Just four years out of veterinary school, Sarah Probst Miller, DVM — the daughter of a pork producer and a teacher — has become an authority in swine farm employee education and training.

Employee training and its impact are often underestimated, says Probst Miller. “The owner or top manager knows training needs to be done, but it never becomes part of the system routine,” says the associate with Carthage (IL) Veterinary Service, Ltd. (CVS). “Or, the owner-manager expects to get in there with one training session, and if they don't see an impact right away, they think it doesn't work.”

Hands-on Teaching

Illinois pork producer Art Lehmann, Strawn, IL, says performance at the 1,500-sow farrowing unit at his home farm once suffered because employees didn't follow consistent operating procedures. PigChamp data from the farm indicated preweaning mortality hovered around 15-17% (Figure 1).

“Our preweaning mortality had been too high for too long, and we weren't making any progress at getting it down,” says Lehmann.

In December 2003, Lehmann turned to Probst Miller, based in Fisher, IL, to conduct training sessions a half day per month with the farm's five employees.

“My management role doesn't allow me to be out in that sow unit every day,” says Lehmann, who also operates four other Lehmann Bros. sow farms. The farm's day-to-day manager was also stretched thin — overseeing multiple finishing sites and a large feedmill.

Monitoring Sows at Farrowing

Probst Miller instructed the farm's farrowing team to intensively monitor each sow during active farrowing, including jotting down key information at least every 30 minutes.

“You have to get a feel for the (birthing) interval because that's the signal for when there is a problem,” says Probst Miller.

She also suggested turning off overhead lights to help keep sows calm during farrowing. And, she recommended split-suckling piglets by moving batches of four to five new, wet piglets into warming boxes (large Rubbermaid bins placed under heat lamps).

The methods Probst Miller taught were based on a combination of research findings and protocols developed at farms managed by CVS' Professional Swine Management division.

Craig Davis first thought the recommendations would be too time-consuming. A graduate of a junior college agricultural production program, Davis is responsible for sows in active labor or with litters younger than 3 days old — about 40 sows on any given work day. But Davis was quickly sold on Probst Miller's recommendations once he applied them for one simple reason: “You can save pigs.” The number of stillborns decreased immediately once they started observing sows more intensely, he explains.

“Bump” Fostering Initiated

Probst Miller also introduced the “bump” fostering concept for pigs three days and older. She instructed workers to wean the most robust litter in the oldest farrowing group (15-21 days of age at Lehmann's) to free up a nurse sow. Next, the most robust litter from the next age group (7 to 14 days of age) is bumped to the waiting nurse sow in the older group. That frees up a nurse sow in the middle group for a robust litter from the youngest group (3 to 6 days of age). The last bump frees up a sow for the fallout pigs from the 3 to 6-day old age group.

If there are more fallout pigs than one sow can feed, more weaning is necessary.

“I thought she was crazy because it meant moving several pigs for one fallout,” says Davis' co-worker, Jeremy Green.

Green, with experience in a farrow-to-finish operation, joined the Lehmann sow farm in late June 2004. He thought randomly swapping fallouts for thriving pigs was more efficient. But when preweaning mortality didn't drop below 15% for several months, he eventually bought into the bump fostering method.

Probst Miller says bump fostering is advantageous over continuous fostering because it keeps litters intact and puts more pigs and more pounds of pork out the door. There's less disruption to piglets that often favor a certain teat location, and it also prevents the spread of disease. Research has shown that continuous fostering results in uniform groups of smaller pigs.

The Turnaround

There were a couple of setbacks at the farm that likely clouded the impact of training early on.

First, a PRRS problem, detected by Probst Miller on a pretraining health check, flared up from January to March 2004. Then, in June 2004, a key team member was called up for active military duty. Lehmann says it took Probst Miller's persistence to motivate the employees and turn things around.

“She held them accountable, even making a few surprise visits to see if they were following procedures,” he explains. “These are not new ideas, but it is a matter of how rigidly you apply them every day, to 100% of the litters.”

Now, Davis and Green work their rooms like short order cooks, challenging themselves with detailed wall charts and noting progress and projected performance. They're also quick to spot problems. “I've gotten much better at recognizing fallouts before they become emaciated,” says Green.

Last November, preweaning mortality dropped to 12% for four weeks in a row, then by early 2005 it dropped to just above 11%. The team is now shooting for single digits.

“We are not yet where we want to be, but we've made a lot of progress,” notes Lehmann.

Raising the Breeding Bar

Probst Miller is also helping the farm's breeding team fine-tune many of its procedures. The farrowing rate has risen 5% to 10%, depending on the season. Pigs weaned/mated female rose from 19.8 in December 2003 to 24.6 in May 2005.

Lehmann sees a direct correlation between the training and the improved performance and calculates the extra 4.8 weaned pigs will earn the farm $216,000 more income annually (4.8 × 1,500 sows × $30 per piglet) if the increased performance persists for at least one year. Since there are few added costs beyond Probst Miller's hourly consultation fees, “these are relatively cheap pigs,” says Lehmann, who has expanded the training across his other sow farms.

A “Virtual” Teacher

As an alternative to on-farm teaching, Probst Miller and her CVS colleagues have developed a series of training CDs called the Training Toolboxes, including a Breeding Toolbox and Farrowing Toolbox (See sidebar.)

Probst Miller narrates the lessons, walking through the same information that she would if she were in the barn instructing workers. In addition to her verbal instructions, there are diagrams, digital photos, video, animation and written descriptions to help workers learn. There are also quizzes to measure what they learn and what areas need more work.

Hord Livestock, Inc., in Bucyrus, OH, uses the toolboxes to enhance training for the 30 employees in its 8,500-sow operation. New employees are paired with mentors (senior employees or unit managers), to go through each Farrowing Toolbox lesson. The senior employee answers questions, supplements the lessons with training in the barn and points out any specialized procedures.

Hord employees are studying the Breeding Toolbox lessons as a group at the end of their lunch breaks. Each computer lesson takes 10-15 minutes to complete.

“The CDs give us value in helping us explain why we do things,” says Matt Davis, Hord's production manager. He says the CDs do a better job of explaining the rationale for procedures such as sleeving for assisting sows at farrowing or walking boars near sows to improve heat detection.

Davis says he has noticed that new employees are handling responsibilities, such as weekend coverage, sooner than they did when training involved only hands-on demonstrations in the barn.

But, Davis warns, “You can't just throw the CDs out on the table and say, ‘here.’” Someone must make sure the employee gets through the lessons.

Probst Miller agrees: “Someone has to be driving the training and asking on a daily and weekly basis, ‘Is this training getting done and are we implementing the tools?’ People will keep doing what is familiar unless you hold them accountable.”

Training Toolboxes Available

Two Training Toolboxes developed by Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd., provide a series of computer-based lessons that can be used for individual or group instruction. The Farrowing Toolbox contains four CDs with 32 lessons in the following topics:

  • Farrowing Preparation
  • The First Few Hours
  • Pigs During Lactation
  • Sows During Lactation

The Breeding Toolbox features five CDs and 30 lessons in the following areas:

  • Artificial Insemination Technique

  • Maintaining Good Condition, Environment and Health

  • Gilt Development

  • Managing the Department

  • Euthanization with the Captive Bolt Gun.

Each toolbox is sold separately by Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd., with the cost based on the number of sows per farm. The base price is $1/sow for the first 2,500 sows (minimum order is $1,000), with significant discounts for larger units. Both series are available in booklet form, containing all the audio content, for $150/set. The toolboxes are available in English and Spanish. For more information, visit www.hogvet.com/training or call Carthage Veterinary Service at 217-357-2811, ext. 605.