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The Maschhoffs combine technology and coaching to build a biosecurity culture

Biosecurity on hog farms is serious business, and it’s no secret that success hinges on how well protocols are carried out. For years, emphasis has been on building a “biosecurity culture,” and while that’s a valid goal, that’s often easier said than done.

Leading the challenge is the high staff-turnover rate that plagues not just hog farms but all of agriculture. “Our turnover rate is high,” said Jay Miller, DVM with The Maschhoffs. “We put all these steps in place to teach employees, only to find out that the population on your farm is not the same as it was 12 months ago.”

That prompted The Maschhoffs to take a different approach, with emphasis on improving execution. “We do it on a more routine basis so the turnover rate doesn’t have as much impact,” Miller told Pig Health Today.

This starts with a simplified biosecurity training platform, which pulls critical information from their production manual into 13, one-page segments with a six- or seven-question quiz on the back. The farm manager reviews one segment with barn workers each week and then starts over for a 13-week rotation. “We feel it’s the repetition that has made the difference,” Miller said.

The Maschhoffs also has been testing a couple of technology-based options to advance the company’s biosecurity goals. One is remote video auditing (RVA); the other is a web-based biosecurity reporting system. Combined, “they have had a tremendous impact on our culture,” Miller added.

RVA is like a post-game review

Miller likens RVA to a football coach reviewing game tapes with his players. “It identifies exact things that need to be addressed,” he said. It’s not used for discipline; rather, “RVA is used to coach players on the team to execute at a higher level.”

So far, RVA has been used within two company-owned breed-to-wean farms and trailers. It involves five to 10 cameras, with motion sensors placed strategically throughout a unit to capture critical biosecurity points and generate the most data. Placement examples include employee entry/exit, UV chambers and fumigation rooms, driver biosecurity (trailer entry/exit), loading chutes, mortality removal — places with a lot of activity.

Naturally, this adds up to hours of video which loads onto a server and is then sent to a third-party service, which reviews the footage, identifies concerns and reports back within 24 hours. Farm managers receive an email the next morning flagging video footage with questionable actions.

The 24-hour feedback is key to employee buy-in, Miller noted. “It’s a very powerful educational tool for the employee,” he said.  “Learning is visual, especially with 18- to 25-year-olds. You can show them what they did wrong, then point to the manual and show the right way to do it.” But he also emphasizes that the cameras alone do not create sustained performance.

The other critical step is to set clear expectations and define in black and white the auditing criteria. This process also has revealed the challenges of writing standard operating procedures (SOPs).  “We monitor an SOP and find out that we need to re-write it because it lacks detail or it’s interpreted in a different way than we intended,” Miller added.

Worth the cost

The whole package is an investment “but well worth it,” Miller said. The camera system runs $5,000 to $15,000 per site. Third-party monitoring costs $250 to $2,000 per month per site, based on the hours required to audit the video and report back.

Miller noted that in 2 years there have been a number of challenges, including the resources needed to install, maintain and support the systems.

Still, Miller likes what he has seen. “RVA is effective,” he said. “Every time we’ve traced it over time, we’ve found a reduction in negative behavior.” For example, he cited an 82% improvement in occurrence rates from March 2018 to September 2018.

Some of the “occurrences” include items that weren’t supposed to cross the entry bench, employees not showering out of the facility or improper loading of the UV chamber. Proper placement of cell phones is the most common oversight.

“You’ll find all kinds of actions, but they don’t do it on purpose,” Miller said. “A lot of times, it’s just not clear to them. We’re fixing that.”

An added bonus is the fact that customers, from packers to retailers to consumers, like and support this auditing process. “We’ve gotten feedback that they are very supportive of this kind of transparency,” Miller said.

Anonymous reporting boosts responsiveness

The other technology that The Maschhoffs is using to increase employee responsibility for biosecurity is a web-based reporting system designed for company employees to anonymously report any observed biosecurity risk (OBR).

“It’s pretty simple but we’ve found it has a lot of power,” Miller said. This web-based system replaced a call-in option, which mostly went unused.

No incident is too small or seemingly insignificant, so wildlife and rodent sightings or a towel left on the wrong side of the clean/dirty line or an open door are some basic examples. “It’s been interesting to see the level of transparency you’ll get when they don’t have to put their name on it,” he added.

Accessible with a smartphone or computer, the website uses Microsoft Forms to display nine quick questions for the employee to fill out. Each week, all of the OBRs are compiled into a Biosecurity Risk Report and scrubbed to remove any details that might identify the reporting personnel. The report goes to the biosecurity officer first, who scrubs it one more time and then shares it with all farms so that everyone can learn from the incidents. The report also includes the action to take to resolve the risk.

Through the first 34 weeks of 2019, 338 OBRs were reported or approximately 10 a week, Miller noted. “The objective of this tool is to improve competence and raise compliance for continuous improvement across the company,” he added. “In 20 years of practicing, this is perhaps the simplest way that I’ve found to change the culture on a farm.”

The Maschhoffs is continuing its biosecurity commitment with additional plans to tap into technology. Miller noted that future areas to address include redesigning fumigation rooms and UV chambers, using shower timers and expanding use of the company’s own YouTube channel which they already use for short training videos.

“Biosecurity risks are not going away,” he concluded. “It is essential to the long-term success of our business.”

Posted on December 3, 2019

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