This year Dr. John Deen was recognized at the Leman Swine Conference for his work in the swine group at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine. Dr. Deen hosted the wrap-up panel at the conference, and wrote this piece for the conference about his reflections on his 24 years of service.
Thank you, Dr. Deen for your contributions to the Swine Group!
I think the first conference I attended was here in 1983, when it was called the Minnesota Swine Herd Health Programming Conference. The motto of “Science-Driven Solutions” has been an inspiration and a challenge for me for our industry over the years. With each meeting, I hope you, like me, see this as an opportunity to direct and refine our science. I call it “our science” as it is usually an iterative process of asking good questions, searching for answers that are testable, explainable and contextualized.
This conference is rightly in the name of Al Leman who was an extraordinary champion of this community of scientists. I think, above all, he constructed exceptional questions. One question he asked me as a new member of faculty was a simple one, “Which is more important, feed conversion or growth rate?” The attractive answer is to say both are important but that is not what Al wanted. Underlying his question was a deeper question of how we measure and compare performance and prioritize our investments to optimize an enterprise.
We rely on measurement and statistical testing in our science driven pursuits, but we also need to recognize that the mantra “If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it” introduces real bias into our approaches. We flock to measured variables. For some time PigCHAMP offered extraordinary opportunities to characterize individual sow performance, but it was not replicated in growing pigs. Our foray into early weaning was a reflection of that bias.
Measurement is costly in biological systems and we need to be strategic in collection and response. Feed conversions and costs proved to be easily derived while changes in growth rates proved to be less available and costs unequally distributed through a pig population. Simpler measures of growth rates such as “full value pigs” along with opportunity costing allowed a real opportunity to compare feed conversion and growth rates.
Even more than comparing pig performance, the economics of pig welfare is open to biases. If we start with a working definition of welfare as the pig’s ability to cope, we see behaviors of a pig to reallocate its resources to survive and thrive and we see a stockperson’s responsibility to supplement those resources where needed and available. For me, the big four behavioral and performance changes occur when pigs are impacted by heat, disease, floors and other pigs. Yet our welfare analyses and external critiques are biased by a lack of an optimizable model.
At a larger scale, USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats program offered me to be part of many discussions on low likelihood/ high impact events. The economic challenge was not in modelling the outcome, but in defining the likelihood and thus the costs and then creating reward systems for prevention and rapid response. With an outbreak, prevention and response need to occur at the same time and allocation of resources is an ongoing problem. Imperfect information with livelihoods at stake make unpredictable responses.
Therefore, at this and our future meetings, I hope that you will not only take in the extraordinary information presented, but also join in the discussions and help in making the information applicable and rewarding and be part of this iterative process. Beer helps and maybe my thoughts help as well. For all the questions, criticisms, suggestions and even compliments I have received, I have been blessed.
John Deen, DVM, PhD