Advancing Alternative Swine Systems by Engaging Vets, Producers, and Other Ag Professionals

Derrick Exner, P & S, Agronomy


Consumer demand is helping to grow premium pork markets for meat from sustainable, animal-friendly production systems. However, such systems present significant challenges from the standpoint of herd health. Many of the new niche markets prohibit use of antibiotics and synthetic anthelmintics. Moreover, while the integration of most of these production systems with the overall farm carries environmental benefits, it can make it difficult to apply basic herd health principles long accepted in conventional, confinement systems (e.g., pig flow, separation of ages, isolation, disinfection, biosecurity). Many veterinarians have been skeptical about such production systems and unaccustomed to addressing herd health problems in such an environment. Likewise, many swine farmers using alternative systems have been very skeptical that the veterinarian community has much to offer them. Swine systems producing for the premium markets are also in a much different position than conventional systems in that they produce a small-to-moderate number of high-margin animals rather than a large number of low-margin animals. However, that difference is not fully reflected in the management strategy of many alternative swine producers.


To strengthen a three-part community - producers, field veterinarians, and ISU scientists and information providers - in order to improve the financial management and herd health in alternative swine systems.

Activities: I have been working to create opportunities for face-to-face interactions of vets, farmers, and ISU personnel. I proposed and received USDA funding for a $150,000 herd health project to do this; collaborators include the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association, the National Pork Board, and specialty pork marketing companies. Through this project, I convened a "vets circle" in conjunction with an alternative swine field day at the ISU Allee Research Farm July, 2004. From this workshop came the idea of a comprehensive herd health guide for alternative swine systems. Since that time, I have worked through drafts of this document with ISU VDPAM scientists in the College of Veterinary Medicine and with a review group of producers and private practice vets that I assembled. In August 2004, I organized an on-farm workshop on the importance of records for swine producers and the different approaches to keeping records. Presenters included ISU Extension swine field specialists David Stender and Mark Storlie as well as ISU Extension agricultural economist John Lawrence. I have posted the audio and slides from several of the presentations on the website of the ISU/PFI Farming Systems Program ( This workshop also stressed that alternative swine systems have different optimization points and a different set of strategies that combine records and appropriate herd health management.


The long-term impact on producers and veterinarians will be determined in the next years. An end-of-project questionnaire in late 2006 will provide a basis for evaluating attitude changes on the part of veterinarians and producers relative to the before-project survey of late 2003. A follow-up event for veterinarians and producers held July 2005, was better attended than the 2004 vets circle, and was publicized by the AASV. The climate for discussion of alternative systems is improving in the veterinarian community. The collaborators for the original USDA project have now obtained a $400,000 National Research Initiative grant for a project that will address herd health and record keeping for alternative swine systems. The producers with whom we have worked almost universally appreciate the management consultation that is being offered. Some have already made basic changes in management or facilities that have improved herd health and productivity, and seven of seven research cooperators are now keeping swine records.


147 -- Sustainable Agriculture

Page last updated: July 9, 2006
Page maintained by Linda Schultz,