Reproductive physiologist is equal parts researcher and educator.
In his senior year of high school, Bill Flowers’ parents gave him money to buy a class ring. He spent the money on a pair of bred gilts — a choice that may have sealed his destiny to spend his life’s work in the swine industry.
Born near the East Coast town of New Bern, NC, Flowers spent his childhood and early college career in Blacksburg, VA, where his father served as the associate dean of Extension at Virginia Tech. The product of parents who spent their childhood in the Great Depression, Flowers remembers, “We were trained to be resourceful, sometimes making do with less than it took to do the job, and that has helped shape my approach to research and academia throughout the years.”
The elder Flowers was also in charge of adult education and on-campus activities in the heydays of Extension, the ’60s and ’70s, when university research was disseminated, especially in agricultural programs.
Growing up, Flowers spent considerable time on the farms of aunts and uncles, worked with 4-H and FFA livestock projects, which steered him toward a career in veterinary medicine or farming. His cousins had first dibs on farming, and he counts the decision to go to graduate school instead of veterinary school as one of three best decisions he’s made. The first was, “marrying the right person,” (his wife, Lynn) and the second, “to have children,” a son, A.J.
“My Dad told me the next best thing you can do (if you can’t farm) is learn as much about something as you can that will allow you to work with farmers,” Flowers remembers.
Taking the counsel to heart, he enrolled in the animal science curriculum at Virginia Tech. As part of his coursework, he collected semen from a boar, checked its viability under a microscope, and artificially inseminated a sow. “That was a ‘first’ for me, when I began thinking about what I wanted to do as a career,” he remembers. “I knew I wanted to do something with animals. Then, when I had the opportunity to serve as a teacher’s assistant, it got me thinking about other things I could do.”
When he graduated from Virginia Tech in 1982, Flowers had opportunities to go to graduate school, which he took very seriously. “I wanted to find a place where I could learn more about animals, and I also wanted a program where the basic research could be applied by producers. The program at the University of Missouri did those things better than most,” he recollects.
Flowers had the good fortune to work with Billy Day, a reproductive physiologist who was recognized worldwide for work in estrus synchronization and artificial insemination in swine. “Here was a guy I could talk to about what it takes for a sperm to fertilize an egg, then actually go out into the industry and do some groundbreaking work on some things that have only been approved recently, such as estrus synchronization and induced farrowing. Those are the products that have led to the control of reproduction, and Dr. Day was responsible for all of them,” he says.
In addition to the master’s degree (1984) and a doctorate degree (1987) from the University of Missouri, Flowers says his personal experiences added another dimension to his education. “I learned the basics about how to do research from Dr. Day, and then learned a lot about how to interact with people and try new things from John and Janet Massey. It was a great experience,” he says. Flowers lived with the Masseys while at Missouri. John Massey was the state’s Extension beef specialist and Extension leader.
Education vs. Research
Throughout his college years, Flowers’ knowledge and experience nudged him toward both education and research. He joined the faculty at North Carolina State University in 1987, with an 80% Extension and 20% research appointment, when the state’s swine industry was on fast forward.
Today, he splits his time more evenly between research and teaching, but when asked which he prefers, he is likely to bounce back and forth between the two, never really choosing, but getting equally excited about both.
His research focus includes follicular development, fertilization, semen physiology, artificial insemination and breeding herd management.
“I don’t know that I can separate my research from my teaching, because my students are part of my research programs,” he explains. “When we do on-farm studies, we are actually educating the staff, and they gain some information as well. You can be a researcher who teaches, or you can be an educator who uses research in your teaching. I prefer the latter. If we come up with something for the swine industry, it’s also my role to educate people about how it will work in different situations. I have the perfect job. I love working with students and I love working with the swine industry,” he reinforces.
Teaching responsibilities include introduction to animal science, swine production and management, and advanced swine reproduction management. He also serves as advisor to over 70 undergraduate and a few graduate students.
“I tell students when they come to college, you can reinvent yourself. You may have been ‘this person’ in high school, but you can be somebody entirely different in college because nobody really knows you,” he says.
He takes the philosophy to his teaching as well. “I have to reestablish my reputation as an instructor and as an educator with each new class because they don’t care whether I’ve done this or that,” he explains. “And, with the Introduction to Animal Science course, which is at 8 a.m., I am the first instructor that 170 freshmen students will have at NC State.”
The introductory course also affords him the opportunity to influence the new students’ attitudes toward animal agriculture. Nearly all are “urban or rural, non-farm” students, he notes. They are very excited about the opportunity to go to the 150-sow university farm to see the actual birth process — many for the first time.
“It’s a very teachable moment when I tell them why we do certain things, why the sows are kept in farrowing crates. I make no bones about it — the sow is in the crate because it makes it a lot easier for us to take care of the baby pigs. They get to see the pigs that would have died without that care. They may get to see the sow that tries to savage her pigs. They get to see the runts,” he explains.
The university farm houses sows in both pens and stalls. Those grouped in pens usually have some subordinate sows that get pretty beat up. “I ask the students: ‘Is that the appropriate environment for a sow to spend her pregnancy?’” he continues.
Citing the basic principles used in European animal welfare programs, which includes freedom from fear, hunger, mistreatment and the freedom to express their normal behavior, he explains that normal behavior for pigs is to establish a pecking order.
