As I write this week’s comments, I am still basking in the glow of a Thanksgiving Day spent with family. Yesterday morning I began the holiday by attending church services. When I was on the faculty at the University of Nebraska, I started many Thanksgiving holidays by doing daily chores at the research farm so that the employees at the swine unit could have the day with their families and friends.
Many of the readers of this blog spent part or even all of yesterday doing the many routine and necessary tasks associated with daily care of livestock. As we think about how society now views animal agriculture, one aspect they often forget is that animal agriculture still relies on daily observation and care activities. In thriving rural communities in the midwest, animal agriculture is an important component of the overall economic activity and well being of the community and its citizens.
While many have complained about ‘factory farms’ in reference to the changing ownership structure of animal agriculture in the US, and around the world, it still takes people with significant dedication to do the daily tasks that are part of our responsibility to the animals under our care. Whether ‘factory farms’ or organic farms or alternative production system sites, people remain the key input into the production systems. While many attempts have been made to replace people with technology, at least in pork production this has been met with limited success.
In the early 1980’s, feeder pig coops were very popular in Nebraska. These coops were owned by a group of producers who invested in joint ownership of sows and nursery facilities with the goal of having a reliable and steady supply of feeder pigs for their individual production facilities. The general rule of thumb for labor at these sites was 1 person for every 200 females in inventory.
Fast forward to today’s ‘factory farm’ sow production units. We no longer have nurseries on site for weaned pigs. Instead, pigs are transported to production sites for growth to slaughter at weaning. Instead of 200 females per employee, the general rule of thumb is 300 females. Keep in mind that the biggest difference is that labor is no longer necessary at the farrowing site for the nursery phase of production.
This suggests that over the last 25-30 years, while we have made large advances in genetics, housing systems, nutrition, etc., it still takes approximately the same amount of labor per female to produce a weaned pig. This labor now may be associated with more total employees at a production site as the size of farrowing units has grown from 5-600 sows per site to 3-5000 females. The economic impact remains – people who are involved in animal agriculture live in rural communities. They spend money in these communities, send their children to the community schools, volunteer for community organizations, etc.
Animal agriculture remains a key component of economic activity and community economic well being in the Midwest. I am thankful this year for the small role I play in this industry.