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Animal management software: An investment you should consider?

By Dr Annie Labuscagne and 
Annette Coetzee, Charles Street Veterinary Consultancy
Animal management software should assist producers with record keeping, but is this the only requirement? Running a management software package has many advantages. They range from printing worklists and sow cards to doing micro-analysis on herd performance.   Especially in pork production there are different requirements to evaluate and consider when deciding on a software package. The first thing everybody always wants to know is what the program will cost. There are price differences between programs, but there is a reason for this. Price should therefore not be the only factor determining which program to buy. The type of information generated by the program should also be evaluated. If you want to know how second parity sows, served on Thursday with a P2 of 11 performs, you will need one type of program. If you are only interested in parity averages, you will need another type of program. There will be a price difference between these two programs.
Before even buying a program, one must establish if the program is compatible with one’s current computer set-up.  If you are for instance running an Apple MacAir, can the program that you have in mind function on a Mac machine? One must also establish how easy it is to run the program on a wireless network and whether remote data capturing is possible. Although many would think that these things are in the distant future, some farms in South Africa are already using this technology.
The ease of data input should be matched by accurate reliable output. Luckily, most software packages are very straight forward when it comes to data input. There are only so many ways in which one can enter service, farrowing and weaning data and there are not major differences between the various computer programs. It is however very important to know, for instance, how second services, repeats, mummies and fosterings must be entered as this will have a direct effect on your reports.  You will need to familiarise yourself with the standard input definitions in order to be able to get the required data reports. These should follow a logical, easy to understand set of standards.
Although program set-up is usually done only once, it is important to initially understand how this is done and how it impacts data input and report output.  How does the program for instance deal with litters that do not balance? Is the missing piglets dumped as fostered piglets or as dead piglets? This will have an impact on preweaning mortality. One has to know what the limits for the various input fields are and where it can be changed when the set-up on your actual farm changes. An example that jumps to mind is for instance the farrowing date.  Farrowing date usually appears on all sow cards. Is this farrowing date set on a standard 114 days, or is it the average of the upper and lower limit of acceptable data input? Can the farrowing date be manipulated? This becomes important to know when one wants to manipulate gestation period with hormones. Injecting on the wrong day could have a negative impact on the number of born dead piglets.
The flexibility of the worklists and sow cards are also of importance. Not all farms are the same, therefore one wants to be able to tweak worklists and sow cards to be more specific to your farm. Some programs allow you to choose what type of sow history and fill-in fields you want for every worklist. When utilised efficiently, there will not be clutter on the worklists, making them more user-friendly. Data input from the worklists must also be easy. Something to check, is whether sows appear in the same order on the worklist than they appear on the computer screen when data needs to be read in. If this is not the case, can the worklist setting be changed to make this possible? If data input becomes unnecessary laborious and time-consuming, more mistakes are made, rendering the computer program useless and dangerous.
The information appearing on the sow card is also important. Parity information as well as fill-in fields must be available. Sow cards are there to make quick decisions possible. When deciding on the fate of a return sow, one does not want to walk back to the office; it must be done in the pens. For this, accurate info must be available in the pen in the form of a sow card.
The major difference in computer programs is the way in which reports are generated. Some computer programs include all breeding females, whether they have completed a cycle successfully or not (i.e. abortions and returns are included) when doing calculations, while other only consider breeding females that have completed the cycle successfully. It is therefore important to understand how the calculation rules work, because parameters such as litters/sow/year will differ vastly depending on whether returns etc are included in the calculation or not. Other figures that will be influence by this will be BA/sow/year, weaned/sow/year and so forth.
Another major difference is the ability to create your own reports. Some programs come with a set of reports, which is impossible to change. Like we all know, there are general types of problems that occur on all pig farms, and then there are farm specific problems that does not affect the entire pig fraternity. Usually a rigid set of reports is good in dealing with general problems, but very inefficient in dealing with farm specific problems. To deal with specific problems, one must be able to filter the noise away. This ability of a program to set filters will highlight the problem and one can then decide if the problem is only a perceived problem or it could be of such nature that something must be done to rectify it.
One last factor to consider remains:  The people gathering the information and those who feed the information into the computer. One can have the best, most expensive program in the world, but if the data capturing and data input is incorrect, this program will have no place on any farm. The saying “rubbish in, rubbish out” is particularly true for computer programs on pig farms. Often big decisions are made based on reports from computer programs. The onus therefore rests with the owner and manager to ensure that the people responsible for data capturing and input are capable of doing so.
A computer program should assist management. Its function should be to make time management more efficient by identifying problem areas to focus on.  More time and energy can then be spent on rectifying these problems instead of spending unnecessary time on perceived problems. For this reason, farms with computer programs generally advance quicker than farms without computer programs.

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