Reducing variation requires first an understanding of the source(s) of variation, the likelihood of mitigation strategies to successfully reduce the variation and the cost/benefit trade-off in source mitigation. As we have discussed, the typical farm record systems and the procedures which are considered practical to perform, work against developing the necessary data and anaylysis to gain a clear understanding of the return for variance reduction.
However, one of the most powerful aspects of variance reduction strategies is that if they are successful, they favorably affect both revenue and cost simultaneously. This results in a double bang for the buck when considering the potential financial outcomes of variance reduction investments.
Causes of variation in pig production are many and not well understood.One of the key issues arises from the spread in pig weights which begins through a kind of competitive process among the pigs beginning well before birth.Competition in the uterus and during lactation results in a sometimes widely spread distribution of potential in pigs by the time they reach weaning.Some common management procedures are implemented beginning at birth to attempt to reduce variation but their outcome is often marginal, while others, such as processing and castration introduce new challenges to subsets of pigs. Pigs of different weights require different environmental temperatures, feed types and other conditions, yet as variation increases, "average" conditions are provided which probably miss the ideal environment for all but a very small number of pigs.
Understanding variation in a pig production process is a data thing.In order to manage something or improve it, it must be measured.Measuring variation has not been a high priority in the first phase (if you will) of the modern pork industry, at least at the production level.Most record systems and the available technology to-date have focused on measuring and recording group averages.Kill sheets traditionally have provided more information about variation but until relatively recently, most producers have not had access to individual pig outcomes even from the packer (which is the only place in the vast majority of operations, where individual pigs are weighed and evaluated for quality).Typical kill sheets group pigs in ranges without giving individual animal weights and lean percents.
Reduction in variation of growing pigs can have significant impacts on both cost of production and on return from the packer.This double impact on both cost and return makes this an especially lucrative subject for both study and the development of strategy leading to standard operating procedure (SOP) creation or amendments.Simply reducing variation is not the goal however since there is no guarantee that this will produce either cost reduction or income increase.
Variation is a natural part of biological systems and a characteristic that cannot be eliminated.However, the wise producer will institute procedures from the boar stud to the final loading of the finished animals which at a minimum, does not increase the natural variation in growth.Variation costs money, lots of it.Since we adopted systems which produce weekly lots of pigs, the pigs flow through the farm in age-segregated groups, often moving two or three times to different locations.When their growth performance begins to spread, the time and the cost associated with their completion and marketing begins to rise.
So we are talking about not adding to the fundamental problems which biological production systems deal out just because of their nature.Some of those problems include seasonality, the complexity of growth mechanisms as a key variance enhancer (compared to non-biological production—like automobile manufacture etc.) and the fixed periods of production which cannot be speeded up with an extra shift (like gestation).I’m contending that the next major movement forward in competitiveness is the producer’s ability to manage (certainly never eliminate!) variation more effectively.There is lots of money on that table.
Agricultural production is kind of a strange bird compared to other business processes.In economic terms, one of the real challenges is something called “asset turnover”.Asset turnover is the time it takes to generate the value of all assets used in the production process through sales of finished products.Asset turnover is a key determinate of Return on Equity along with net income and level of leverage employed (see the Dupont Equation if you are a budding MBA).
If you think about it, crop producers purchase a $400,000 combine which they operate a few weeks a year and then it is a high-priced bird perch for the next 10 or so months.This is the killer of asset turnover in most biological production processes since many of them are not continuous.