By Mike King
After raising pigs, managing employees and loading more than half a million hogs onto market-bound trailers over 30 years, Keith Schoettmer has learned valuable insights about superior pig care. The 2015 America’s Pig Farmer of the YearSM shared his real-world experiences with attendees at the Pork Checkoff’s recent Pig Welfare Symposium (page 19) held in Des Moines, Iowa. “As farmers, we’re in an age of accountability, with more consumers asking about animal care,” Schoettmer said. “We can’t get defensive or simply want consumers to trust us. We have to tell and show how we do the right thing in our barns every day to provide great care to our pigs.” Schoettmer raises about 22,000 pigs per year from his base in Tipton, Indiana. During his time as America’s Pig Farmer of the Year in 2015 and since, Schoettmer says people often want to know how producers uphold the We CareSM ethical principles on the farm. More often than not, he says that conversation turns to animal well-being, so he offers five tips for consideration and potential improvement to all those who interact with pigs. He emphasizes the importance of reducing stress whenever possible for both people and pigs, which is at the heart of all of his advice.
“We need to embrace the changes and challenges that face us in the pork industry today as an opportunity to get better.”
– Keith Schoettmer, Indiana
Whether it’s finding the right employee, having enough staff or assigning the most appropriate task, Schoettmer says raising pigs right means doing all of these things well even during a tight labor market.
“I would rather employ one person too many than one person too few,” Schoettmer said. “We try to work in pairs and in teams in the barns. It builds in more accountability than working alone and makes the work more enjoyable. It’s about reducing stress for both the barn worker and the pigs.”
As for cost, Schoettmer says he might pay more than $1/cwt above industry norms for labor, but his overall cost of production is far lower than the average because of other efficiencies he has gained. Ultimately, Schoettmer says your farm should seek to create employee leaders and not simply managers in the barns.
“This nuance can help create an increased sense of purpose and empowerment by employees who understand the vital role people play in delivering superior pig care,” he said.
For Schoettmer, it’s more about setting proper expectations of time management with employees rather than what his watch may read at any one time.
“Give your employees or yourself the time needed to do the job properly,” Schoettmer said. “Don’t set arbitrary deadlines if it’s going to create unnecessary stress. This is when you can run into problems when people try to hurry to finish.”
Schoettmer believes in taking the first 30 minutes of each day with his employees to see how they are doing personally and by framing the day with the faith-based approach the farm has always used. He says it has created an atmosphere of genuine caring about each other on his farm that can then translate into good pig care later in the day.
“If our employees are asked to do their best for us and our pigs, then they have to know that we care about them first,” Schoettmer added.
“We strongly believe in using Pork Quality Assurance® Plus and Transport Quality Assurance® from the National Pork Board as the main sources of our employee training to lay the foundation for us,” Schoettmer said. “We typically have our herd veterinarian go over these programs to certify our new employees.”
Beyond the basics, he says employees need to become innate pig caregivers.
“Our employees need to understand that pigs need the right care every time, even when they might not feel up to the task that day,” Schoettmer said. “As producers, we have to find like-minded people who have a passion for pigs.”
He recommends all producers personally ensure that their market-hog trailer drivers are TQA® certified.
“You can make sure everything is done right for pig care on the farm up until that point so you don’t want to put all that hard work and pig well-being in jeopardy just before market,” said Schoettmer, adding that only 0.08 percent of his market pigs did not arrive at market in full-value condition.
There’s a reason why the average age of the employees who load market hogs on Schoettmer’s farm is 52.
“You need the right people doing the right job,” Schoettmer said. “Loading pigs is one of the most important jobs, so new hires don’t start there. This task has to be as uneventful as possible, which is why our most experienced employees do it.”
Because pigs can be affected by weather, group behavior dynamics and many other variables, moving them from one day to the next can be different.
“Prepare by putting people in place who can quickly read the reaction of the pigs being moved,” Schoettmer said. “Some days you can move five at once, sometimes only two, so be ready and do what’s best for the pigs.”
“We can’t expect employees to do the right thing if we don’t equip them properly to enhance pig care,” Schoettmer said.
Since Schoettmer’s sow farm still uses pen breeding and gestation, he makes sure employees have what they need to do the job safely and correctly. That also means using a teaser boar within a movable stall on wheels to keep everyone safe.
“Think about employee safety and pig care at all times,” he said. “Use the Common Swine Industry Audit as a tool to help you find things in your barns that you may not even realize can affect pig well-being.”
In addition to these five steps, Schoettmer emphasizes the need for producers to stay in close contact with their herd veterinarian, who can assist in finding solutions to new or ongoing challenges to herd health and pig welfare. He recommends that farm owners and managers find ways to keep their pig-care skills sharp from a variety of sources, such as professional management seminars that focus on human skills and development. “We need to embrace the changes and challenges that face us in the pork industry today as an opportunity to get better,” Schoettmer said. “Our customers’ needs and requests will continue to come whether we’re ready or not. That’s why we should embrace them, prepare and get ready for a bright future.”
To learn more about Checkoff-funded pig welfare resources, visit pork.org/welfare.