Episode 30

Katherine Marcano-Bell


30: Katherine Marcano-Bell

Hello there.  This is Dr. Casey Bradley and you’re listening to The Real P3 podcast, a podcast dedicated to the real pork producers around the world. I hope you enjoy.


In case you didn’t remember, The Real P3 stands for Producers, Problems and Pigs. Well, the number 1 problem facing producers in the USA is a labor shortage and constant turnover. I hear this every week from the producers I talk to. Every conference that I attend it’s the same problem that’s discussed: our labor shortage. We just do not have enough people, let alone trained people. Well, how I became a pig farmer… I’m not sure I ever heard this response: “I just thought he was hot.” This is our guest speaker coming on, Katherine Bell, and Brandon’s actually also gonna be on as well. They are contract growers in Iowa, and they focus on the finisher side. But Katherine doesn’t have that traditional farm girl background either. She came from the Dominican Republic to New York City to Iowa and now is part of our industry. So, she’s gonna give us some insights from both her perspective and Brandon’s of how to bring in people from an urban environment that really don’t have agriculture backgrounds, but also the struggles Katherine’s faced fitting in to our industry and having a support network as a wife, as a mother, as a woman, and also as a Hispanic – or non-traditional – American farmer. So, stay tuned.



Casey: Well, hello there, Katherine. How are you doing today?

K: I’m doing great. Thank you for having me, Casey.

C: Yes. Would you mind telling the audience a little about yourself and your operation in Iowa?

K: My name is Katherine Marcano-Bell. We are a contract grower, farm family out of Southeastern Iowa in Washington County. And, we have currently 5 barns – hog barns – they’re finishers. We use with an integrator, so we – like I said, we’re contract – and we have approximately 12,000 right now, hogs on site.

C: That’s a lot of bacon.

K: It’s a lot of bacons. I tell my kids that we’re raising bacon bits.


C: I love it. Well, you have a unique story of coming into the swine industry. Could you kind of fill us in what brought you into the swine industry?

K: More like who brought me… [laughter]. Yes. So, I was attending college in Iowa and I met my husband and he ended up being a farmer. So, my plans were to finish college, maybe get my masters here in Iowa, and move out, go find myself and whatever. And then he proposed, so… I couldn’t say no.

C: [laughter] Was it love at first sight?

K: With my husband?

C: Yeah

K: I just thought he was hot.

C: What about the pigs?

K: He told me it was the same thing I thought.

C: So, what was it like, you know, growing up in urban life and being transplanted in Iowa on a pig farm? What have you kinda learned or what have you struggled with from those two type environments?

K: Yes, so I’m originally from Dominican Repulic, Republica Dominicana. And, I was born and raised there, for the most part I will say. I came to the states when I was 11, so that will have been 1996. I didn’t stay here [04:00] permanently until I was 13. At 18, I decided that I want to go away and find myself – New York City, I should say, specifically. I decided to go to college, go somewhere far away where I can just be my own boss. [chuckling] And I, um, ended up in Iowa.

C: Well, that is awesome, and I bring that up because I think the success and the future of the swine industry will rely on us bringing people into our industry that do not have an agriculture background. So I find your story kinda unique. Explain kinda some of your roles, I guess on the farm. What’s your day like being a contract grower – for those that don’t know on the finisher side of how that looks for you.

K: Yeah, so we get pigs approximately when they are around 35-40lbs. Then we fatten them up and we have morning chores, so um… we try, my husband and I, we try to divide chores, like you do this barn and I’ll do the other one, or if we have to do any treatment or any work, maintenance or whatever, we will work it together that site. So, we spend a lot of time together actually. So, usually working or doing something. If it’s not inside the barn, it is outside the barn. So, we will usually take one side and I will take the other side if we are walking together, checking on pigs well-being, making sure that feed lines are working properly, that everyone has water, that there’s not something clogging or anything. So that’s part of the things that we have to do in the morning. Also, checking just the general well-being. A lot can happen in a day with weather fluctuation, so you have to come in with a just listen/ [06:00] hear. Everything is in the sound. You will get all the clues.

C: I love it. And I’ve taught a lot of people that way. You have to listen, feel, smell sometimes, taste unfortunately. I mean you can learn a lot besides just looking, right? It’s a multi-sensory job, so.

K: Yes. I think it was a couple of days ago, walk into the barn and, you know, we can hear, I can hear, this noise. And it was like a noise that had echo against metal. And, you know, the feet, the automatic feed was supposed to be coming on like in 15 minutes, but there was this banging that wasn’t supposed to be there. Well, come to find out, it was an empty feeder that had no feed inside because everything was clogged, and so that’s why the pigs were kicking it, making that noise. So, took care of that right away. So, it’s important to listen.

C: Yeah, very good points. I gotta ask you a question, cause I think your husband’s sittin’ next to you. Who’s the better caretaker at finding the sick pigs?

