It's been said, “You can't master what you can't measure.”

With the electronic wizardry available today, there seems to be no limit to what we can measure and record. The challenge, of course, is to select what we measure very carefully, making sure the information we gather has a purpose and a payback potential.

Our capacity to measure and record production information seemingly grows by leaps and bounds daily.

This point was driven home during a first-of-its-kind meeting held in Des Moines shortly after Labor Day. Coordinated by Swine Management Services LLC, and Pigonomics Swine Records & Consulting, the PROFITS (Pig Record Operators Forum on Information Technology Solutions) Forum, invited 11 software companies to present an overview of their sow records programs. Companies were asked to give 50-minute presentations about their software programs. Ten companies accepted.

The beneficiaries of this effort were a select group of pork producers, feed and genetic company representatives, swine veterinarians, identification providers, independent recordkeeping bureaus and a single journalist.

The primary goal of the meeting was to offer this diverse audience an opportunity to review and critique the sow record programs and share any experiences they've had with them — good and not so good.

When each 50-minute time slot expired, the program representative left the room and a candid, roundtable-type discussion ensued. Program glitches, ease of data collection and entry, adaptability, training and support programs, record standardization and pricing were discussed.

In varying degrees, most programs offered keyless data entry capabilities, benchmarking capabilities (some customized) and web-based access.

Costs ranged from monthly fees to fees pro-rated by number of sows or per-pig marketed.

Common points of discussion included the need for standardized calculations (i.e. Production & Financial Standards formulas finalized in 2001), RFID compatibility, the use of a 1,000-day calendar, web-based capabilities to allow benchmarking reports on request, compatibility with hand-held computers/data loggers, and the growing need for grow-finish data collection and analysis.

An astute swine practitioner noted that some production parameters used to measure success or failure no longer apply to modern pork production — and perhaps never did. He called for an industry effort to identify the “true efficiency measures” that will carry pork producers forward. To stimulate thinking, he suggested “pounds of pork/square foot of facility space, pounds of pork/sow space, or feed efficiency/square foot of finishing space.”

An Uncommon Trend

Usually, as new technologies are brought to an industry, an evolutionary process begins. The products operated with the greatest ease, those that deliver the greatest value, and in the case of electronic recordkeeping, those with the least problems, eventually rise to the top. The number of companies offering similar products/services normally narrows.

In the software provider business, the pork industry seems to be running counter to this typical whittling down process. This has occurred, in part, because some feed or genetic companies that offered recordkeeping services as part of their customer service/support programs have divested themselves of that portion of the business.

Existing leaders in the field would normally absorb those programs and clients. That has occurred in some cases, but in others, existing staff or entrepreneurs have purchased the software programs, upgraded their services and recruited a larger client base. Consequently, the number of independent software providers has actually increased slightly in recent years.

Some programs are more expensive than others. Some are more agile — making it easier to convert or extract data to guide day-to-day operations. All offer the end-goal services required to provide valuable, cost-effective performance information to guide decision-making and, hopefully, profitability.

Challenges Ahead

As corn prices continue to climb and profit margins tighten, the need to effectively track costs and productivity levels will be magnified several fold.

If you aspire to be a least-cost producer, logically, you must deal with the facts. Whether you benchmark against past herd performance or against similar operations, you must have confidence that the recordkeeping program you've chosen will provide you with the best measures of efficiency and adapt when changes are needed.

Rest assured, your lender/banker will be particularly interested in those facts during the leaner times ahead. If your current recordkeeping program does not provide the information you need, now would be a good time to find one that does.