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Carthage System Expanding to Meet New Challenges in Pork Production
The headquarters of one of the largest pork producers in the U.S. looks like a college campus – except for the feed bins behind one stately, pillared building. Looks are not deceiving. This was an abandoned college campus until Joe Connor (shown right) and his partners bought the property in Carthage, Illinois, 10 years ago. The main office used to be a women’s dormitory, and the company’s training center used to be the college library.
It all makes sense, in many ways. Connor, a swine veterinarian and one of the founders of the Carthage System, which manages 175,000 sows and 200,000 hog-finishing spaces for more than 240 farm families across the Midwest, has been a mentor and teacher for scores of people in the hog industry. In the training center on the campus, new employees learn how to operate equipment in modern swine barns. In another room, young veterinarians from China are learning more about swine practices in the U.S.
Conno has been with Carthage Veterinary Services since 1976 and started the Carthage System in 1997. He also founded an annual swine conference, now in its 27th year, that is held each August at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois. The 650 attendees hear dozens of presentations on swine health and production technologies.
Biosecurity, herd protection, and disease elimination are the core coursework for Connor. “A large amount of my time is spent in communicating or teaching how to be proactive in recognition of health risks and then what solutions to consider. Most importantly, do the people within the unit recognize weaknesses or areas of risk and make changes or bring it to someone’s attention?”
Connor’s teaching is not restricted to the U.S. He travels around the world, specifically Mexico, Chile, and China, consulting with other pork producers and veterinarians. “China is modernizing,” he says. “The country is in transition and will be for a number of years.” The good news is that China will likely consume even more U.S. pork as it modernizes its swine farms, he says. “U.S. producers should be able to compete against China unless there are some other overriding political factors.”
In the attic of the training center, which is attached to what used to be the college library, Connor shows a collection of filtration systems used in hog barns to keep diseases out. Employees are taught why this new technology is important and how it works.
“Many of the farms built for our system in the last three years use positive filtration,” says Connor. “Filtration depends on the location of the farm. If it is in a moderate- or high-risk area, we filter or layout for filtration if the area risks change in the future.” If there are other swine farms in the area known to be positive for the PRRS virus, or the probability that other hogs will move into the area, risk is high, he explains. “We look at the number and sequences of viruses in the area and the break rate area data.”
The U.S. swine industry overall has been blessed with general good health this year, he says, with a few new PRRS breaks and a low number of PEDv cases. “But we can’t get complacent,” he says. “We still have to be concerned about the PEDv that’s occurring in the U.S. and Canada this time of year and whether we understand all the introduction pathways yet.” Seneca Valley Virus continues to move within the industry, and we also don’t know all the pathways that allow that movement, either, he says.
“If you look at sow mortality in the industry, it’s gone up,” says Connor. Contributors are an increase in open housing and prolapses (both rectal and uterine). One change that has occurred in the industry is increased euthanasia of sows for welfare purposes, says Connor. “Three years ago, if rectal prolapsed sows were consuming feed normally and maintaining normal fecals, we would remove them as culls; today they are euthanized.”
Some producers are moving back to nurseries from wean-to-finish barns, but Carthage hasn’t followed. Yet.
“As the industry has gone to more contract production, there are clearly situations where the growers are not as adept as what we want in consistently starting pigs,” says Connor. “We have to adjust by putting service people on farms to help start pigs.”
Weaning ages of pigs have gone up across the industry, and Carthage is no exception. “Our target is 23 days,” says Connor. “It’s gone up from 21, and we’ve made a more concerted effort to get closer to that across the system as a whole. That older, heavier pig has a better throughput, and it also overcomes some of those challenges that a grower environment would have during that first week of placement. There is also a positive response in the sow with an increase in total born and farrowing rate in her next parity.”
Pen gestation vs. stalls is another industry trend. “We are converting depending on where our clients are selling pigs,” says Connor. “For example, if pigs are going to the new Clemens Foods plant, they have to be in pen gestation. From a welfare standpoint, it’s still hard to say that pen gestation is advantageous, especially if you consider sow mortality, consistency of pregnancy rate, and fight interactions. If barns need remodeled, it is often an easier decision to make the conversion to pens.”
Sow barns themselves, if maintained and regularly washed, have really good life, says Connor. “What we see is often equipment at the eight- to 10-year age requires increasingly more minor annual upkeep, and then there becomes a point where it’s major. That’s when it’s timely to consider the housing alternatives such as pens. It’s easier to do it at that point, because you are going to have to put capital back in.”
There are three rooms in the training center at the Carthage System headquarters with interchangeable equipment – a gestation barn, a farrowing barn, and a wean-to-finish barn. There are electronic sow-feeding stations to show staff how to operate those in a pen gestation environment. Different ventilation systems are demonstrated.
In the test attic, Connor can demonstrate the filtrate systems with a variety of filters so employees can see the airflow in a negative pressure system.
There are no pigs in the training center, but it gives employees an idea of what to expect. “We have different ventilation controllers based on what we have at farms,” says Connor. “All the equipment is workable so we can bring people in and demonstrate. We have different cooling and heating systems, as well as feed systems. We get them acclimated to what they are going to see, get them used to the slats, get them to understand how to do maintenance and how to set water levels in troughs, check water flow rates, and more.”
The farrowing room is set up with different types of flooring and crates.
In the finishing training room, employees learn how to use a power washer. In the gestation room, the newest technology includes free access stalls where sows come in to eat and back out when done. A shower facility trains workers how to use the shower-in/shower-out system for biosecurity.
Training workers is important because the labor situation in the swine industry is a top concern, says Connor. “We, as an industry, may have tapped out the available labor. There are still a number of things within the herd itself that require labor seven days a week. As we look at the upcoming labor force, that may not be in their lifestyle. There is always training because of the turnover rate that is occurring within our farm staff.”
The Carthage System is growing as fast as a weaned pig. Last year, Carthage was managing 145,000 sows; today that number is 175,000. Most of the growth is new construction. Some of the new sow farms are within 50 miles of Carthage, but others are in Kansas and Nebraska.
“We will continue to look for what we perceive to be lower-risk areas for the sow units,” he says.
One concern with the growth is exports, warns Connor. “The industry has to export significantly more pork,” he says. “At what price? A foreign animal disease could interfere with the exports. We are trying to mitigate that risk.”
The Carthage System was founded 20 years ago. “The concept was to cooperatively provide genetic stock for our family farms and then it grew from there,” says Connor, who grew up on an Illinois family farm. “We are still heavily involved with the breeding stock companies in executing genetic programs at the multiplication level.”
The system’s advantage, says Connor, is the management team and “our desire to look at the finer points that are necessary.” Each farm in the Carthage System has its own employees and board of directors, but inputs are rolled together into the system.
The company can move fast to solve health issues. A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) lab is onsite at the headquarters next to the training center. There, staff can identify PRRS and PED viruses, influenza, coronavirus, and more.
“If you look at our family farmer owners, they are tremendously strong entrepreneurs who want to expand, but they often don’t want to manage 20 people. The Carthage System, through Professional Swine Management, LLC, provides them an avenue to participate actively in the industry,” he explains.