K: Well, let me have him answer that. What would you say?

Brandon: Actually, we’re both pretty good at it. I would say, probably when they’re smaller, Katherine is. And generally, I think what we’ve found over the years, in smaller pigs, females tend to be a little bit better at finding the sick pigs. I think it’s that kind of more of a mothering instinct. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I can – personally, when Katherine is with me, I actually do a better job at chorin’ cause I can get complacent on some of the stuff that I’ve seen every day for 25 years. So, if we actually – we’re both pretty good at it, but I think in the younger pigs, she’s actually probably a little better than me.

C: I love hearin’ that. So, I love the fact that…

K: I’m not too good with the fat hogs, too, but… that’s ok. [laughter]

C: I don’t like messin’ with the fat hogs either. That’s my least favorite job is puttin’ them on the truck. So. [08:00] Now I was curious. That’s a good comment. Do you think she helps you because she sees things differently? Cause like you said we get complacent because we’ve done it for 35 years.

B: Yeah, I definitely think – as far as when Katherine’s with me – I do notice the small stuff better cause I kinda, when I started really workin’ with her when she became full time on the farm – we were getting ready to have our, right after we had our second baby. You know, I trained her how I was trained 20 years ago, especially in the small details. You know, the small details are what makes a good turn finding the sick pigs, and I think there’s times I get in a hurry. I did it for 20 years, so I think when she’s with me, she still remembers some of those initial things, you know, the small things that there are times I can get complacent with. So, when she’s with me, she almost kinda forces me to go back how I was when I was first beginning and really focus on the small details.

K: I tend to get obsessed on certain little details and things, and I just kinda let it go. So, I’m annoying that way. I feel very natural around them. I’ve been exposed to pigs growing up and back in the Dominican Republic, and you know in big cities also, sometimes you deal with other kind of pigs, so… [laughter] But….

C: We can make that joke, ‘cause you know my husband’s a police officer and lots of people call him a pig on a regular basis.

K: Let me clarify – that refers… definitely NOT referring to law enforcement. I mean just…

C: No, I know, I was just tryin’ to make a joke.

K: People who act like pigs. Yeah! So, it’s funny, because that’s what he expected probably, and your family. But I had more questions about GMO’s. [chuckling] Swear to God!  That’s what I was just… I mean that’s what I wanted to know! Pigs didn’t bother me, I walked into a barn, and it was impressive, just impressive the sheer number and the technology and how everything was. It was not the backyard pigs in the Dominican Republic. [10:00] So, but it’s funny because you know people come here to visit and come around the farm and I mean we have very good stall control, but it still bothers a lot of people, and I’ve seen some people throw up!

C: Well, I can say I probably have thrown up in my career, too, because somebody’s forgotten a dead bucket that sat outside in the summer for a couple weeks, but…

B: That’s nasty.


K: You can come but you can smell what needs to be removed from a pen.

C: Yeah. So, I wanna switch gears a little bit. In our initial conversation, you made a comment that you don’t feel like you belong and you’ve had a hard time connecting in the industry. Kinda talk us through that and where that comes from.

K: Well, I will say just in general there’s a lot of groups, little groups and big groups and I mean, other than social media, which is where I used to try and connect and learn and keep up to date, besides the radio, of course, but I haven’t really gotten into any specific group or with any specific organizations. I’ve done continuing training and tried to work with people, but at the end of the day, I’m not as involved with doing things in the industry as my husband is, and I think that it’s just very easy to dismiss the wife or my role. So, you know, it’s okay.

C: So, you think…

K: I mean, it’s not okay, but it’s okay to learn to live with it and but… other than that, no, I mean I love going to conferences and learning and continue taking education and just learning more about everything, so. [12:00]

C: So, what can we do to fix this problem? Because you speak to my heart and I’ve been an advocate for females in agriculture, and I have gone through the school of hard knocks. I may have a PhD as well, but grew up in the swine industry, worked on hog farms all my life. What can we do to fix this problem? Because hearing from women in agriculture and then you being a Spanish-speaking bilingual person, I hear it a lot from our Spanish-speaking employees that emigrate here as well to work in our industry, that they feel like they don’t belong. We don’t have the right resources for them, from a farm level to an industry level. And I kinda wanted to get your perspective, because this is applicable across the world. Europe faces the same challenges.  They have immigrants that come in and work in the industries in Netherland and Denmark as well. So, what do you think we need to do to get more women appreciated on that side and then when we look at our non-native, English-speaking employees and things like that to build a better community and support system?

K: I think that we need to just listen, have an open mind. A lot of progress has been made for women in agriculture. A lot more in the last gosh, 7 years, I’ve noticed that there’s been a push for – “You might not have realized it, but your mom was riding a tractor when you were a kid, she was walking on the farm when she was pregnant. She didn’t get any recognition.” So, yeah, the salesmen – it’s an old-time joke that the salesmen will come and they will make eye contact with the husband and acknowledge the husband, and not really the wife. To a certain degree that still does happen a lot.

