From the north hills of England to the prairies of Illinois, Michael Ellis journeyed far before he finally found his true niche. He turned it into a 20-year career conducting swine research and cultivating more than 40 graduate students destined to work in today’s increasingly sophisticated swine industry.
Ellis hails from the county of Northumberland in northeast England, an “undulating” countryside, as he calls it, filled with hills and valleys, dotted with cattle and sheep farms near the ocean and a land in love with soccer.
When he was born in the 1940s, it was also a major mining center. In the mines was where his father and chief mentor toiled, teaching him the value of hard work while building a better life for his wife and sons. On the side, Ellis helped his father tend to the vegetable plot and a smattering of poultry, rabbits and the occasional pig that provided needed protein for the family.
“This instilled in me a passion for working with and caring for animals that has stayed with me to this day,” Ellis observes. When it came time to talk about education and career paths at school, he spoke of a career in agriculture, which advisors stoutly advised him against.
He was not convinced. To fuel his aspiration for farming, he worked three years on cattle and sheep farms between high school and college in the north of England, longing to make his mark as a farm manager.
Then he got the opportunity to go to the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, where he encountered Malcolm Willis, an inspirational teacher and PhD advisor to Ellis. Through Willis’ scientific studies in beef cattle that he applied to teaching animal genetics and beef cattle production, he taught Ellis the value of research.
“For some reason, the light just switched on and I knew then that I was intrigued by research and research data,” he explains. The goal became to focus on cattle and sheep research, but in 1976 his graduate program was to work on a swine genetics project.
He became “smitten with pigs” and worked almost exclusively with them from that point on. Graduation led to a 14-year teaching career at the same university, lecturing in pig production. Because of sparse staff, he was the only “pig guy” and taught in a very broad area, even in monogastric nutrition. From then on, he looked upon his chosen profession as a “productionist.”
Ellis’ relocation to the University of Illinois came about through a series of fortunate connections. In the mid-1980s, Rich Vetter, a technical advisor for A.O. Smith Harvestore, visited England, where one of the University of Newcastle graduate students was performing a technical study for the company. Vetter visited the campus and, after meeting Ellis, offered to sponsor a trip to visit Purdue University and the University of Illinois in 1986.
Contacts at the University of Illinois in 1988, particularly swine nutritionist Al Jensen, led to a six-month sabbatical there. Ellis worked with Bob Easter, then swine nutritionist and now president of the university, and Floyd McKeith, who continues work there as a meat scientist.
In 1991, a position in applied swine science opened up at the University of Illinois, and Ellis was hired as an assistant professor. By the mid-90s, he took over much of the pork production teaching overseen by Bob Easter, who moved into an administrative role.
Ellis’ work over the years has focused on production agriculture. He has always favored the breadth of production, covering the basics of pork production, but applying his knowledge to such things as production efficiency and pork quality.
He currently holds the position of professor of swine genetics and management, and continues to focus his research interests on integrated management approaches to improving production efficiency and pork quality. In all, Ellis has authored or co-authored more than 150 papers in refereed journals, published more than 250 abstracts and has presented more than 100 invited papers at meetings and conferences in more than 25 countries.
In the late ’90s, Ellis was tempted to leave the university, telling Bob Easter that he wasn’t convinced that applied research at the university had great longevity. “I felt we had lost the link to the agriculture industry. What I saw was that the industry was moving away from the university in Illinois.”
For instance, while the swine industry at the time was developing technology in the new area of wean-to-finish production, there was no such activity at the University of Illinois, either in trying to understand that system or helping to develop it. “We had no facilities to do wean-to-finish research,” he laments.
Ellis suggested striking up a strong link to industry with pork producers through applied research on farms. When administrators agreed to the proposal, he agreed to stay on the job and pioneer the development of on-farm research projects involving the school’s graduate students.
“We went out and worked with about five producers in the state. One of the producers was The Maschhoffs. From the beginning, they really supported what we wanted to do and would do anything to make the relationship work in their units,” Ellis says proudly.
As a result, the graduate students who have been involved with the on-farm research projects have gone on to very influential positions within the swine industry. Two noteworthy examples are Bradley Wolter, who has become the chief operating officer at The Maschhoffs, and Beau Peterson, who is director of research at The Maschhoffs. The production company, based at Carlyle, IL, has become one of the largest swine enterprises in the United States.
The collaborative efforts between the University of Illinois and the state’s hog farms have yielded rewarding results in the area of production research since 1992. The programs have been supported by more than $17.3 million in grants from 37 agencies, firms and organizations, providing a resource of unbiased information.
Highlights of the collaborative research have encompassed group size studies looking at large pens — double stocking and floor space recommendations — for wean-to-finish facilities.
Wean-to-finish research turned out to have the greatest potential to increase revenue and reduce costs in the late finishing period, Ellis says. When pens were topped out, there was a fairly measured increase in growth rate amongst the remaining penmates. That’s basically because pigs respond to an increase in floor space; that practice also helps reduce crowding and maximize output from the building.
