Data gathering boosts swine efficiency

Daniel Roelands had little confidence in the accuracy of the numbers on his metered feed mill when it came to measuring swine feed volumes.

So last year he and his family — he farms with his wife and parents near London, Ont. — replaced the mill with a new computerized one that works on weight rather than volume and generates a report.

It’s one of a series of changes Roelands has recently introduced at the family’s sow and finishing operation with the goal to improve performance by honing data collection and analysis.

The farrow-to-feeder barn he built in 2016 was designed with data collection in mind. He also allocated the barn its own propane tank to keep better track of fuel costs.

“I want to do this with hydro too but I’m a little bit scared (of seeing how much it will actually cost),” quipped the lanky farmer who also grows cash crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans.

Benchmarking the family’s farm against other area farms motivated the effort to collect data. In 2014, Roelands joined a data-sharing group made up of other local producers and realized they were not equipped to collect accurate enough data to properly compare it.

“We were farrowing sows weekly,” he wrote in a paper accompanying a presentation at the London Swine Conference earlier this year.

“Our nursery and finisher barns were continuous flow, making it difficult to do proper (cost) closeouts.”

Today, Roelands belongs to three groups, each with a slightly different focus.

Members of one group, co-ordinated by the Middlesex County Pork Producers, send their operations’ numbers to an Ontario ministry of agriculture swine specialist, who analyzes and calculates the highs, lows and averages of each category for the group.

It’s enough information to provide farmers with some “warning signals about what part of your farm is struggling compared with guys with similar farms,” Roelands said.

The other two groups, each made up of about eight members, share individual numbers, including in-depth production numbers and cost. Members also quiz each other on how they’re achieving certain results on their farm.

Any style of benchmarking and sharing will be beneficial if the data is reliable and producers are willing to discuss their strengths and weaknesses, Roelands said.

He likened farm management to a water pipe with taps. As production flows through, each tap represents a place where profits might leak out, such as with feed costs or mortality rates.

“Collecting reliable data and comparing and discussing it with other producers is a great way to figure out which of your taps are leaking and what you need to do to close them.”

Sharing prompted big differences in his own operation, he said. They’ve added a large hallway scale in the new barn to weigh the pigs at weaning and when they’re shipped out as feeder pigs. A four-week batch system replaces weekly farrowing.

And they’ve introduced all-in, all-out approaches in nursery rooms and finisher barns.

Roelands records the amount of each product used on a spreadsheet per batch, and he uses another spreadsheet to record the costs of each item.

He uses the information to calculate costs per pig per batch.

Keeping track makes it easier to identify changes between batches and to analyze results.

Group members do their best to standardize the information and adjust for differences in production approaches where they can. But the discussion that results is more important than perfectly aligned numbers, Roelands said.

“It’s good to see the history because you can see how they’re doing if they do their numbers exactly the same every time and they’re improving, you can say, how did you improve?”

Neil Harper, Ontario Pork manager of information systems, advises producers who want to improve data collection to consider what could provide data, such as sensors and other farm equipment with data-collection capability, note-taking, software packages and information collected by Ontario Pork.

He also suggested thinking about how to structure the data system before implementing it.

Draw a diagram of how you want to organize or structure the information and think about how the components could be related to each other, he said — and plan for types of data you might add in farther down the line.

Spending time up front “will pay off down the road” by avoiding redundancies and ensuring the information can be separated the way it needs to be.

Harper outlined other factors producers should consider:

  • Standardize entries, such as consistently using the same name for a supplier, for example, to make it easier to search through data.
  • Consider your computer storage capacity and ensure it can handle the amount of data being kept.
  • Establish a back-up strategy and include off-site backup.
  • Take security precautions. E-mail is unsecured and can be intercepted by hackers. Passwords should be strong and everything password protected.

“Treat (your data) like you would your bank account doing online banking,” he said.

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