C: The old tradition – things are changing, but we [14:00] still do have some issues with, you know, getting the same respect or attention for a female vs. male in the traditional family farm operation.



We wanna take this break to thank our sponsors, The Sunswine Group, NutraSign, Swine Nutrition Management and Pig Progress.  But we also wanted to remind you of our new Facebook group, the Global Swine Professionals.  We’re gonna be doing something fun; some live interviews, some Q&A and we just wanna hear from our audience, so that’s a great place for you to take the time, leave us a comment, tell us what you wanna hear, or volunteer to be on our show, because we’re always looking for those awesome pork producers around the world.  Well, that’s all I had, so let’s get back to that episode now.



C: What kind of programs would you like to see done by our industry? I mean, you said listen is the key thing. But what else could we do? Do we need more networking events for women working in agriculture?

K: I’ll tell you what. So, there’s women in agriculture. There is females heading farms, being managers in farms, doing a lot of jobs from the packing line – the meat packing line – to everything to raising pigs. And a lot of these networking events or opportunities are in English, which obviously is what we all speak here, or try to anyways, but you just don’t see a lot of diversity, even though Hispanics and other ethnicities are probably the majority of the farm workers.

C: I love it. And I would also add – kinda something I’ve tried to change in my roles – is that when we have networking events, it’s usually golfing or shooting or fishing, and that’s not something I enjoy, so I’m workin’ on changing some of that.

K: Yeah, so I – I mean my handicap score [16:00] sucks, but I have my own golf clubs. You know?

C: Well, you do better than me, Katherine! Unless it’s putt-putt golf, I can’t try. So, I don’t even try.

K: So, you know, and fishing I love fishing. So, I mean, not professionally and we don’t do it very often, but it’s just stuff that it will be a great way to also connect with others, maybe, given the opportunity. So, what I’m seeing is that you have on the west coast, California, a lot of… there’s groups, there’s organized groups for minorities. Not just females, but ethnic minorities farm workers. And you know we don’t have that in the Midwest where I am. We have a lot of labor provided by us, by minorities, ethnic minorities, but there’s just not an organization – a group – I can turn to connect. You always hear the stories from everybody else’s perspective, or ideal perspective, not really what’s really going on within the community or labor issues or issues of access to resources.

C: So, are you willing to help me change that, Katherine? Will you help us lead the charge and fix that?

K: Heck yeah! I mean absolutely. Anything that can be done to make things more accessible, because how can you have a workforce, whether they’re here on work visas or whatever, if you’re not training them appropriately in a language that they can understand? The problem is we get too technical, we assume everybody has the same education level. We assume that everybody’s the same, or that – without asking or finding out for ourselves. So, that has to change. We cannot be a one-bill-fits-all [18:00] type deal.

C: I love it. Your husband’s sittin’ there a little bit. So, we have someone that didn’t come from agriculture. What did he do different to train you vs somebody that maybe grew up on a farm that’s helped him?

K: He listened to me. That’s how he trained me. No, everybody learns differently, and it was just a matter of getting in there, start with biosecurity, start with and demonstrate to me as I go, because that’s how I learn. I like to read all the facts; I will research everything on a topic. But I also want someone to demonstrate to me how to do it, and I will observe you like a hawk and learn that way. I think that’s important. Learning on the job. Opportunities to learn about the subject, to know the basic rules so you don’t get into trouble. Farm safety, biosecurity, safety-ness, equipment safety, but also the opportunity to be out there in the field and learn. See how it’s done. For the real practice.

C: So, do you feel – and I’ve heard this from other people – that written SOP’s and videos are they not effective to train you? So, you need more hands-on?

K: Well, I will say that for this type of job, if we’re talking about something that you have to do with your hands that you actually – you’re not behind a desk all the time or hardly if any – you cannot just rely on presentations and videos. You need to see an actual person doing it. Kind of like have a mentor of some type.

C: Mmmhmm.

K: Or learn on the job. Whether it’s a new job, you can only be sure and confident after you have done it yourself. After you’re doing it and hear whether you’re doing it wrong or not because somebody’s going to be there to coach you. [20:00]

C: I get it. I taught students, and every time I could get the students on farm, I would recruit new employees at the University. My last year, they made me do it by video, and it’s a disservice that we don’t have those mentors and more patience in teaching people the skills. It’s not like I woke up or was born with the ability to walk in a pig barn and pick out sick pigs. And your husband can probably say this same thing, I don’t know if he had the same type of dad that I did, but I sure learned the hard way a lot of times.

B: We actually had feeder cattle growin’ up, so it wasn’t til I moved back from Kansas City when I was 26 that we put up our first pig shed, because that was my only opportunity to be back farmin’ because we didn’t have enough ground, so I had NO experience with pigs when I started.

K: Yes! He was the maverick.

