location.

“We track the age of the semen and the extender used (i.e. five-day, seven-day), so if there's a drop in liveborns, we can check the difference between five-day-old and seven-day-old semen, for example,” says Witte.

They've also lowered semen usage. “We're pretty confident that the guys know when to breed them,” says FitzSimmons. “With the right timing, one service is enough; anything more than that sometimes can do harm. And, trimming back semen usage has also trimmed back our labor.”

“In our system, about 25-30% of sows are single-mated. Some farms average around 1.6 matings/sow,” Witte adds.

Farrowing rate percentages have held in the mid-80s, with the best farms in the low 90s, FitzSimmons says.

In the past, the breeding information was entered using the visual tag number. Now, a wireless paddle reader scans each female's EID tag, ensuring accurate identification. The barn manager, using the touch-screen, handheld data collector, fills in the drop-down mating screen.

“There is no human entry of the animal's number, which probably reduced (data entry) mistakes by 90% or better,” explains Witte. “Where we were 85% correct before, we are now at least 95-98% accurate.”

“If they were 85% accurate before, that means we were using 15% wrong information to make our decisions,” FitzSimmons adds. “And, we learned they were spending 20 hours a week (per farm) just maintaining the paperwork.”

Now, data is downloaded from the data collectors into the farm's computer — usually during employee break periods. With breeding data entered, the next time a sow's EID tag is scanned, the handheld screen will display all current breeding information, her crate location (gestation or farrowing) and her expected farrowing date.

The database has reinforced the value of “expected farrowing date.” With the accurate sow identifications and real time data reporting capabilities, they ran a trial on 100 sows weaned the same day. All were bred the same day with the same semen batch, just one service per sow. When the sows farrowed, they found the gestation lengths spanned from 112 days to 124 days.

Now, any sow that has farrowed has an “average gestation length.” When bred, her gestation length history is used to project her next farrowing date.

Farrowing rooms at Flagship Pork are filled using the predicted farrowing date. “This has helped tighten up farrowings in the rooms without inducing,” says FitzSimmons.

Reducing the time it takes sows in a room to farrow has enabled them to extend average sow lactation lengths by a day and a half. The tighter farrowing groups and a concerted effort to not wean pigs under 18 days of age has paid dividends.

“In the last 4-5 months, as we've extended the lactation periods, we've gained almost a half a pig (per litter),” Witte observes.

“When I look at a farm's open animals, it's usually younger animals or short-lactating animals that cause the problems. The odds just aren't going to be in your favor when you wean under 16 days,” he adds.

Events That Make a Difference

The production staff has flexibility to track most any event to make comparisons or learn the impact of a particular practice. “We just add a field and start tracking it,” explains Witte.

Medication trials or feeding sows differently are examples. “We add the event, then those sows are listed under the event so we can sort them, run a report, and see the impact it had on production,” he adds.

“When we were tagging those first 40,000 pigs, we learned there were a lot of things that were considered the ‘norm’ for the industry that we were better off not doing,” Fitzsimmons says.

For example, tracking mortality rates of crossfostered pigs revealed the transfers accounted for a higher percentage of losses. “Most farms were fostering the lightest pigs. We found out we were much better off fostering off the biggest pigs. That was pretty big,” he adds.

“In the farrowing rooms, it's very easy to run replications and get results quickly,” FitzSimmons says. “You're really looking at very few things, such as whether you've moved preweaning mortality, moved stillborns or number born alive.”

From a day-to-day management standpoint, they can take the day's litter report, check the number of litters farrowed, number of liveborn pigs, number weaned in the last parity for each sow and determine how many pigs should be crossfostered and which sows are most likely to raise them, Witte explains.

“Also, seeing this report everyday, the manager might see stillborns or mummies start to climb. These are things that need to be monitored everyday,” he adds.

Workforce Accceptance

Witte is quick to point out that if their workforce was electronically challenged, “they're not anymore.”

“I'd say 90% of the people adapted to it within the first two weeks. And after 2-3 weeks (of using the program), you probably couldn't take it away from 90% of them,” he adds.

Fran Breiter, current manager of Flagship Pork, agrees, noting it also helps analyze employee performance. Each person logs in with a personal identification number and password. This allows management to track the efficiency or effectiveness of employees doing various tasks. Some may be better at artificial insemination, while others excel at processing litters.

And it's a time saver. Previously, when sow data involved filling out forms, it took 2-3 weeks to get a report back. “We always had so many corrections that we couldn't keep up with them,” Breiter says. “PigSmart eliminates the errors. You enter each sow once, after that you scan her. The number's not going to change.”

Software, Hardware Costs

Digital Angel provides computer programming and database management as part of the cost of the electronic identification tags — $3.75/tag. Using a 3,000-sow model, the initial cost for tags is $11,250. Thereafter, tag costs reflect culling rates. A 50% annual culling rate would cost $5,625. Tags cannot be reused.

Sow cards can be self-printed for about 2¢ each. If sows farrow 2.2 times/year, annual card cost would be 4.4¢ × 3,000 sows = $132. The printed card lists the visual tag number, EID number, her complete history, her farrowing performance in the last three parities, plus a total and an average for those three parities. Daily feed intake is charted on the backside.

The Bluetooth wireless Destron paddle reader costs about $875 and the Hewlett-Packard iPAQ handheld data recorders cost about $450 each. Flagship Pork has two of each. FitzSimmons recommends purchasing a personal computer devoted solely to farm production records, at a cost of about $650.

Payback can be measured in many ways and depends on how extensively the information is used. FitzSimmons says the 20 hours saved per week in data entry alone saves $15,000 annually for the 3,000-sow Flagship Pork operation.

Closing Thoughts

Witte believes the new electronic data recording and software analysis capabilities are “the next rung up the ladder” in on-farm production analysis. “It will move us beyond where we've been the last 5-10 years.”

FitzSimmons sees timeliness as a key advantage. “The problem has always been, when management people ask questions, it could take weeks to get answers. Now, all of the information is there — you just have to run it,” he says. “The same holds true for the guys on the farm. They're asking questions and running their elements and getting the answers they want and need to improve production.

“For PSM (consulting services), it's the platform on which we're building our business. With 99% accuracy on the information, we're going to make much better decisions,” FitzSimmons adds.