Kielsmeier Sow Farm Continues to Climb Their Way Up

posted on Saturday, January 6, 2018

The song “Started from the Bottom” by rapper Drake seems to mark the 2017 anthem at Kielsmeier Sow Farm (Sow 12), a farm that has quite literally been at the bottom of the SelectPride chart for the last couple of years. Struggles with PRRS, staffing setbacks and a host of other challenges hurt performance. The farm couldn’t seem to catch a break.

“We have tremendous managers and teams at all of our farms, but nothing comes easy in this business and the challenges can oftentimes feel unsurmountable,” said Dan Dean, director of sow production. “It was the summer of 2016 when we collectively said, ‘enough,” it’s Sow 12’s time.”

“We drove a nail in the breakroom wall,” said Shawn Chaplin. At the time Shawn was a farm manager oftentimes enlisted to help develop fellow manages and troubleshoot production issues. “We talked about how it would hang our first SelectPride plaque when we hit the top ten.”

The timing was right. In Nov 2016, the farm was finishing a full remodel to a pen gestation, positively-filtered farm, and was depoped and repoped with PRRS-free gilts. “While the structure of the farm and the health of the animals improved, we got to work on the heart of the farm—the people,” said Shawn, who was in the final stages of developing manager Nick Benge over at Sow 13. “Nick was ready to take over the reins, and I was ready for my next challenge.”

“We needed someone who could walk into the farm and objectively assess the team, and that person was Shawn,” said Dan. “We knew the farm and team had potential, and he does a great job of developing people.”

The Sow 12 team is made up of Kory Brannick, Michael Bridges, Marshall Fleming, Jacob Moxley, Samara Neubauer, Isaiah Texeira, Rachael Waters, Chris Jackson, Allison Orton, Tim Lamb, Maxwell Klepper, Trey Chaplin, Kylie Chaplin and Jacob Stratton.

“We started having weekly meetings, setting goals, and really learning what was going on and what needed to happen to turn the farm around,” said Samara, who joined the farm May of 2016. “Shawn taught us what the numbers meant, and how we could improve them.”

Before joining Iowa Select Farms, Samara worked on the cleaning staff at a nursing home. “I felt nervous about not knowing much about pork production, but we did fun things outside of work that helped us band together—we golfed, fished, did sporting clays and had a lot of fun as a team,” said Samara. “I was surprised by just about everything Shawn was working to helping us understand. I really enjoyed learning it all, it was clear we all needed to be 100% committed, and we were.”

“One of the first things we talked about what how important weekends are,” said Shawn. “Sixty percent of the breeds happen on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, which makes weekends as important as week days.”

“This team was tremendous,” said Shawn. “They were ‘all in’ and even more ready than I was to climb up that SelectPride chart.” The next few months was a flurry of communication and coaching.

Whiteboards were installed, followed by daily, weekly and quarterly goal setting, quizzes, scorecards and cross training. And, anxiously watching for the weekly SelectPride results to come across the computer.

“Soon everyone could see and feel the improvements at the farm,” said Shawn. “I will never forget the time we got the list and someone said, ‘Hey, we’re not last!’. Then we were in 27th place, then 26th place, and it was happening. Day after day, week after week we were improving.”

At quarter two of 2017, Sow 12 received their first production bonus checks, rewarding them financially for exceeding their weaned pig goal.

“I’ll never forget visiting the farm the day after Thanksgiving,” said Dan. “I walked into the office but never actually made it out to the farm. The team was waiting for me with their results printed and laying across the table. They had question after question around how they can improve in their categories. We sat in that breakroom for hours.”

Rachael Waters joined the farm Feb 2017 as a breeding technician. Now a breed lead, she has also enjoyed the technical training and drive to get better. Unlike Samara, she had a background in cattle, and went to Iowa State University where she majored in animal science.

