It all comes down to multi-tasking, patience and attention to detail
Elzette, the breeding department head at Sow 112, is a natural leader and is oftentimes described as very dependable, detailed and a tremendous coach and trainer. And, she happens to be one of the most tenured and technically sound breeding department heads in our system.
Elzette has been in this role for eight years, also working at Sow 23 and Sow 24 prior to moving to Ellsworth with her family where she joined the 112 crew. “I really enjoy the breeding side, the reproductive sciences and taking care of the sows,” said Elzette. “And to be successful you have to have a tremendous attention to detail, patience and the ability to do several things at a time,” she said.
Each sow farm has 13 employees, give or take, and at least four make up the breeding team. Typically a department head, two breed leads and one to three technicians.
The breeding side of the farm has four barns, all interconnected—the breeding barn, post-breeding barn and then two gestation barns. Those four barns are then connected to the farrowing barns and breakroom via a long hallway. It’s in these barns that caretakers help the sows progress through the cycles of reproduction— estrus, breeding, fertilization, gestation and farrowing, all part of an incredible display of one of the most prolific mammals on earth—the sow.
Elzette and her breeding team--Michael, Aaron, Dakota, Tyler and Sam--begin their day with a quick meeting in the breakroom to cover the day’s responsibilities and formulate a game plan, then head out to the breed barns to check on the animals.
While her breed leads chore the barns and check feed and water, Elzette begins scoring the sows for body condition (a numerical scoring system that indicates if the sow is too big, too thin or has the ideal body condition frame) and checking sows for confirmed pregnancies with a hand-held ultrasound machine that she gently places along the abdomen of the sows. The machine displays a two-dimensional gray image composed of dots, that vary from white to light gray for very dense tissues such as the uterus and skin, and from dark gray to black, for fluids and less dense tissues. The goal is to have 95 percent of the bred sows confirmed pregnant, so any fallouts are bred again.
By now her breed leads have finished feed and water checks and are now checking sows for signs of heat, a process that takes a considerable amount of time at the farm. This is done by one person walking a boar down the aisle near the sows while another presses on the backs of the sows to see if they will “stand” (meaning, the sow is in heat and is receptive to mating/service), and if they do they are recorded as ready to be bred.
“Multi-tasking is very important here, because while the team is working their way through the barns they also have their eyes on feed, water and gates to see if anything needs adjusted or repaired,” said Elzette.
Meanwhile, Elzette checks the sows they bred yesterday and if they still show signs of heat (red, swollen vulva, restless) she records that information and will circle back in a few hours to breed them again.
By mid-morning the farrowing team begins moving the sows that recently weaned litters into the breed barns, and Elzette and her team get them settled and assesses their overall health. In the breeding barn those sows will rest, recover and take in a post lactation diet that allows them to receive the right amount of protein and energy the sows need.
“Everything in breeding and farrowing revolves around the care we give to our sows,” said Elzette. “To be successful they have to be healthy and in good condition. Which means as caretakers we have to be providing good ventilation and air flow, access to the right feed and fresh water, and watching their body condition scores every day,” said Elzette.
Sows identified as in heat are moved into a barn to be bred, and since Sow 112 has an on-site GDU the gilts and sows are kept separate. Elzette opens the feeders and checks water lines to ensure they have plenty to eat and drink.
Around 10:30 a.m. she sends her crew to lunch while she stays back to mark the gilts and sows that are ready to go to farrowing, typically around 36-38 each day. “I don’t care to take breaks, it just makes me tired,” said Elzette, who stays in the barns to keep checking on the sows and their feeders to ensure everything is going as it should.”
When her team returns from lunch, then work together to bred the sows they had earlier identified as in heat, normally 35-40 a day. She and her team do a technique called Post Cervical Artificial Insemination (PCAI), which deposits the semen past the cervix, a method that reduces the semen required for mating, allows for the use of genetically superior boars and is more economical than traditional AI.
Before the crew leaves they load feeder boxes so in the morning the sows don’t have to wait for the feed to drop, then they crew heads for home. “I have a great crew, we work very well together,” said Elzette. “We have a lot to do each day in breeding, a lot of details in the body condition scoring, heat checking, pregnancy checking, servicing and animal movements, but we help each other out and work together to get it all done.” #billionpounds