“One of the biggest sources of loss of revenue in batches of pigs is from animals that are left at the end that don’t meet market requirements, so anything you can do to increase growth rate, particularly in those later stages, will minimize the amount of lightweight market pigs,” he adds.
Paylean, the repartitioning agent from Elanco Animal Health that increases growth rate quite substantially when fed at the end of the finishing period, has also been the subject of numerous research projects in the Ellis lab at Urbana, IL.
His research group was also instrumental in completing transportation studies that helped the swine industry learn more about downer pigs and their ability to recover when adequately rested.
Related research has covered transport losses. “During 2000-2002, we worked with The Maschhoffs and they set up trucks for us and the adaptations we needed to collect information on factors that had a negative effect on transport losses. As a result of these studies, producers adopted practices to provide more floor space during transport and learned about the value of time off feed.
“We showed that by withholding feed for 12 hours before transport, it can reduce transport losses,” Ellis explains. “The Maschhoffs used the results to reduce transport losses, so I think this was a great example of partnership.” Some animal handling and transportation research is ongoing.
Current research by Ellis and his seven graduate students deals with Improvest, a veterinary prescription product from Pfizer Animal Health, that is an alternative to surgical castration. Following the second injection of the product, studies indicate a dramatic increase in feed intake.
Ellis suggests that pig removal or topping, Paylean and Improvest offer producers three tools that have great potential to increase growth rate in late finishing, reduce cost of production and stay competitive.
Loss of its competitive edge was a main ingredient in the downfall of the British pig industry. It is only about half the size that it was in its heyday in the 1980s, when it was a leader in the global swine industry, says Ellis, who professes he will always be “an Englishman at heart.”
“The British pig industry went from being one of the lowest-cost producers in Europe to the highest-cost producer in about 20 years,” he points out. In doing so, they lost sight of the cost of production and the factors that affect it.
English producers were told and regulated into believing that if they moved away from sow stalls into group housing and later weaning, among other changes, they would end up with a more welfare-friendly system. Those changes were supposed to provide them plentiful access to the marketplace, and that would mean positive results for their efforts.
But after making those changes, the bottom fell out for producers when retail establishments in Great Britain decided to buy meat from the cheapest places they could find. “So an increasing amount of the pork has been coming in from other parts of Europe, where producers didn’t adopt the same standards as early as the United Kingdom (UK), and it left UK producers out in the cold,” Ellis says.
This has provided a valuable but painful lesson for British producers: some people will pay more for niche products, but it won’t be a huge part of the market. The bulk of the consumer market will still be driven by price.
As a result, the British pork industry is a dying establishment that likely won’t be resurrected, he charges.
Unfortunately, Ellis says, it appears the United States is also moving toward group sow housing. “That brings a different set of welfare and management issues. I believe it is more difficult to manage sows in groups than it is in gestation crates because the chance of things going wrong is actually increased. I am not convinced that the welfare of sows in groups is any better than it is in gestation crates, and it could be worse,” he adds.
The growing movement to phase out sow stalls comes at a time when U.S. swine research also seems to be stalling out. “At the University of Illinois, research into the basic sciences has become relatively stronger than the applied sciences, and that reflects less money coming in the door to support programs,” Ellis explains.
“What you lose is the focus on production efficiency and the cost of production, which are vital to whatever system of production you want to have and whatever housing system you want to have. U.S. producers need to be able to produce pigs at a profit or the industry will lose those producers,” he warns.
Regarding sow housing, Ellis cautions against carte blanche adoption of group sow pens without further research. “The European situation is markedly different from that in the United States, and it would be dangerous to take that information and use it here,” he says. A key issue, which hasn’t been adequately addressed, is the proper floor space for sows in pens that will have a huge impact on the cost of the system.
“If you look at the floor space that is often recommended in Europe, it is high (24 sq. ft./sow). We haven’t got the science to determine if that is the right answer,” he explains. “Every producer in the world is interested in good welfare — that isn’t an issue. The problem is we can’t measure welfare. If you can’t measure it, then you can’t manage it, and it becomes a subjective decision as to what’s good and bad.”
Ellis says the University of Illinois graduate student program excelled in preparing students for vocations in swine production.
The challenge is to develop a program so more students become interested and enrolled in classes associated with a career in swine production.
“We need to make sure we have enough kids coming through our door each year who will be the future. If we don’t, our educational programs will struggle to survive at a time when there is demand for these people from not just the United States but from other countries as well,” Ellis declares.
The graduate students who have come through the swine program at the school and the collaborative farm research program are the two biggest accomplishments Ellis is most proud of.
At age 62, the goal in his remaining years at the university is to play a role in fostering the development of the next generation of swine industry leaders.
As challenging as it is becoming to raise pigs in America with its growing regulations and pressures to change production practices, the Midwest in particular is still an attractive place to raise pigs. That compares to western Europe, where cost of production is higher, societal pressures are greater and political support for agriculture is much less, Ellis comments.
With pork demand increasing worldwide, led by China’s increased growth of its middle class and technological advances, there will still be huge opportunities for the U.S. pork industry to remain innovative and cost-competitive, Ellis believes.