How many workers are needed in a 1,200-sow, farrow-to-wean unit? What are the early warning signs that labor issues are about to negatively affect the performance of a hog production unit?

Indiana swine practitioner Larry Rueff suggests producers look at several issues when evaluating labor needs and performance expectations.

“We have a lot of staffing variables in the swine industry,” he says. “There's a wide range of phases and new ways to do things.”

The Greensburg, IN, veterinarian uses what he calls a 45-hour/week, full-time equivalent or FTE, meaning each full-time worker spends 45 hours on the job.

“The average person on a pig farm doesn't want to work more than 40 to 45 hours a week,” he says. “And, they don't want to work every weekend.”

Producers also must decide how productive their farm is going to be. Setting goals of 25 pigs/sow/year or 3% preweaning mortality will take more labor than lesser production goals.

“We have to ask how good we want to be versus being average. Average doesn't cut it in the new industry,” he says. “The difference between how good some farms perform gets down to the employees on the farm.”

Rueff stresses that each farm's labor needs are unique. Sample farm sizes and his staffing suggestions are as follows:

  • Four and one-half FTE workers are needed for a 1,200-sow, farrow-to-wean farm based on gilts entering at 280 lb. and pigs leaving the farm at weaning.

    Under this plan, two employees work each weekend — feeding, watering and the necessary breeding. The half-time FTE could be a manager who divides his/her time between two units. An additional half-time employee may further ease scheduling and staffing concerns, he notes.

  • A contract producer with a 2,000-head nursery should work an average of 20 to 25 hours/week, including barn cleaning and disinfection, loading and unloading, checking feeders and waterers and treating sick pigs.

  • A contract producer with a 1,000-head finishing barn, who is involved with loading, unloading, washing and disinfecting barns, checking waterers and feeders and treating sick animals should work an average of one hour/day.

Other Factors to Consider

Size does matter because bigger units need more people and therefore, have more complex social issues.

“The size of the unit does influence labor, because the more people you put on a farm — forget about the pig issues — you will probably have people issues, too,” he says.

Management's expectations also have an impact. A key variable is if employees are responsible for repairs, making feed or manure application.

“Most things can't be fixed in 15 minutes, so repair issues have become a big issue on the farm,” he says.

Herd health has a major impact on labor. Multiple vaccinations, treatments and handling mortalies all take time.

“More importantly, poor health status affects your farm because it lowers morale. It just takes that good morale right off the farm. It depresses everyone,” he says.

Quality of labor is difficult to measure. Rueff suggests asking: “How well do my employees work?”

“There are people who get up in the morning, do twice as much work as the next guy and go home at night as happy as can be,” he says. “If you can find those kinds of employees, you can alter the required number of workers.”

Conversely, some workers are steady in their work pace, good at their jobs and satisfied with what they do. Every farm needs these types of workers, too, Rueff says.

Early Warning Signs

Early warning signs can be found in production records and employee attitudes.

Production records that may show subtle staffing issues are farrowing rate, preweaning mortality, weaning average and nursery and finisher mortality. “These five things can be indicators of labor problems,” he says.

Dramatic changes in employee morale and chronic understaffing of a farm are two key warning signs.

The worker's attitude may have nothing to do with his job, but will affect the work he does.

“If the guy isn't happy on the day two-thirds of the sows in a group need to be bred, we may have a problem,” Rueff says.

Chronic understaffing may not have an immediate impact. “Watch for signs that people are tiring or burning out,” he stresses. “The performance may stay okay for a while, but it may crash.”

Capitalize on Orientation Opportunity

So you've hired a new employee who starts on Monday morning. What are you going to do about orientation when he/she arrives?

Very few farms have planned orientations sessions for new employees, says Bernard Erven, Ohio State University extension specialist in human resources, farm and business management.

Orientation is critical, for both the employee and the employer, he says. “You only have one opportunity to make a good, first impression and you can't fix it two weeks later,” Erven stresses. “We are trying to get every person off to a good start.”

A good start begins with a good reputation in the community and how the job interview is conducted, he says. No new employee should be surprised or afraid on his first day of work, he adds.

Erven outlines three points in planning an orientation program:

  • Decide who's in charge of orientation. If you don't have time, give another employee the authority to set up the program and make it part of his job description.

  • Set up the content. Fill the person in on business characteristics and personnel policies, but limit the forms that must be filled out to the minimum. Talk about the employee handbook, compensation and benefits.

  • Decide if the orientation should mesh with job training and introductions to other employees and management.

Erven stresses that an employer is orientating the new employee into the industry, the farm and the farm's culture — which includes its history, accomplishments and goals.

Erven suggests making a list of “do's and “don'ts”, a list of common terms and a video introduction to the company to help familiarize the new employee with his new employer. For larger operations, he also suggests taking a Polaroid picture, writing up an introduction paragraph and posting it on the office bulletin board.

Good orientation, even if limited to 15 min., gets the new worker started in a positive manner.
— Gretchen Schlosser