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Lessons from the barn: Avoiding gremlins

By Joseph F. Connor, DVM, MS
Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd.
Carthage, Illinois


Pig production is really about people and their ability to understand and consistently execute goals, protocols and processes. There are numerous protocols for herds labeled as standard operating procedures (SOPs) or best management practices. Highly skilled individuals usually develop protocols, but sometimes they are far removed from what actually occurs within the normal day’s workflow in a barn.

One lesson I’ve learned from spending time in barns is that too often our protocols are inefficient and have conflicting objectives. They lack the simplistic “why, what and how” that help caregivers understand the purpose of certain chores and even get excited about the tasks at hand.

Minor SOP adjustments can often be made to accommodate the way things are done in a barn and improve the process, but over time, gremlins creep in. Intentions are good, but they may not take into account staff turnover, daily interruptions, multiple responsibilities or staff difficulty setting priorities.

Common gremlins

One common gremlin is sow mortality. For biosecurity purposes, we may limit removal of mortalities to a single exit located between farrowing and gestation. In a 6,000-sow farm, that may require traveling a distance of 1,300 feet at a speed of less than 1 mph, requiring 1 hour per removal. During a given day, there may be no sow mortality or there may be six, which makes it difficult to plan ahead.

Another gremlin is live-animal flow, which frequently creates a bottleneck. Most of the facilities use the main farrowing hallway for moving weaners. Weaning commonly occurs first thing in the morning at the same time, and this activity is located adjacent to rooms where there were overnight farrowings. If the facility doesn’t have between-room internal doors, caregivers are constantly interrupting the wean pig flow, as well as quality assessment. Better planning is needed to make these procedures more efficient.

The Caterpillar experience

This situation brings to mind a very successful company, Caterpillar Inc., which in the 1990s had a prolonged strike between union members and the company. To maintain some manufacturing, senior and middle management were required to return to the manufacturing floor where they worked day to day in assembly.

As it turned out, the company reported this was highly beneficial because management saw first-hand where there were problems with standard procedures that interfered with efficiency. Changes were made that improved efficiency and communication while maintaining product quality and enabling training of new staff.1

This is a key lesson for us. In the 1980s, Caterpillar was a hierarchical organization with multilayer divisions. Some lower-level managers found the process for obtaining approvals was time consuming and difficult.

Herein lies another key lesson for us. We need to consider the cultural differences of staff. I find that caretakers from some cultures prefer checklists while others dislike checklists and view them as unnecessary micromanaging. Achieving the right balance for the caretakers of each herd is critical to success.

Time management is equally critical. Successful teams can estimate how long it takes to complete major chores. A good manager who can accurately allocate the time it takes for each task is a great manager. Successful managers are able to motivate staff, and when it’s taking too long to complete chores, they figure out why and intervene or retrain as needed.

Keep it simple

How do I attack these problems? I start by returning to very simplistic protocols and processes, spending time understanding where the barriers occur on each individual farm and developing simple solutions to barriers and headwinds.

Technology that tracks individual activity is a huge revelation. If we believe not stepping into crates or not moving pigs between rooms is critical to controlling rotavirus or stabilizing a herd so we wean porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome-negative pigs, tracking immediately illustrates this SOP is frequently and often repeatedly violated. Tracking is what prompted me to redesign my approach to SOPs and how processes are communicated to the current generation. The ultimate goal is improving productivity as well as staff satisfaction.

It’s important to explain the “what, why and how” a procedure or process should be done, but it needs to be kept simple. There’s no value in telling caregivers there are three antibiotics that can be considered. The value is in administering the first priority antibiotic at the correct dosage for the correct reason. Again — keep it clear and simple.


Editor’s note: The opinions and recommendations presented in this article belong to the author and are not necessarily shared by the editors of Pig Health Today or Zoetis.


1 Bouchard CT, Koch JV. The Caterpillar way: lessons in leadership, growth, and shareholder value. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Professional. 2013.

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Keeping things clear and simple can help avoid inefficient and conflicted practices creeping into production, explains Joseph F. Connor, of Carthage Veterinary Service.

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Posted on March 11, 2020

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When a sow doesn’t reach her full potential, the cost to the farm and the income stream of the sow herd is often “grossly underestimated,” said John Deen, DVM, PhD, a professor at the University of Minnesota.

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