How a South African Pig Farm Prepared for COVID-19 Lockdown
Updated: Mar 16, 2021
When you are part of the South African or African agricultural industry, you are part of something much bigger than just your farm and family. In South Africa, a few important topics which are discussed daily include food security, unemployment, poverty, public health, our economy and unequal distribution of wealth. As a farming business, you play a role in all these factors to a varying degree, often behind the scenes and unknown to the rest of the world. In rural communities, where most (if not all) commercial farms are situated, agriculture has a direct tangible effect on the economy of such communities and people who live there. It is important to understand the ripple effect each decision has and how integrated small communities can operate.
As a pork producer, we are very aware of bio-security, the possible spreading and prevention of diseases in a country like South Africa, where we have been dealing with the risk of Foot and Mouth Disease and African Swine Fever, to the point where we can effectively farm on registered compartmentalised farms and maintain export status with reduced risk of contracting these diseases in our herds. We are also keenly aware of the health and social status of our employees and their families, as we work alongside them and share a common goal to have productive and protected farms which in essence are providing a livelihood for us all. The health of our animals, employees and families is not only a personal concern, but has a possible business impact as well, highlighting the importance of an established employee health plan, even before there is a crisis.
The one event that highlights all the above factors at once is a national crisis. Now combine that national crisis with a highly contagious disease which will impact the most vulnerable and exposed in your community and suddenly as a farmer you realise the role you need to play. This is exactly what happened in March 2020 when we had the first outbreak of COVID-19 in South Africa. This was something completely new for South Africa, but also the world – there were no textbooks on how to prepare for an event of this magnitude. We could only learn from the experience of others. Being informed and up to date on international news and really understanding the factors that influence your business will enable you to know what needs to be done before the circumstances force you to.
At Taaibosch, we did not wait to start planning for a possible lockdown. We also didn’t wait to be told what to do and how to mitigate risk. Having worked right through the centre of the 2018 Listeriosis crisis in South Africa, we learned to take proactive steps and to always trust our gut. The moment you realise something is about to go south, don’t wait for a specific event or moment to start planning or to investigate alternatives. The one thing you don’t have on a pig farm in a time of crisis is time. The next batch of pigs is on its way, the next feed delivery is due, the next litter will be born and the payments to be made are sure to follow. Have a plan with set milestones as implementation dates, defer disruption as long as possible but be ready to implement at a moment’s notice.
The first thing I did was to do a supply chain risk analysis and identify the areas which would have the most impact on our business and its people. When time is of the essence, you need to focus on the correct areas which you can influence and manipulate. Three main areas were quickly identified as critical to production and a sustainable business: Health and Productivity of Employees and Management, Continuous and Stable Supply of Feed Ingredients, Unobstructed Delivery of Pigs to the Market.
Health and Productivity of Employees and Management
Immediate communication to our management team was paramount for them to know that we indeed had a plan of action and what this plan entailed. For a commercial agri-business, the management team is critical to implement the operational plan and be the link between strategic and final decision-making. Having them on board as quickly as possible was valuable and successful. Since we require all management to live with their families in on-farm accommodation, this added to the risk of exposure and by eliminating the immediate risk, we were able to put everyone’s mind at ease.
Since we have a significant amount of older piggery houses and other support functions requiring manual labour, we have a large workforce who live in town and use staff transport daily to get to work. These workers form part of the most exposed groups in the population and we knew that they needed to be protected and isolated as best as possible. We immediately started to work on a work schedule which would allow for less worker density at the workplace and in the staff transport vehicles, further reducing the risk of exposure. The initial solution was a reduction of work hours from eight to six hours and the implementation of an additional shift, extending our work hours to 18:00 instead of 16:00. First shift would work weekdays from 06:00 – 12:00 and 06:00 – 16:00 during weekends, the second shift from 12:00 – 18:00 and they rotated every week. This worked well during the initial isolation period, but was not sustainable during the national lockdown to follow.
As soon as a national lockdown was on the cards, we implemented our plan to accommodate a 30-member contingency of critical staff on the farm as part of a complete farm isolation. Within 3 days, we were able to construct enough new beds, source mattresses and bedding for everyone, and equip our new training centre to provide comfortable and long-term lodging and canteen facilities. Workers were selected on a volunteer basis, and by the first night of lockdown, all members were safely on the farm and settled in. To counter the effect of reduced staff transport, we offered our taxi contractor the opportunity to supply kitchen equipment and catering services for the lockdown period – enabling him to continue doing business and not default on his vehicle loans.
A bulk SMS communication system was quickly put into place to stay in contact with our workers in town who, after consultation, were placed on compulsory annual leave with salary. This would remain in place as long as financially viable. A small token of understanding in a time of uncertainty was airtime vouchers to all employees, enabling them to stay in contact with loved ones. Investing in your most valuable assets during a time of crisis will most likely have a bigger positive impact on them and the community than a negative impact on the business. These measures meant we were on a complete farm isolation, and even though working at almost full capacity, employees had minimal risk of exposure (both those working and their people at home). We provided a food delivery service to managers living on farm and meals to all employees staying on the farm, which further limits human contact and improves isolation efforts, as well as keeping everyone happy and healthy.
Continuous and Consistent Supply of Feed Ingredients
Being part of the food value chain, piggeries and all other agricultural-related businesses are allowed and required to operate during a national lockdown period. This is a big benefit to a business, but at the same time, it makes operations so much more challenging. Transport to and from and the loading capacity at our local maize silos had been challenging during the previous months and the approaching crisis prompted us to invest in a replacement truck and leased trailer to facilitate bigger loads, easier operation with fewer labour requirements and additionally reduced risks of breakdowns when transporting pigs. Although a difficult decision to make, it is often in times of crisis that you need to make significant investments to improve productivity. Communication to our major suppliers to establish certainty of supply and alternative plans was next in line and at times like this, good relationships built over time prove to be valuable.
Unobstructed Production and Delivery of Pigs to the Market
No matter what measures you have in place and how much effort has gone into planning, if there is no execution of production and realisation of income – all is for nothing. Early in the planning phase, we did a careful analysis of our daily and weekly activities to identify those critical to maintaining throughput, critical for future genetic selection and improvement, critical to bio-security and quality assurance, and those not critical to generating income. When you are forced to maintain the same level of throughput with a third of your labour force – you very quickly and ruthlessly review your value chain.
During 2019, we installed a very strong and broad internal wireless network with a licensed wireless internet connection, which is uncommon on farms in rural areas. At the time it felt slightly excessive, but during this crisis, it quickly validated itself by enabling us to switch several activities and positions to remote locations and mobile devices. This, in combination with a cloud-based pig production and record-keeping system, further enabled the transition. Continuous investigation of and investment in technology and infrastructure is a future-orientated activity which secures long-term business sustainability.
Part of our production strategy was to actively engage with our abattoirs and processors to ensure they remained in operation and familiarise ourselves with their additional protocols, reducing the risk of an administrative hold of any kind. The same was done with veterinary services and medication suppliers, to engage with them on the availability during the lockdown period and to communicate our estimated requirements during this period. Supply chain visibility and stakeholder communication become more important during times of higher risk.