For those of you who are as electronically challenged as I am, take heart, the electronic gurus and computer whizzes are busily working to make things easier.

I'm not particularly fond of cell phones, laptops, iPods or something called a Blackberry. But, as time and progress marches on, I know that we, the electronic foot-draggers of the world, will be the beneficiaries of the constant tweaking and testing of these 21st century technologies.

Take compact disks, for example. Until I bought a pickup with a CD player, I resisted the “improved listening experience,” partially because I am the proud owner of a few hundred cassette tapes. Now on my fourth vehicle equipped with a CD player, I have stashes of CDs that would make some radio play-list managers envious.

Pigs and Electronics Don't Mix

Using electronics in pig barns is tricky business. The environment isn't very friendly and the naturally curious nature of the porcine species makes individual identification a particular challenge. Their obsession with rooting, playing with, or chewing on something, anything, is unmatched.

But, just as sure as cell phones are more reliable and durable today, so too are the tags or buttons encasing the electronic chips needed to utilize this technology on the farm.

Rapidly advancing technologies such as radio frequency identification (RFID), cordless scanners and hand-held data recorders have opened up exciting possibilities for capturing performance data and on-farm, real-time analysis.

This issue features two commercial pork production systems that have tested these technologies and continue to explore new ways to apply them. I am enamored by the potential these powerful tools have in gathering accurate, on-farm performance data. As one producer noted, “You are only limited by your imagination and the depth of your thinking.”

One producer set out to explore the true length of gestation in his 3,000-sow herd. The old standard — three months, three weeks and three days — may be in the ballpark, but if you're trying to maximize use of farrowing spaces and extend lactation length, ballpark predictions won't cut it.

He found gestation lengths ranged from 112 days to 124 days — a 12-day spread. Now, after sows are inseminated, he uses actual farrowing dates to predict every sow's subsequent farrowing date. This not only helps manage sows better, it also identifies tighter groups when loading farrowing rooms.

Good Questions Beget Good Answers

With electronic identification, data collection and the establishment of parameters to frame an inquiry, you can ask a lot of good questions — and get good answers. But, the real windfall comes in two very key areas:

First is speed. Capturing, analyzing and reporting data provides real-time answers to real-time questions — faster.

Secondly, it provides the on-farm power to test theories, compare products and/or management practices. It allows mini-tests to be conducted in your environment, with your genetics and by your staff. Successive mini-tests confirm whether you're on the right track and reinforce results. Longer-term results provide trends to guide management decisions.

Of course, these mini-studies are not the same as the peer-reviewed research protocols used in university studies, but they can shed light on key production efficiency indicators. There is a need for both.

Imagine, you could track the effect of multiple feedings during lactation, check whether grow-finish pigs perform better with wet or dry feeders, or check the impact of a vaccine or medication on performance. Individual identification is the first step to capturing the information you seek.

As research dollars to land grant universities continue to dwindle, these farm-specific exercises in electronic sleuthing will provide much-needed answers.

And, here's an interesting twist — it also empowers managers and employees to be creative in their thinking. They can study what works, what doesn't and try new approaches. In the end, it makes their work less methodical, less systematic, and potentially, more fun and rewarding.

As one consultant put it, “You literally lay awake at night thinking of new ways of testing and measuring a new approach to breeding, raising and handling pigs.”

Finally, this new electronic technology is increasingly affordable, and puts the electronic analysis in the hands of all producers, regardless of size. The real power in electronic technology lies in the value it offers in managing costs and maximizing efficiencies.

And, to add a little frosting on the cake in this fast-paced world of agroterrorism concerns, product recalls, foreign animal disease threats and our reliance on growing export markets, it is reassuring to know that these electronic advances will position the pork industry well ahead of some commodities in meeting national animal identification programs.