C: Some really great insights that you’ve provided our audience, I think that’s really awesome. But before we go, I always give my guests the opportunity to turn the table and ask me a question. Do you have any questions you want to ask?

K: One goal that you have – short term goal – to make a difference. What are your short-term goals? How do you see the near future?

C: So, some of my short-term goals is basically what I’m doing with you today – trying to meet as many different people in our industry to learn about the problems, right? And then let’s create a plan. But I’m also trying to build a community and a support group. Through my Coffee & Careers program, I’m mentoring students. We’re trying to find ways to – with that I hope to find ways to – bring new people like yourself into our industry who don’t have an agriculture background. So that’s my short-term goals. Other short-term goals is listening to people, right? Putting different people in the room and coming up with solutions that really work. So, long term goals will be the solutions, but short-term goals is putting different people [22:00] in a room, talking to people, understanding our problem. And our number one problem – at least in the US, which may be different around the world – is our labor issue, and so connecting with you has been a great opportunity to figure out how we’re gonna do a better job at that and make us all feel part of the industry. Because you know I grew up in agriculture, it’s feeding the world, it’s a passion I have and the biggest thing I’ve heard is how can I share that passion and that love to motivate other people, so those are some of my short-term goals.

K: That’s very inspiring. We share a lot in common.

C: Well, Katherine, thank you for your time today. We’ll be in touch for sure, because we’ve got a challenge, right? So, initiative. I appreciate your time and have a blessed day and keep up the fight, the good fight.

K: Yes. You, too, guys. A lot of stuff going on in the pork industry.

C: Yep. Take care now.

K: Bye, bye.

C: Well, I don’t know about you, but I fell in love with Katherine and her husband Brandon from the beginning. They are great people. They feed the world. But we really do have a problem. I don’t think the US is the only problem. We could go around the world and in our industry, we’re working with different languages every day. We’re working with people with different backgrounds. We look at the demographic shift in agriculture and the statistics show me that more women are coming in the industry. We need to fix this problem. We need to make everybody feel like they belong. We need to make them feel like family and that we want to serve them. We need to stop thinking we’re in the pork industry and start thinking we’re in the people industry. If we want to solve this problem, we need to look really hard at ourselves and our management. How many times do we talk about animal welfare, animal performance, but yet we never consider human welfare, human performance, and work-life balance? Agriculture’s hard. [24:00] It’s a 365-day/year job. I get that. But we can do better. We can be creative. We can become an industry that people want to join. We can become employers that everybody’s fighting to get in the doors. If we don’t, we will not survive. We will raise our production costs so high that we can’t compete in the global landscape. We need to be open-minded. I know what it’s like to be in a room and to not understand anyone talking, being the only English-speaking one in the room and everything’s in Greek, literally. It wasn’t a fun experience, but it was very humbling. So, when we think about these employees that we have from different backgrounds, we have to think about what it feels like to be them. Put your feet in their boots for a day. It’s not easy. They’re very intelligent, wonderful people. How can we make them successful in our systems? And that’s our challenge, right? I can give you all the great advice. I can introduce you to lovely people like Katherine. But the question is, the USA Swine Industry specifically, are you ready to step up and fix it? Let’s stop talking about it and let’s fix it. And just in case if my opinion, my passion’s not enough to get you riled up and excited about fixing this problem, our next speaker from Summit Smart Farms is gonna give you the economics of why you need to fix it, so stay tuned.



Before we go, we wanna thank our sponsors again.  Swine Nutrition Management, NutraSign, Pig Progress and The Sunswine Group.  Don’t forget to join our Facebook the Global Swine Professionals.  And as always, if you get a chance, hug a pig for me today.

Swinco and Big Litter Concept

Hello. Welcome to this episode. We have a special edition. This is a sponsored episode by Swinco (Swine Nutrition Company) out of the Netherlands. I’m really excited for this because this is our first pig farm that we are going to visit in the Netherlands. We are going to be speaking to Peter about his sow unit and how he can achieve 37 pigs per sow per year. So stay tuned.

Casey: Hello, there! How’s everyone doing today?

Pieter: We’re good, thanks.  Thank you.

Casey: So, in case the audience is wondering, I’m “technically” in the Netherlands today sitting in a rainy Arkansas, but it looks like a sunshine your way guys. So would you guys mind introducing yourself to the audience and let’s go ahead and start with [00:01:00] Pieter.

Pieter: Okay. I’m Pieter Beerens, I’m 34 years old. I’m living in Moergestel. It’s a small place in the Netherlands. We have a sow farm with 350 sows. We have danish sows with a French Bigorren boar. We sell our piglets at 22 kilos to Belgium. They’re going on export. And last year we bring in 37 piglets per sow.

Casey: Wow. Roel?

