If change is a reflection of resourcefulness and forward-thinking, then the glow emanating from the U.S. pork industry is certainly bright.

Leading the list of changes seen in recent years is the sheer cost of feeding pigs. Spin it whatever way you wish, there’s no denying that corn-based ethanol has added to pork producers’ challenges.

There was a time when the hog operations strategically positioned nearby Midwestern cornfields held a decided advantage. Then ethanol plants began popping up in those cornfields, and as they did, the corn basis narrowed.

Whether you see ethanol as a curse or cure may depend on which side of the ledger you are on. Ethanol from corn will likely put the least little dent in our dependence on foreign oil, yet the policies attached to it have left an indelible mark on pork production systems and swine diets.

As Congress struggles to reign in the budget deficit, it is anybody’s guess whether government policies will continue to support ethanol production at its current levels. To be sure, as we creep toward the next election cycle, the cost of food and fuel will be front and center.

Another prevalent change has been producers’ proficiency in ratcheting-up pigs/sow/year (p/s/y). Not so long ago, the high mark was set at 20 p/s/y. Current benchmarks target 26-28 p/s/y. While some herds have hit 30 p/s/y, nagging concerns about birth weights and pig quality will command a closer look.

Meeting the Challenge

Lest you doubt that the U.S. pork industry is up to meeting new challenges head-on, you need only read the life stories of the seven “Masters of the Pork Industry” in this issue.

The common denominator of these industry icons is their commitment to the pork industry and their desire to help young people and producers understand what it has to offer.

“Working with students and producers is the most fulfilling thing about my job,” comments one Master. “With students, you want them to be smarter than you are. With producers, you want them to take the technology and find better ways to do things.”

Within the next five years, human capital will be one of the biggest issues facing the pork industry. It is commonly held that fewer and fewer students, a.k.a. potential employees, will have a farm background, not to mention an even smaller pool of young talent that has worked with pigs. At first blush, that may be a cause for concern. But on the flip side, it also means those young men and women are not burdened with preconceived notions about how things can be done.

“From them will come some of the best innovations and changes because they will question why we do things — or why we don’t do some things differently,” predicts one of the Masters.

Pull Up a Chair

Next time you get an opportunity to have a conversation with a seasoned veteran of the pork industry, pull up a chair and ask them about their growing-up years, their fondest memories and what led them to their vocation. Their generosity of spirit and willingness to share the lessons they’ve learned is part of what sets pork industry folks apart from many other industries where “company secrets” are closely guarded.

Or, as another Master so aptly puts it, “There are a lot of good people that are willing to help you — and usually they don’t get anything out of it other than (the satisfaction) of lending a hand. In the end, it may be one of the reasons we are the leaders in supplying affordable pork to the world.”

It’s telling, sometimes even a little comical, when folks relate their experiences with pigs. Whether attained from the end of a shovel or peering through a microscope, they often get a thoughtful look on their face and then proclaim: “I learned a lot about pigs, but I also learned a lot about myself.”

What is it about pigs that allow them to teach the life lessons recalled so fondly? “The best livestock people are the ones who take the time to try to see what the animals are telling them. It’s a lesson in patience,” declares one scientist.

Former University of Kentucky Swine Extension Specialist Dennis Liptrap puts a slightly different twist on the lessons taught by pigs. As he accepted the National Swine Improvement Federation’s distinguished service award, he reassured the graduate students in attendance, declaring: “As you work with pigs, they will continue to amaze you.”