Deen: Apply old lessons to new technologies

Classical education emphasizes the need for industries to adopt new technologies to keep up with external demands and constantly changing economic environments. The US pork industry has strived to embrace new technology through the years, but “there’s a risk of doing too much too quickly without thoroughly examining the technologies,” said John Deen, DVM, distinguished global professor at the University of Minnesota.

Early weaning is a good example of not foreseeing all the variables, Deen told Pig Health Today. The industry thought producers could do a better job controlling diseases and increasing productivity of the sow herd by reducing the weaning age of piglets.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t examine all aspects throughout the pork chain, and we over-extended that reduction in weaning age,” Deen said.

However, for every negative example, there also are positive examples. “One good example would be all-in, all-out production,” he added. “Dividing the populations has reduced disease pressure.”

Researchers often study their successes in technology adoption in terms of their marketing and economic impact, but failures need to be studied as well, Deen said.

“My dad used to say that he has done many experiments, but most of them are piled up outside behind the barn,” he quipped.

Don’t jump the gun

Early adopters will try new things and are willing to take the associated risks. There are a lot of examples of technologies that were taken up early and then failed later when they were fully examined, Deen said.

“In many cases we adopt technologies based on the idea rather than our experience with them,” he said. “Someone has to take the bull by the horns and evaluate these technologies. Sometimes it’s through universities, through a controlled experiment. But even then we don’t know the full extent of how that technology will work under different situations.”

Variables include seasonality, weather, genetics or any other factors that may define a given technology to a much smaller part of the pig industry.

Full disclosure important

Individuals may be so excited about a new technology that they focus on the positive results to validate that they’ve made a good decision to adopt the technology early but underplay the negative results.

“That’s an age-old bias,” Deen said. “If we decide to do something, we want to be right. Early adopters tend to finesse technologies to make them work on their [respective] farm. We also reward people through attention and through opportunities to speak at conferences if they are successful in adopting a new idea, but those ideas are often biased.

“It takes time and critical thinking to evaluate new technologies,” he continued. “In terms of university projects, it’s called ‘blinding’ when we don’t know what the technology is, though [that strategy] is not always possible.”

Battle-tested environments

Universities have rules of production that may not always reflect real-world production, and that’s a criticism of controlled research.

“If I want to study disease challenge and control methods, I need to go onto farms where there is a real problem,” Deen said. “Part of that may be management, part of it may be facilities, and we need to work through those areas, but it’s not always experimental facilities that have better management.”

There are rules in production economics, Deen said. “If you study and pursue a productivity index, you’ll get to the point where you start losing money on that index because you’re focusing too much on individual variables,” he said. “The second rule is that you’re often paying for it somewhere else. We need examples where we study both the costs of the technology as well as the benefits.

“A speaker [at the Leman Conference] said, ‘We know our costs really well. We don’t know our benefits as well, so we’re always biased in our measurements. We need to do more economic analysis and less productivity analysis,’” he added.

Proceed with caution

Some of the new technologies coming to the industry are extraordinary, Deen said. He doesn’t want researchers, veterinarians or producers to be risk-averse and not evaluate their potential, but on the other hand, research can’t be performed in a vacuum.

He said the industry should look at older technologies again, too. “Maybe we dropped them too quickly, and perhaps the situations have changed. Take batch farrowing for example, which I pursued 20 or 30 years ago in practice. It’s back and for very specific reasons.

“We need to take the lessons we learned 30 years ago in that institutional memory and…keep reevaluating what we’re doing,” he said.

The information gathered from research needs to be shared across the industry, Deen said. An industry that has fully independent segments can make the same mistakes independently.

Three rules for successful technology adoption

  1. Both successes and failures should be reported. More time should be spent on the failures for better, more thorough learning experiences, Deen said.
  2. Put economics against the new technology, so benefits can be better understood. “I’m not limiting that to producer benefits,” Deen said. “We need to include benefits and costs to consumers and to society as a whole for a more holistic economic model than we’ve done in the past.”
  3. The industry must have innovators and researchers who feed the system. “I worry that we’re losing some of our capability in animal agriculture because of lack of support among research institutions and elsewhere to be able to do some of that novel work,” he said.

“We need a shared vision and a shared evaluation of new technologies, especially when the benefits can serve the industry as a whole,” Deen said.