Roel: My name is Roel van der Bruggen. I’m 40 years old. I also live in the South of the Netherlands, near Pieter’s farm, in Bladel. I work for the company Swinco. We work together with Pieter. I know Pieter for, I think, about six years now, and together we struggle with the [00:02:00] challenge to wean all those piglets in the sow pen. That’s what Pieter’s been quite good at.

Casey: I was going to say “struggle,” but in the US, I’m quite impressed. And I’m sure some of our other listeners around the world would be impressed with 37 pigs per sow per year. And that kind of brings us to today. Kind of walk through, Pieter, some of the things that you do from a management perspective to make that happen.

Pieter: I think we do the Big-Litter concept now for one and a half year. Before that, we do a motherless rearing with a mumbo machine, but it was not that good for me; too many losses by the motherless-rearing piglets. Then I spoke with Roel to find a way to wean as much as piglets by the sow herself, so we don’t have to make any false parents anymore.

Normally, [00:03:00] we make four or five big litters a week. So it means, we use eight to 10 sows to put 18-22 piglets with. We started with what we call two sows to 40 piglet system. So there we put 40 piglets with two sows. But it brings us a lot of more work. We have to make the fans bigger. We had to do a lot of more things then, than now with the Big Litter concept. Now we take piglets from 6-10 days. And we put seven-eight piglets with a sow. So they, in total, they got 18-22 piglets. They, every pen had a milk cup so they [00:04:00] can drink milk 24 hours a day, seven days a week extra. And we put a, another cup with liquid feeds with it within the pen.

Casey: Roel, Can you explain the transition from the Netherlands of the issues around motherless rearing or milk crates or milk ducts… Can you kind of walk through that history in the Netherlands and why the regulations coming in and that transition, you guys are facing?

Roel: Yes, of course, Casey, I can do that. I think somewhere around 2005, we saw that motherless rearing was coming up in the Netherlands. Also different systems were coming up. Peter mentioned the mumbo systems that were coming up. But also the rescue decks, I think also known in the US, came to Holland.

Then we started to work with these systems. In the beginning, [00:05:00] of course, we have to search for the right way to feed those piglets because that’s very critical, and it’s also very important that you have the right diets, but also given the right time and the right solution rates and what feed ratio and the right temperatures, of course.

But then we saw that those piglets performed very good, especially after weaning. So, we saw that the growth was much faster than the piglets that were being raised at the sow. So therefore we were thinking, can’t we put automatic feeding – because that’s actually what we do – next to the sow into the farrowing pen and get that improved coat at all piglets? Because we know that that is very beneficial.

Together with that development that we put in progress, we have [00:06:00] strict regulations regarding welfare of the animals. We have all kinds of concepts that piglets have more space. One finisher, for example, it’s quite common that in the Netherlands it has one square feet, one square meter, sorry. In those concepts, in those meet concepts, if mother is rearing, weaning before 24 days, it’s forbidden. So that gave another boost to those feeding installations into the pen. Together with that we have the transfer policy, what Pieter was explaining to you, divides all his piglets over his sows.

Casey: So let’s take a step back: to get 37 pigs per sow per year. What is your born alive averaging?

Pieter: Last year, born alive are 17.8.

Casey: Average. Wow.

Pieter: Average, yeah.

Casey: So with that, do you have, you know, uniformity issues or do you have small [00:07:00] pigs? Large pigs? Kind of walk us through that concept of managing that many pigs at birth?

Pieter: I would say also last year we had a loss percentage of 9.5% before weaning. So, we weaned last year, 16 piglets per sow -per litter- and the most of the time I work, I spend in the farrowing pen. Most weeks, I’ve got another man working here for 20 hours a week, and he works the most at the piglets and the sows.

80% of my time, I work in the farrowing pen. When the sows give birth, I’m there. So, we have smaller and we have got big pigs. There’s not so much variety. Every sow we gave, after birth, we gave the pigs a number. So, we write it at the charts. We use one, five [00:08:00] and 10. When the piglets are all good, big pretty piglets, it’s a 10. Five, a half good-half little. And one is, yeah, not the best piglets. So, we do that because we do our own rotation breeding. I only use sows we gave the number 10 for the biggest who have born. So, we know if that 22 piglets and it’s a 10, I know with weaning that there were 22 big piglets.

So,I try to keep my variety in piglets low. We always use the sows of the big piglets for rotation breeding.

Casey: How many average functional teats do [00:09:00] you have on your sows with that many pigs?

Pieter: I think we started with the Danish sow in 2013 and then I think a 90% at 14 teat.

Casey: So we’re missing three, at least three to four. Nice.

Pieter: Yeah. Three at least. Yeah. In 2013, we stopped buying the gilts. We started with rotation breeding, and our first goal or first weekend, I don’t look at live born for my rotation breeding, so I don’t breed for live born. The first thing I will look at is the number we gave.

Casey: So you’re pressuring the uniformity, the size.

Pieter: Yeah. And then we look at the teat of the sow. I will try to take sows with 15 or 16 teats and with my boar selection, for breeding for the rotation breeding, I only take boars with 15 or more [00:10:00] teat. So that’s how I try to put that number of teat higher.