“I focused on breeding and reproduction in college, so when I joined the farm I gravitated to breeding department,” said Rachel. “I love heat checking, seeing the sows all lined up, the whole nine yards. It was fascinating to me how the training, making a conscious effort to improve and putting in a lot of hard work could really impact the results of the farm.”

Chuck Fowler led the farrowing department through September 2017, when he relocated to join the Derby Sow Farm team and start up that farrowing department. “It was really hard for me to leave, because of the friendships I made there and the progress we were making,” said Chuck. “But me saying ‘yes’ to my opportunity opens up a position for Max, and that’s what’s great about Iowa Select Farms—the opportunity for everyone to keep growing.”

“We been focusing on three things to help us turn around our numbers,” said Max, now the farrowing department head. “First, we checked on our sows obsessively, and identified our problem sows right away so they could get special care. We also better understood what drives pre-wean mortality up or down, like working heat lamps, mats, and the placement of those things.”

“And when in doubt, sleeve!” chimed in Allison Orton, the day one lead. “Every pig saved is $3 extra dollars of bonus. While it’s not about the money, it helped us all put it into perspective of what all of these extra efforts could do.”

Allison joined the farm in January 2016 as a farrowing technician and is now a day one lead. “I love how much this team cares for the sows,” she said. “I wish everyone knew how much we care for the animals here, and also about the opportunity working here has for someone like me. I didn’t have a background in animal care or any experience in farming. But I learned it, and if you work hard you can be promoted.”

Tim Lamb started as a farrowing technician at Sow 12 in 2014. A resident of Hubbard, he previously worked at a nearby plastics factory. After two months in farrowing he moved over to breeding. “I remember I didn’t want to leave farrowing because I loved it, but we needed to fill the position at the time so I moved over.” After ten months, Tim started developing into to the breed lead role with his eye on soon moving up to breeding department head. “I thought I was ready, but in reality I was nowhere close,” he laughed.

But Dan saw the leadership potential in Tim and devised a plan. He challenged Tim to take the lead of the department, pushing him and his team to take ownership in breeding and heat checking every day —until the farm got turned around. Tim took Dan’s advice and the numbers improved.

“It all started clicking,” said Tim. “I was able to show him I was ready to take over breeding when we proved we could hit the numbers. I’ve loved this job ever since I started, and I especially enjoyed thinking through challenges.”

Kylie Chaplin, Shawn’s daughter and a student at Ellsworth, works part-time at the farm in the evenings, tending to the sows and drying off piglets. An effort that has helped reduce stillbirths and increase born alive.

Jacob Stratton, a summer intern at the farm, accepted a full-time position with Iowa Select Farms and will be starting full time after graduation. “He made a huge contribution in just one short summer,” said Shawn.

There were other accomplishments made on the farm, ones not measured by numbers or bonuses. “This is a young team, and there’s a lot of talent on this farm,” said Shawn. “I can say there are easily 5-6 people on that team who are going to make great leaders for us someday.”

With Shawn recently promoted to sow supervisor, he still technically manages Sow 12, but also now supervises the Howard and Mitchell county sow farms. Anyone can tell just by talking to him that he’s by far prouder of the advancements of his own people.

“Tim and Max are pretty much leading the farm right now, and both are in great positions to manage this farm, or a different one, in the next 3-6 months.”

Shawn says Max is bubbly, always smiling and is an “uplifter”, making people laugh, motivating and encouraging them through his “Gold Star Program,” which recognizes people for their extra efforts.

“Tim is a silent leader,” said Shawn. “He took on all of those challenges and began jumping the hurdles. He’s worked really hard to understand what goes into this, and is helping others, too,” said Shawn.

Where’s is the farm today? In quarter three of 2017 they were recognized as “Most Improved Sow Farm” after they made a tremendous leap up the SelectPride chart. Today, Shawn is certain they will land in the top ten for Q4 2017, earning them their first SelectPride plaque in years. Which means that nail in the breakroom wall will soon have a purpose.

And while they’re not at the very top, they can see it from where they are standing. And in the words of Drake, the whole team’s there.