From Farm Journal’s PORK written by Jennifer Shike.
Producers who are evaluating the use of electronic sow feeding (ESF) systems in gestation barns often question the impact on labor/staff and how a system that utilizes technology may increase either the time needed to manage group housing, or the quality of staff required to manage group housing, or both.
Experts say a training period is not only required for gilts or animals who have never seen electronic feeding stations previously, but also for the teams working with the animals in a group environment.
“Barn staff, generally, are apprehensive at first, but then once they start working with the sows in groups, I think they get a lot of positive feedback from actually working with animals instead of just going around a stall barn,” said Jennifer Brown, a research scientist at Prairie Swine Centre in Canada, during the Gestal Swine Summit virtual webinar.
If employees haven’t worked with thousand-groups, they can be a little scary, Brown added. It’s important to equip your team with confidence so they can thrive through the transition to ESF and improve their animal handling skills.
“You will find a lot a lot of skepticism out there,” Brown said. “I know there’s been some studies where group housing was not successful. However, that was often because the barn staff was not well prepared for the transition and didn’t have a positive attitude around it.”
Build the Right Perspective with Barn Staff
When it comes to new technology and in particular, ESF group housing, if you don’t have your team on the same page aware of the goals and bought in to the system, anything you try to do is going to be a struggle, said webinar host Matthew Rooda of SwineTech.
“Technology is an incredible hurdle. We need a little bit of hand holding to get through that mental barrier,” Brown agreed. “Once we’re on the other side, things started to click, and we realize any apprehensions were maybe larger than in reality.”
She said having a clear plan of how the transition is going to occur and what staff responsibilities are is critical. Then, it’s about training, finding those individuals who already have that sensitivity and awareness around animal handling and giving the right tasks to the right people.
“Technology is arriving and is here to stay,” says Telma Tucci, a veterinarian in Italy. She said it’s important to remind employees to not just rely on the new technology, but to teach them how to walk into the pen and interact with the sows and gilts to better understand behavior and to do the best job possible caring for the animals.
Follow the advice of the company you purchase your technology from and don’t try to figure the technology out on your own or do it your own way, cautions Tucci.
“Don’t reinvent the wheel,” said Tanner McCulley, a regional sow manager for TriOak Foods in southeast Iowa. “Listen to your providers or builders, they have done this 100 times. There are some really good thoughts around pen dynamics and pen layout out there.”
Tucci also recommends using storytelling as a way to connect with your team while training them to use new technology like ESF.
Using personal stories of how you’ve interacted or learned about the technology will make a big difference. Brown says, “You have to make it personal for people to really grasp that, ‘Yes, this is a change, but it’s a positive change.’”
Happier Barn, Happier Employees
The labor challenge isn’t going away in the swine industry. Brown is hopeful barn staff will get a more positive feel and enjoy working with animals more by using ESF systems.
“I’m optimistic the barn can be a better environment for staff, with some of these systems. Now, because everyone’s familiar with working with software, it’s a benefit to staff now, to young people working in these barns as compared to the past. Initially, I think it was a bit of a hurdle, because people weren’t that confident working with computers. But now, I think that’s changed,” Brown said.
Valuing barn staff and making sure they get the training needed to run these systems is important. Brown said training should always be focused on developing animal handling and observation of animal behavior skills.
“Encourage people with good animal handling skills to work with the animals,” she said. “And at the same time, look for people who are very familiar with the software and hardware side of things. It’s really a wide set of skills we need in the barn today.”
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Why Training Your Employees is Crucial to Electronic Sow Feeding Success