“It’s their normal behavior, but when they do that, there are some pigs that are going to be picked on by others throughout their lives,” he says. “As a human being, my interpretation is that is not a good situation. If sows express their normal behavior, some sows in that pen will be exposed to some things that you’ve said they shouldn’t be — hunger, fear, mistreatment. You could remove the boss sow, but then you are not allowing them to express their normal behavior. Who makes the decision about which behaviors or which freedoms are more important? It’s a classic example of how difficult some of those decisions can be,” he explains.
“I’ve always maintained that our job is not to influence policy. Our job is to ask the question, gather the information needed to address the question to the best of our ability, and then present that information to the people who are making the decisions in an unbiased way. Then, hopefully, they will make a good decision,” he emphasizes.
“One of the really neat things about teaching is you get to see students blossom when they are put in a position to make decisions. It’s the same with introducing new technology to pork producers. They might fumble around with it for a while, but then they figure out a way to put it into the system,” he explains.
“Education is a process. The same is true with research. There are definite end points, but it’s a process, not a goal. One of the most valuable lessons I try to impress upon my students is that sometimes when you do research, you can’t fully interpret the results and know how it will fit into the system until later,” he professes.
“I truly believe there is a lot of serendipity as to when some things get adopted into the industry. There is a phase where something is discovered — that’s the basic research. There is a phase where something can work in a production setting; then, there is the phase where there has to be some type of added advantage for producers to use the new technology.”
As an example, he points to the adoption of artificial insemination (AI) in the swine industry. The basic techniques were discovered and refined in the ’60s and ’70s. But when it was tried on a large scale in a commercial setting, producers got mixed results.
Facing the challenge, Flowers approached a very progressive producer in North Carolina, Hans Alhusen, where different combinations of matings were tested. They began by using natural service for the first mating, followed by one or two artificial inseminations. “This allowed us to evaluate different skills, and we were able to gradually replace the boar with an AI mating. If the performance is the same, you know you are okay. But if the pregnancy rate drops, you know it’s a result of poor heat detection. That was the piece needed by a lot of people to help them ease into AI and be able to take away the boars they had used for so many years,” he relates.
Later, semen extenders improved, and packers switched from buying hogs on a live-weight basis to buying them on a carcass merit buying program. That accelerated AI use because producers wanted to use the superior sires.
Another of Flowers’ favorite scenarios in the swine management class is a problem-solving exercise where students must use the farm’s records to analyze the merits of induced farrowing.
“The rule of thumb is you induce farrowing two days before the average gestation length of the sow herd. If the normal gestation length is 117 days, then you would want to induce at 115 or 114 days. Or, if you know an individual sow’s average gestation length is 114 days, you can induce at 112 or 111 days. In our sow farm records, the average gestation length is written on the backside of the sow’s card.
“So, what happens in a herd after 3-4 years of inducing sows?” he asks. “Say the average gestation length starts out at 117 days. If you induce them at 115 days, it knocks a day off the average, so you’re now at 116 days. So then you start inducing them at 114 days (two days before the average), which eventually changes the average gestation length to 115 days. Where do you stop? You can see how the practice will change average gestation length over time.
“When we look at farms that do not induce sows, the average gestation lengths have actually gotten longer,” he explains. “We used to think 114 and 116 days was a long gestation. Now, some herds average 116 days, with some sows going to 117 or 118 days. You have to keep these things in context.
“Ask yourself why you use a technology and what the long-term implications could be. That should dictate how you use it,” he urges. “With induced farrowing, you use it so you can have people present when the sows farrow. That’s the only reason to use it. If your reason is to avoid weekend farrowings, then you have to ask whether people are really there when most of the sows are farrowing. Some farms are, but most are not.”
Frozen boar semen is another reproduction-based technology that could find its way into large production systems. “Progress is being made with frozen semen, but there’s still a lot of variation. If we could get the same fertility results as we do with fresh semen, or as good as they do with cattle, I can see it would be a lot easier to go to a liquid nitrogen tank and pull out what you need for the day’s inseminations,” he notes.
If there was a vital need or an economic incentive to use frozen semen, more resources would be put into it, he assures. For example, if the industry decided it needs a longer window of opportunity to test for a disease, such as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), semen could be frozen and held until it was cleared. “If the tests could be run over a 30-day period of time vs. a 48-hour window, you could remove that factor from the equation,” he explains.
“Nobody can invent all of the pieces of the puzzle that ensures a technology will be adopted by an industry,” he explains. “Sometimes you have to be very patient and wait for the opportunity. For a technology to be adopted on a large-scale basis, there has got to be either a short- or long-term economic incentive. Then you have to be prepared to work through the shortfalls to get it in place and have it work,” he says.
Keys to a $5 Million Car
“When I think about the things that I really like about my job, it’s 1) I get to work with students, and 2) I get to work with pork producers. All of the other things are just ancillary,” Flowers reflects.
“In education, you try to do things that help people get better and put them in positions where they can do the things they want to do in life. It’s true whether you work with students or producers. The thing that I appreciate the most about the people in North Carolina and elsewhere in the swine industry is their willingness to let us come in and try things on their farms. I tell my students, think about the farms this way — here’s a $5 million car and they are going to let us test drive it for six months,” he says.
“I think I was in the right place at the right time; we had some ideas about what we wanted to do and the industry let us on their farms to collect some data, but they were the ones that really made it work.
“There are obvious reasons why we have moved to certain production systems and reasons why we might want to change some of them. The people in the swine industry are talented and savvy enough to figure out the best systems to raise pork in. They will adapt. They always have,” Flowers reassures.