Hog producers worldwide have been slow to use veterinarians, even in the fire-brigade mode.

Pollution and its problems occupy our thoughts these days in every country I visit. But pollution can be counteracted with planning and discipline.

Unfortunately, it costs a lot to do so. I wrote six years ago that a pig agribusiness may survive on $35/cwt. But allowing for sufficient sewage treatment is costing us in Europe the equivalent of $2/cwt. or more at least. Pollution can be reduced to acceptable levels for a price.

But what's more insidious is disease - a killer of farm business as well as pigs. It always has been.

So what's new? Disease is just more important now than ever. Worldwide this past year (excluding The Netherlands, which has an unusual and sudden problem with both pollution and disease), I know of six hog farmers who have given up due to pollution constraints. But over 30 farmers have given up, moved or started again due to growing disease problems.

Too Slow >From the 1960s through the 1980s, hog producers worldwide have been slow to use veterinarians, even in the traditional "fire-brigade" mode. From 1990, the larger or more thoughtful hog producer has been using him as a consultant to prevent disease outbreaks rather than treat them.

But today, even in the U.S., Denmark and the U.K. where we all have extremely good and expert hog veterinary specialists, the change in the way we use the veterinarian is still too slow. I hope to prove this doesn't make sense economically.

Immunity When I was a student-improver in the '50s and '60s, we were aware of the importance of immunity. We called it natural resistance then and tried to resist the pressure to push the pigs too hard and crowd them together too much. Then competitive performance and thinner profits took over. But we had vaccines and drugs and preventive medication to help - or so we thought.

The situation got completely out of hand. On the 1,200 sows I managed in those days, our drug bill rose from 4% of costs in 1968 to nearly 16% in 1975. That 12% difference was our net profit and we closed down. The boss went into dairying and I'm not a cowman.

So I started again on a much smaller pig herd with lessons well and truly learned.

New Approach We hired a pig specialist veterinarian who said, "Most vets hereabouts make two thirds of their income from drugs and products, one third on advice. Me, I'll reverse this if you'll let me. In fact, 75% or more of my fees will be on advice, training you and your staff, walking the farm at least once a month and doing serology (blood testing) and discussing performance records. About 25% or less will be spent on vaccines and preventive medicine products.

"But I want an annual contract and it will cost you this much, and I want the first month's fees up front. If you don't like it, I don't really want you as a client. This is the way 'industrial' veterinary practice must go, and I hope you, too, will join with me in trying it." A courageous man. For the late '70s, a very courageous man. He was really setting the format for what is beginning to happen now.

After sending him packing, we thought afresh and called him back.

How did we fare? In six years, we became a top-performing herd, battering on the door of 27 pigs sold per sow per year from 1982-84.

For proof, I show a rather faded copy of our monthly performance sheet from September 1982 to May 1983, which was fairly typical for those two golden years of ours. Of course, it wasn't all disease control, but we know it sure helped. (I wrote about how we managed it in North America and elsewhere in the late '80s.)

Costs Today, Yesterday Table 1 gives a typical cost analysis of a U.K. veterinarian (converted to U. S. dollars) at the time (1988) and again in 1998.

Notice that the modern (U.K.) pig vet seems to be working more at home or in the office on things like your records, lab diagnosis, etc. than on the farm. Also notice how much fewer farm monitoring or fire prevention visits can be made compared to the older fire-brigade method.

In the top third pig farms in Europe, herd size is around 200 sows, farrow-to-finish and one-site. This farm will look to sell 4,200 finished pigs/year, generating, in our case, an annual turnover of $636,000. The difference between good health and bad health can easily alter that figure by 20% ($127,000). At 12 visits/year with a health-input charge of $652 per visit, the annual health input charge is $12,750. Even if we halve the disease cost fraction of $127,00 to $63,500, this is still a REO (return to extra outlay ratio) of 5:1.

Why do the monthly inspection or monitoring costs pay? Many pig producers sit on a problem until the next veterinarian visit. In one recent case according to our vet, the visit was two months away and 5% of the weaners were dying from gastric ulceration. The cost to that farm of 500 sows was 100 pigs worth $6,500, plus the effect of ulceration of the remainder, which probably cost $16,000.

Twelve visits a year, not four, would not have allowed the problem to run on for two months before action was taken. Those two months would, from Table 1, have cost the producer another $1,300 in visits, but he would have very probably pulled back the cost of the flare-up by half of the $22,000, at least $11,000. This is an RE0 of 8:1. I find this quite typical and not unusual at all.

Conclusions Use and choose your veterinarian carefully. Pay more in the future for advice, routine monitoring and disease profiling. In the end, you'll pay the veterinarian or the pharmaceutical firm much less for medication, especially curative medication.

Disease never stands still. It is always adapting to the barriers you and the veterinarian put up. Thus, regular reassessment is vital if you are to outsmart this most dangerous profit-killer of them all.