Pig farmers are problem solvers. They look for ways to do things better. When COVID-19 struck the U.S., the pork industry faced challenges like it’s never faced before.
How will COVID-19 change the future of technology adoption in the pork industry?
Aidan Connolly, CEO of Cainthus and president of AgriTech Capital, says agriculture has spent 40 years creating integrated food systems that provide food affordably and safely and make it easily available.
“Unfortunately, in this COVID-scenario, a lot of the things we’ve done to create a very efficient food system are not resilient to pandemics such as Coronavirus,” he says. "For example, our systems were designed to have people working very close together, particularly in the slaughterhouses.”
From Connolly’s perspective, this represents massive challenges in the face of this black swan (or maybe a white swan!) event.
“Clearly, the key issue with this coronavirus has been the passage of the virus from person to person,” he says. “Unfortunately, that means we've got to look at technologies to take people out of the system. That's something we're going to have to look at much more seriously now.”
Although the COVID-19 end game remains unclear, it is clear the pork industry has an opportunity to make some changes on the farm and in the packing plant.
The Expanding Face of Technology
The pork industry is light years ahead of other industries when it comes to biosecurity, but Connolly says he expects all livestock operations will be even more biosecure and minimize visits to the farm.
“If you don’t need to make a farm visit, it won’t happen,” he says. “I think it’s a good thing because we need to protect our hogs from human infections or bringing things in. Any technology that allows you to manage that farm at distance will be beneficial.”
Digital platforms, sensors, robots and cameras are just a few ways producers can increase their ability to manage the farm from afar. Camera vision technology, in particular, is the most exciting for the future, he adds.
“I think COVID-19 is changing behavior of people within the systems,” Connolly says. “People are increasingly using technology, such as zoom calls. If this continues, it’s one more way for nutritionists, veterinarians and Extension agents to ‘go to farms’ and see animals without physically being there.”
Chris Bomgaars, founder of EveryPig Inc., believes COVID-19 will speed up the adoption of telemedicine on the farm.
“There are tools out there to recognize and respond to disease outbreaks quicker by using telemedicine,” Bomgaars says. “The old-fashioned model of veterinarians having to set foot on a farm is going away. Vets will be valued for their brain power and speed in responding to client needs. We already see that happening on our digital platforms.”
Another form of technology Connolly believes will gain traction on farms of the future are 3D printers.
“Most people don't think of 3D printers on the farm, but if I have to buy a part and have it delivered to me (coming from another city, another factory or even another country), clearly the ability to have a 3D printer on the farm eliminates another point of potential contamination,” Connolly says. “I can print the part to get my feeder, my drinker, my mixer for feed or whatever it is back up and running very quickly with that technology.”
Where Does Training Fit In?
When it comes to incorporating technology on the farm, digital literacy, or the ability to understand how to use all the platforms, is an important factor to weigh in, Connolly says.
Fortunately, training employees is more convenient than ever with increasing options available online. The agriculture industry in general offers a variety of teaching and learning modules. But Connolly says the quality of courses is not as good as it's going to need to be in the future.
“It's still very linear,” he says. “I go on. I watch a video. I type an answer. I do a test. I continue.”
It’s a great opportunity for industry leaders and companies to step in and create something valuable for the entire pork industry. However, because everyone seems to be doing it themselves, the amount of money going into online training modules is relatively small.
The industry needs to take the time to create programs that help start people at a basic level and then progress them by leaps and bounds.
“Because we do need to understand amino acids and energy,” Connolly says. “We need to understand diseases and management practices. And it all needs to be very highly interactive, which is not cheap or quick to do. It takes considerable investment of time and resources.”
Can We Afford Not To?
“COVID will accelerate the advancement of technology in the industry – we have producers who will embrace it and ones who will be gradually driven out of business,” Bomgaars says. “We have an opportunity to modernize quickly to stay in business. If people don’t adapt soon, it’s likely the U.S. pork industry will look a lot more like the dairy industry in the next few years.”
For producers and businesses with deep pockets, COVID-19 might create an opportunity to acquire smaller companies and become much more resilient, Connolly says. “They have what I would call patient capital, the ability to wait for the right moment to do this,” he says.
Of course, for much of the industry, these are very challenging times. And even more concerning is not knowing what's coming next, he adds.
“I am very impressed by people who can stay positive in this situation. It's very easy to be negative and very easy to be defeatist,” Connolly says. “The right outlook is to realize we can't change COVID, but we can change our attitude. And I see a tremendous number of companies and people in the food business who are absolutely making lemonade out of these lemons.”
We know that nothing can replace World Pork Expo, but we will be uniting together June 1-6 for PORK Week across all of our Farm Journal platforms to elevate the important role the pork industry plays in feeding the world. Share your stories and post photos on social media using #PORKWeek to help us honor the pork industry. From “AgDay TV” to “AgriTalk” to “U.S. Farm Report” to PorkBusiness.com and everything in between, tune in and join us as we acknowledge the most noble profession there is: feeding people.
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