Casey: So, I mean, with that in mind, with your rotational breeding and that ability to select what is your replacement rates compared to, I guess other producers?

Pieter: Last year we had a replacement of 50%.

Casey: Okay. So fairly there with everyone.

Pieter: Yeah. It’s not high. It’s not low. I think it’s normal.

Casey: Yeah. What’s your mortality rate?

Pieter: Last year we were 7%.

Casey: So about half of what some producers are here in the US. So, you know, that gives you that selection criteria to really push that. But yeah. Obviously, you know, I ran a herd with 14 and a half born alive, and I struggled. I struggled with the uniformity issues. I struggled with functional teats and managing that. We had to make a lot of nurse sows and things, and we batch farrowed, [00:11:00] you know, and that had a struggle in itself there with nurse sows.


We are going to take a little break to tell you a little bit about Swinco out of the Netherlands. Swinco supports and guides international pig farms in improving their business results with the right advice in the field of farm management and feed programs and focus on health and growth. We work together on optimum performance of the piglet and the highest possible return for the entrepreneur. Swinco offers a unique concept for the pig industry. This concept is a combination of three elements: a complete range of feed products, a feed installation, and management advice. Our team consists of 25 experts with a lot of international and practical knowledge, especially in the farrowing house. Thanks to our approach and our feeds, you are able to get the maximum returns on your business.

Thank you, Swinco, we really appreciate your support. Now back to our episode.



Casey: Walk us through, you know, what the Big Litter Concept did to help you with those nurse sows, bum sows, to kind of manage that and kind of walk us through why you switched from the traditional methods of fostering and into the big sow.

Pieter: With the mumba system or the nurse sow. With the Mumba system, I can put the piglets with the machine from 10 days or older. We tried it younger, but it didn’t work. We cannot put enough of heat in the pen with a lamp or with a heater. So 10 days was minimal. And if I took from 10 days, I can’t put the piglets from four or five days with that sow, and then I can’t put piglets from two days with the four- or five-day old sow. So I had to make three [00:13:00] steps. So I need three sows from three different ages to make a foster sow. So if I had to make five or six foster sows in a week, it means I had to use 16-18 sows for nurse sows, for foster sows.

With the Big Litter concept, we can take piglets from minimum five, six days old. I will take three sows, I make one sow empty. I put the piglets with the other two sows, but I can put piglets from two days old to that five-day old sow. Plus, the piglets put by that sow we wean at 22 days. So the sow stays in the group.

Casey: So, she never moved. She stays in her room.

Pieter: No. She stays in her room and wean her at the same group. Yeah, she’s came in at the farrowing pan.

Casey: So you don’t have to [00:14:00] worry about her cycling back during, not before you winter.

Pieter: She’s just staying 27 days or 28 days in the farrowing ban. Only she weans piglets from 22 days old. And with the foster sow, you had sow who’s standing 35 days in a farrowing pen, and weans piglets from 25 days old. So I think we wean almost one a week. With the foster sows, you know, for not staying in farrowing pen.

Casey: So has that done anything to your, I guess, subsequent rebreeding at all? Have you looked at any of those benefits other than just the number of pigs weaned? It’s obviously it’s the big picture.

Pieter: Yeah. It’s the big picture. I think we had one of to… we do the Big Litter Concept. I think Roel has got some. Yeah, he’s been here yesterday for the results he had to get.

Roel: Yeah, indeed. We collected some results from a Pieter’s management system I assessed. [00:15:00] And what that we see is we have taken two periods one from 1st of April, 2019 through the September, 2019. And then he was using nurse sows, combined with mumbo machines. And the other time period we did was 1 April, 2020, and 13 September, 2020. And then he was using the Big Litter Concept. And we see that his production is going up with about 7.5%. In the first period, he weaned 35 piglets; 35,34. And the second one 38.1. And that’s a bit coincidence it is exactly between 7 and 8%, because when we have do calculation models at other farms, what they can gain [00:16:00] with, and if you look at a typical farm, we have a calculation model that has about a thousand sows and you’ll make each week six to seven foster sows. If you are going to work with the Big Litter system, you reduce that to one foster sow – because sometimes you maybe have the sow that’s not completely, uh, okay, so you have to replace him. Then we come to that improved production of about 7-8% in piglets. And it’s coming mainly from the cycle index, because you can make more rounds.

On the other hand, we see that foster sows who have longer farrowing periods than 30 days, they have less live born. At Pieter’s farm, we looked at it, and it’s 0.9. So sows that being used as normal foster sows, as we know it [00:17:00], have 0.9 less total born in the next litter, then the Big Litter sows we have normal 26-27 circling at a time.

Casey: Yeah, that was always my frustrating frustration. Managing sows. You always had to pick your best ones to be the foster sow. And then, of course, you kept her longer or she milked more. You took more body weight off her, and she didn’t rebreed as well. And I think you kind of ruined their genetic potential.

