Tremendous Attention to Detail

posted on Monday, June 5, 2017

“Travis has really done a great job stepping into the manager role,” said Tom Boge, finishing supervisor. “What makes him successful is that he understands pig care, works hard at improving and is very good trainer.”

Travis Sheka is the manager of nurseries N23 and N24 near St. Ansgar. For five years he worked as a technician, then was promoted to a mini-nursery manager. But recent changes in pig flow took those barns back to wean-to-finish farms, leaving Travis with the tremendous opportunity to move up and take on managing larger nurseries and bigger caretaking teams.

“He’s really stepped up and is doing a great job,” said Allen Whiley, Director of Finishing. “I’ve been here for 24 years, and if there is one things that is consistent is that things change all the time—which means opportunities open up to try new areas or take on more challenges, and Travis said ‘yes’ to a new role, and we appreciate his willingness to jump in and lead.”

Travis works together with technicians Becky Benttine and Donavon Palmquist to oversee the daily care of nearly 20,000 nursery pigs. This spring they also welcomed intern Maddison Loeckle.

“This team has a tremendous attention to detail, a trait that is very important in pig care, especially in this nursery stage,” said Katie Wedel, DVM and veterinarian for the farm.

Nurseries receive 10-12 pound weaned pigs from the sow farms, a place where they were accustomed to (and quickly growing out of!) living in farrowing stall with easy access to their mother’s milk. “One of the biggest jobs here at the nursery is to help them transition to a corn and soybean diet,” said Travis. “They have to learn how to find and eat feed, where to find the waterers and even be able to distinguish between thirst and hunger.”

Because newly weaned pigs are energy deficient with still-developing immune systems, they run the risk of getting sick, getting picked on by their new penmates or simply “falling behind,” which is where Travis and his team’s attention to detail is making a huge difference.

“Mortality is going down at this farm and it is a direct reflection of this team’s ability to walk the pens, troubleshoot and identify the animals that need more help, which isn’t easy to do,” said Travis.

Typically, Travis and his team start their day in the barns going pen by pen to look at every pig. “Daily observations are huge,” said Becky, who has also been in the nursery system for the past five years. “If we notice a sick animal or one that is limping we make sure to address it immediately either through a spot treatment, relocating the animal to a hospital pen, or both. We never put it off for later—we stop what we are doing and make changes so we can get them on the mend.”

“Keeping the barn warm and dry is also important, even when it’s cold and rainy,” said Travis. “We check the room temperatures several times throughout the day to make sure the barns are kept at around 80 degrees. Then we gradually lower it to 70 degrees as the animals start to grow.”

“Ventilation is also very important and we want to make sure that these pigs are getting fresh air,” said Travis. “If we walk in the barn and notice that the airflow is too much or stagnant, we make adjustments.”

Other things that the farm staff takes a close look at when they’re doing daily observations are feed and water. To encourage growth during the nursery stage, diets are formulated specifically for piglets.

“A lot of times these pigs need some help getting used to a corn and soybean based diet,” said Donavon. “We do grueling and mat feeding to encourage feed and water consumption. We also enhance their water with an electrolyte-type product that boosts their energy and helps keep them hydrated.”

With 20,000 pigs rotating through nurseries 23 and 24 every 5-8 weeks, the impact this team has on the on the billion pound journey is astounding, as they are setting these pigs up for success in their next home—the finishers.

“Travis and his team have a big job to do, and they know it and take is seriously,” said Tom.

“Little things like heat lamps and trough placement all have to be right, the ventilation has to be right, everything in this barn has to offer precisely what they need in terms of feed, air, water and temperature,” said Travis.

Both Tom and Dr. Wedel agree that Travis has done a great job taking on the farm manager role. “Travis had to learn how to run the controllers, interface with the Tools system, answer alarm calls and also train and lead his team,” said Dr. Wedel.

“When I am training new employees like Maddison for example, I make sure to go at a pace that is comfortable for them, yet challenges them to push themselves and learn something new every day,” said Travis. “We walk through the barns together so they can see what I’m looking for. As their level of comfort increases, I encourage them to lead the daily observations and help them along the way.”

“I’ve really enjoyed working at this farm and finally have the opportunity to apply what we’ve been learning in the classroom and at our school farm in a real-world setting,” said Maddison. “The first day for any employee can be overwhelming, but I think as an intern I was even more nervous. I have never done anything like this before, but Travis and Becky have been so patient with me. It’s crazy to think how much I’ve learned in such a short period of time and I really have them to thank for that.” 

“We know our role is really important—we either need to keep healthy pigs healthy, or try to get PRRS-positive pigs turned around so they can be go on to be healthy in the finisher, and both take a tremendous amount of attention and detail,” said Travis. “Something that my team can absolutely do, and we’re 100% up for it.” #billionplus