Almost half of Kerry Keffaber’s day is spent finding new technology and evaluating it. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why he’s always looking for diversity in everything that he does, including finding the next generation of talent.
The pork industry needs to continue to tap into people that don’t come from typical agriculture backgrounds, says Keffaber, vice president of strategy and product development for United Animal Health.
“The diversity of insight and perception they bring is just amazing,” Keffaber says. “Once young people that have never been exposed to agriculture – particularly swine production – get a taste of the level of sophistication, the amount of care going into the decision-making process, they are turned on.”
4-H and FFA programs offer untapped potential for students interested in technology, whether it's data management, electronic entry or simulation.
“We need people who are deep in these areas that get excited about pig production,” he says. “Then we can nurture them in the right setting to help them apply those skills. We need to foster diversity – in thought, background and personality as much as ethnicity and gender.”
Keffaber shares his views with Farm Journal’s PORK on leadership strategy and what he’s learned in his career.
Q. Tell us about your path to the swine industry.
A. I went to Purdue University for my undergraduate education and my veterinary medicine degree. I also was in the first class of the executive veterinary program at the University of Illinois.
Q. What is your why?
A. My role at United Animal Health is to drive innovation to help solve the problems the industry faces. Everyone in agriculture wants to help provide a sustainable, available food supply and part of that is utilizing and developing new technology to be used in that area. But my role is to make sure that we also have access to that technology so we can make progress moving forward.
Q. Describe a typical day on the job for you.
A. A good 30% to 50% of my time is spent looking at new technology and ways to evaluate it. Then, once you get a product, how do you make sure it’s in a form people can understand and use efficiently? I figure out ways that we can ensure a consistent supply of that technology – both in quality and availability. Perhaps the best part of my day is coaching people at different stages of their career and helping them make better decisions personally and as they interact with customers.
Q. How does your company help and work with its customers?
A. One thing that is unique about United Animal Health is our commitment to operating research facilities. We have made a significant investment in research in swine from farrow to finish and grow-finish with multiple sites and locations. We have also expanded to dairy and poultry. We believe part of the value of this is to be able to do research on a spectrum of products that may be available to our customers while having real data to share with them to make better decisions, whether it’s products United would represent or others in the marketplace.
Q. How has the business changed?
A. I practiced veterinary medicine for 20+ years, consulting and advising primarily around pigs. What I’ve seen from then to now is the depth of improvement that has happened as far as productivity, health control, disease eradication, systems to protect health, new vaccines, new protocols, new tools and more data to truly look at and analyze. When I look back, the extreme progress we’ve made in genetics is amazing. We know more, we do more. The thing that’s remained the same, though, is that disease and health are the biggest limiters to pig performance and pig profitability.
We have a significantly more sophisticated producer that understands more and is more highly educated and deals more in data and facts. Because of this, the people who interact and call on them have to be at a higher level. In the past, the primary owner made the decision, but now there’s more people involved in those processes and hopefully that leads to better decision making.
Q. How has production changed on the farm?
A. The other big bucket of change I have seen since I started my career is the influence of the food companies on production agriculture. What we do on the farm and what decisions we make are impacted quite a bit by what our customers interpret the consumer wants. The change in our behavior about animal welfare, sustainability, environment and responsible antibiotic use is having a bigger impact on what happens on farms today.
Q. What concerns do you have about the swine industry?
A. Profitability and labor are two of my greatest concerns. I’m also concerned about the adaptation of technology. When we look globally over the last five to six years, our overall productivity in agriculture has been stabilized or going down because of restrictions on access to technology. If we look at what's going to be in demand for protein needs globally, we have to increase protein production on less resources. The only way to do that is creation and discovery of new technology and acceptance and use of this technology. I think people realize technology is good and there are ways to evaluate the safety and efficacy of products while protecting people, animal and environmental health.
Q. What are the greatest opportunities in the swine industry today?
A. The biggest limitation to overall productivity is health. When you look at producers and people involved in production ag, they are driven by the goal of helping feed the world. They also love animals that are thriving and doing well. Nothing is more depressing or less engaging then having to deal with animals that have health problems that lead to morbidity and mortality. Because of this, I still think our biggest opportunity is controlling health. I think there is some opportunity for new technology from vaccines to chemicals to genetics. And of course, the emerging excitement area now – the microbiome.
Q. What do you enjoy most about your job?
A. I enjoy the people. The most fun I’ve had in my career were working with teams of people united by a common goal and trust. I also appreciate the diversity of people I work with and how they look at things. It’s so interesting and engaging to learn why people think the way they do.
Q. Who inspires you?
A. One of my greatest inspirations as a swine veterinarian are my peers in the American Association of Swine Veterinarians. Their goal is to help each other and to share ideas – they are both colleagues and friends. I admire what they do every day and their dedication is a challenge for all of us to live up to.
Q. What is your business philosophy?
A. If it's right with the customer, it’s going to be right long-term. I think that will drive what happens in production and technology and supports which companies survive, but also what happens in the food chain as well. If you focus on who you're working for and help them be successful, most of the time you will be successful as well.
Q. If you could go back and do something differently in your career, what would it be and why?
A. I would get a master's degree in public health. I think we need more people with veterinarian backgrounds in agriculture in that overall debate about public health and how the pieces fit together. I think by having that additional training, that would open the opportunity to have an impact in those discussions.
Q. What will the business look like 20 years from now?
A. From farm to plate, the business will be more coordinated, more transparent and more precise. Farms will have the ability to have an instant snapshot of what's going on at the farm level. There will be more automation so we can leverage the good people better by giving them more tools. Productivity is going to rise. I don’t think we can even perceive what is going to come forward to help us do a better job of taking good care of animals. If we continue to invest in science and have access to technology, the opportunities are endless.
Q. How do you think COVID-19 and African swine fever will impact the future of the U.S. pork industry?
A. We can take what we learned from African swine fever (ASF) preparation and apply it to COVID-19. People have clearer heads when they are not in a crisis – the foreign animal disease emergency planning regarding how to handle pig flow and biosecurity has been huge. We need to have risk plans in place to follow and prevent problems before they happen. Preparedness gives us an opportunity to invest when there’s not a crisis. I also believe COVID-19 will make us more aware of the health of our employees and what we can do to protect them. I may be an optimist, but as a country, we will get over this disease. However, the economic impact will be longer lasting. These viruses reinforce that we need to prepare because these things are real and they can happen. It’s not a hypothetical anymore.
PORK Perspectives is a recurring column that provides business and leadership strategy tips from some of the pork industry’s finest. Opinions expressed in this column are the opinions of Kerry Keffaber and do not represent the opinions of Farm Journal's PORK. Watch for future columns featuring advice and insights from more of the pork industry's leaders.
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