So this Big Litter concept, you’re almost pushing that. I’d be curious to, you know, as we get more and more periods of. I think you’re going to probably top 40 here soon, I would guess. But one of the things I was concerned with the Big Litter concept, and we talked about farrowing crates size, and that’s been a question I think around the world of open farrowing, farrowing crates, you know what the size is, and it sounds like you have a pretty standardized farrowing crate size. Do we run out of space with 22 pigs [00:18:00] running around? And how do you do that? Manage that?

Pieter: I have normal farrowing pens. No balance frost, nothing, just a basic pen. And I do not use something extra to reduce that.

Casey: I think I remember if we talked last time, at 21 days of age in that litter you are actually pulling pigs off.

Pieter: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s right. Yeah. We put 21 days or 22, just on Monday, we wean and with a Big Litter, we take the biggest piglets off.

Casey: And they’re going with those older weaned pigs then?

Pieter: No, we normally, we get we had, uh, eight big litters per week. So, eight sows with 20 piglets and we took every sow to six big, biggest piglets off. So you got eight times six- 48 piglets from the Big Litter [00:19:00] concept, and they will be separated from the other piglets. But they’re gonna be for four or five days on liquid feed, extra. Just to give them a little bit of power or they know the liquid feed, so do not have the weaning dip.

Yeah. They get the liquid feed for four or five days, and then they go normally for the bit of dry feed. Plus the 14 or 15 piglets who are staying in a farrowing pen with the sow, they grow – I don’t know the exact weights – but if they stay one week longer with the sow, you don’t recognize them anymore after a week. So they grow very good.

Casey: Now, what I also found interesting here, because, you know, when I was talking to Paul [00:20:00] Ferris, and we talked about our farrowing decks and liquid milk replacer, you do a little bit more. We do milk replacer in your system, the Big Litter concept, and then we’d come in with a liquid feed and then we move them to a dry feed. Can one of you explain that? Because I’ve always… I think this is a great concept and kind of always thought about taste, pattern recognition and things. And can you explain how that works?

Roel: Yeah, we call it gradual weaning, that concept. We have to do that here in, I think in all, almost all West Europe. The main reason is that we cannot use any additives, like maybe zinc oxide or antibiotics anymore. So we have to train the guts of a piglet. It’s actually combined with the Big Litter Concept, and we call it gradual weaning. And first thing with gradual weaning that we do is we learn the pig to eat next to the sow. We do that with [00:21:00] milk because it’s fairly tasty products. They will drink it quite quick after birth. Of course, colostrum intake is very important. Then they start to drink the milk in the milk cup, they have milk, and then day 12, all piglets are drinking from the milk cup. Especially when you do the Big Litter Concept, because we put cameras on those Big Litters in several farms.

Then we see, if we add extra piglets, let’s say around day six, all piglets will drink at the sow, all piglets will drink at the cup and all piglets will eat out of the bowl from normal, dry feeds. And we all know that that’s a very big advantage if you have a good feed intake, but also the difference feeding intake of milk and normal dry feeds that the piglets will perform better after weaning.

At day 12, we switch, day 12 to 14, we switched the milk in a cup to liquid pre-starter. So that’s also via [00:22:00] the cup. Most farms, we start with a bowl with dry feed around day 10 next to the milk cup. Sometimes we switch the cup off before weaning. Peter, you do that Friday, I think, if I’m correct?

Pieter: Yeah. Three days before weaning, I shut the cup. I would close it, just because I see when I do that, dry feed intake in the weekend increase very much. So, the piglets know how to eat dry feed, but when the cup stays open, they prefer the cup because it’s much easier, it’s liquid, it’s milk. So, I choose to shut the cup, have to close the cup on Friday. And we admonish three days before weaning, we closed the cup. Yeah.

Casey: And then I guess the scratch-all weaning, when you take them to the nursery, they’re fed a very similar product, I’m assuming.

Pieter: We feed the same [00:23:00] dry feed for five days in the weaning stable, or you call it. Yeah. Yeah. Nurse suite. After five days, the big ones we switch at five days after weaning, and the small ones a week. It just depends how big they are, how old they are. It’s just a feeling of, yeah, just look in the pen how big the piglets are, how the manure is, for switching from one feed to another feed.

Casey: That’s awesome.

Roel: We see with this approach that you have a feed intake before weaning around 900 grams, at Pieter’s farm we calculated.

Casey: 900 grams? Per pig or per litter?

Roel: Per pig.

Casey: Per pig?

Roel: Yep. Yep.

Casey: Before weaning?

Roel: Before weaning. Indeed.

Casey: That’s a light bulb right there after listening to some presentations this week. So we’re not even getting 900 grams in the first two weeks probably post-wean today. [00:24:00] So, obviously there’s a lot we need to do from a, as we call it, gradual weaning perspective, and in transition. One of the things, you know, if we look at the big picture, most of your pigs are going to Belgium. When you spoke on you’re running two and a half percent mortality in the nursery or the weaning stable, do you know what it is, from Belgium, how those pigs are performing and, and your mortality there?

Pieter: We’ve got three stables in Belgium. I’ve got the results of the last stable we delivered. Yesterday were the last piglets delivered to the slaughter house. They go to Belgium on a weight of 21 kilos, yesterday they weighed 131 kilos alive. They grow 860 grams and a losses were  [00:25:00] 1.8% and it was 600 piglets, the stable of 600.

Casey: Well, that’s pretty impressive to have, you know, I guess your estimated mortality overall would be around maybe 13% from birth. If I did my math right.

Pieter: Yes. In Belgium it depends which stable, which better. It’s in the south side of Belgium. It’s another wetter type than air. So it can freeze into minus 20. You don’t have any heating into that stable. So in summer it’s easier than in winter. But yeah, we have to deal with it.

Casey: Yeah. Well, I was going to say, did it depend on what type of Belgian chocolate they got?

Pieter: Yeah. Milk or pure. [laughter]

Casey: Is there anything else, Roel or Peter, you want to talk about around the Big Litter? I think it’s pretty interesting idea. Hopefully we can start some of [00:26:00] those concepts in discussions here in the US as we move to these larger litters and how to deal with them. I mean, that’s been a common problem with everyone I’ve talked to is how to manage these big litters. And obviously the Big Litter Concept is taking advantage of that. Any last minute thoughts around that?

Roel: I think it’s very easy to implement in a small farm or in a big farm. And we use this concept in farms with more than 4,000 sows in one location, and we do it with 150 sows. Only thing you need is a feeding system. That’s quite easy to install. Also in those feeding systems, we did a lot of development last year. They are very easy to manage and fairly low maintenance systems. The first systems, we know they were quite fragile, but those are really durable systems that are easy to [00:27:00] work with. I also think which genetics that we pick: if we pick a hypo or we pick atopics or we pick a danbred sow, that’s how all those houses have more piglets born than they can raise.

So, we have to look for solutions. We have looked at, the past 15 years, at a number of solution – we started with motherless rearing, but I really can say that this is development that you can use all over the world, and it’s very easy to implement.

Casey: Yeah, you don’t have to have any fancy equipment or new crates or special rooms and

Roel: You need milk cup system, that’s what you need. Or another feed system. It doesn’t have to be a milk cup system. The importance is that the nutrition that you feed next to the sow, that is very important. Also, of course the basics has to be correct. You have to have a normal good farrowing pen with a normal temperature, with healthy sow in [00:28:00] it, and has a good milk production.

But if we are going to add in extra piglets and we don’t feed the right products next to the sow, then you can come into problems. If you have the right products, our experience is always successful.

Casey: Well, I’d also say the right products, but you need to replicate the Pieters in the world, and implementation’s probably just as important as nutrition cause I can make the best diets, but if we can’t apply them, it doesn’t matter.

Roel: That’s correct, but we have instruction videos. We took a very close look at how Pieter is working, and we made all kinds of instruction videos. Also, at the bigger farms, at bigger integrations, how to implement that. And it’s a change, of course, and you have to guide it, but we see if you guide it well, and you learn the people how to [00:29:00] do it, they really become quite enthusiastic about it, because it’s much easier than foster sows. They have better piglets. They have less losses. So, then everybody is happy.

Casey: So, this is a global podcast. Are you willing to work with any producer anywhere in the world, and how do they get hold of you?

Roel: Oh, yeah. That’s no problem. If anybody wants more information, they can go to our website. That’s http://www.Swinco.nl, or you can send an email to me. That’s Roel: Roel@swinco.nl. We are happy to work with people who are interested.

Casey: There will be the links and information in the description on the podcast. So in case you didn’t write that down while you’re driving to your next farm visit, please reach out and of course, visit our website. There will be a [00:30:00] newsletter coming out with describing the Big Litter Concept and other stuff from Swinco and all the great things you’re doing. Pieter, it was pretty awesome talking to you today. You’re the type of producer I want to put up on the wall to say that we all need to “Be like Pieter” and drive that performance. And family operation, thank you for balancing it. As we both do between our little ones running around, I can’t believe it’s been quiet for both of us.

So, I really appreciate both of your time. I’m really excited about the Big Litter Concept and hopefully get to take that a little further for Swinco here in the US and get some of these producers really thinking about how we manage these big litters. You’re doing a great job, guys. Thank you.

Pieter: Thank you, Casey.


Before we go, I just wanted to thank our sponsor again, Swinco. Without them, this would not be possible. Also if you get a chance, visit [00:31:00] http://www.therealp3.com. Sign up for our newsletter and learn more about our sponsor. And if you get a chance, don’t forget to hug a pig for me today.